The global pandemic has been a catalyst for change, driving a fundamental shift in the way we use technology. This digital revolution has the potential to address some of the most pressing issues of our time.
The pandemic, including the ensuing lockdowns and the wholesale shift to 'online everything', has inevitably forced many workers, businesses and consumers around the world to go digital-first.
It's clear the crisis has been an acceleration event, having a profound influence on the way we work, shop, communicate and entertain ourselves. But beyond our day-to-day lives, advancements in digital technology and the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' – the ongoing automation of industrial practices using modern smart technology such as 5G, the internet of things, cloud computing and machine learning – have the potential to stretch further and help to solve some of the world's biggest challenges.
The dial has certainly moved on many a digital transformation strategy, and it is happening in parallel with calls to build back better to ensure a more sustainable, equitable and inclusive future, fuelled by the spectre of climate change.
The World Economic Forum (WEF), for example, has highlighted the potential of digital solutions to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There are 17 interlinked goals focused on, to name but a few, achieving global health and wellbeing, climate action, sustainable cities and resilient infrastructure. According to the WEF, 70 per cent of the global goals' 136 targets could be enabled by technology applications already in deployment.1
"We cannot go back to yesterday. Businesses need to harness new technologies so everyone can benefit. Companies need to innovate to survive. Navigating opportunities such as automation and big data in ethical and responsible ways are a necessity, not 'nice to haves'. Harnessing new technologies in this new context is key for success," says Murat Sönmez, Managing Director of the WEF.
Organisations have learned to collaborate with their teams from afar, oversee supply chains digitally, manage operations remotely and excel with consumer engagement – all with smart technologies. In turn, this has boosted productivity and collaboration, which is only just being measured. Many public and private sector enterprises have benefited. As economies shift from a crisis response to recovery and rebuilding, all eyes are on the sectors and digital tools that could achieve further gains.
Innovations in healthcare are in the spotlight, since many government-backed systems buckled under the strain of the pandemic, highlighting deficiencies as well as how things could be done better.
The use of video conferencing tools, for example, has proliferated and matured over the past 14 months. This has been put to good use by doctors around the world, and there is further potential for remote consultations and diagnostics, allowing coverage in underserved areas and access to medical expertise that was previously difficult to source.
"The biggest competitor in healthcare is the status quo," explains the CEO of a European digital healthcare provider. "There is a lack of patient focus, as well as a lack of efficiencies. Healthcare systems are now under stress, so there is potential for digital disruption."
At the same time, 'femtech' solutions have the potential to help women – including those on low incomes or in developing economies – monitor their reproductive health, prepare and plan for pregnancy, and then care for the health of their children. The market generated more than USD820 million in global revenue in 2019, according to Pitchbook, and this is expected to reach USD3 billion by 2030.2
Accelerating the transformation
Humanity has learned to deploy big data, smartphone apps, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to tackle the spread of the virus. These sorts of technologies will form the backbone of further innovation in many other sectors – fuelled by super-fast 5G internet. And it won't be long; in the next five years, 65 per cent of the global population will be covered, with 5G networks generating nearly half of all mobile data traffic, according to a recent research from Ericsson.3
Fast, data-driven decision-making allows utilities to anticipate electricity demand and and the agricultural industry to monitor the efficient use of water in irrigation. AI advances can support the understanding of climate change and the modelling of its possible impacts, and the connected internet of things will help 'smart cities' improve the use of public resources, increase quality of services and reduce operational costs of public utilities – with an overall focus on sustainability.
There is likely to be an impact on labour and productivity as well. Organisations are increasingly deploying AI to re-engineer processes in many government and business functions, from call centres to sales and marketing, manufacturing, research and development, IT, finance and human resources.
Automation has implications for human jobs too. By 2025, 50 per cent of all employees will need reskilling as the adoption of technology progresses, according to the WEF's Future of Jobs report.4 Certainly, digital tools can help in this process.
The digital transformation also has the potential to shift global business from take-make-waste models to a net-zero carbon, regenerative economy. A circular economic approach is critical to meeting the SDGs. It also makes good business sense. A circular economy could yield annual benefits of up to USD2.1 trillion by 2030, double that of a linear model, representing a GDP boost of 7 per cent, according to the Ellen Macarthur Foundation.5
Engagement in sustainability has deepened during the Covid-19 crisis, and consumers want more from the brands they purchase from. Technology, data and analytics can help achieve greater transparency along supply chains and communicate this to customers.
From challenge comes opportunity
"Covid-19 is a human tragedy. But it has also created a generational opportunity. An opportunity to build back a more equal and sustainable world," said António Gutierrez, UN secretary-general in a speech in 2020.6
It won't be easy: global development, poverty and healthcare goals have been set back by "about 25 years in about 25 weeks", according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 2020 Goalkeeper's report.7 Further, if not used equitably and responsibly, technological innovations can exacerbate inequalities, create security and privacy concerns, and negatively impact the environment.
Yet technology, if applied in the right way, could accelerate change and support more solutions to our evolving global challenges. By 2022, 65 per cent of the world's GDP will be digitised, according to research by the International Data Corporation, driving over USD6.8 trillion in digital investments over the next three years.8 There's a lot to gain from using technology for good.
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1 Harnessing Technology for the Global Goals: A framework for government action, World Economic Forum, January 2021 ↩
2 Femtech Expected to Break New Grounds, PitchBook, August 2020 ↩
3 Ericsson Mobility Report, Q4 2020 update ↩
4 The Future of Jobs Report, World Economic Forum, October 2020 ↩
5 Universal circular economy policy goals, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, January 2021 ↩
6 "Tackling the Inequality Pandemic: A New Social Contract for a New Era", UN Secretary-General's Nelson Mandela Lecture, 18 July 2020 ↩
7 Covid-19: A Global Perspective, 2020 Goalkeepers Report, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, September 2020 ↩
8 International Data Corporation, 29 October 2020 ↩