The global coronavirus pandemic is changing almost every facet of the life that we once knew. From the ways we eat to how we interact with each other, the world that we find at the end of the current crisis will be very different to the one that we had at the beginning. As the world still deals with the impact of the virus, it is important to consider what comes next, how the world will change and what our future looks like. While some things may change for the worse, in every crisis there is opportunity, and this exceptional catastrophe will prompt ways to change the way we do some things for the better. In Part One of this series, we will explore some of the ways that COVID-19 is likely to change the world of technology
Data & Analytics:
Since Google, Facebook and others have shown what can be done with data about people and their behaviour, there has been no pause in the discussion of data: what can be collected, who owns it, what companies should be allowed to do with it and other questions have long been part of that discussion. Companies with vast data repositories and the means to use them effectively have now been presented with a unique opportunity. In these unprecedented times, it is clear that data can be used effectively for the public good, through contact tracing and location tracking methods like those used to great effect in China and South Korea. By showing that their data can be used in an important and responsible manner, many organisations will be changing the nature of the data conversation for years to come.
Discussions around data will shift to how it can be used to positively impact people as well as profits. It seems likely that data will become easier to share with governments for specific purposes; this has already been discussed in the UK, with telecommunications companies potentially sharing location data with the government to help analyse the effectiveness of lockdown measures. But the interesting changes in the way we use data will be in how it is used to analyse data about the public in the interests of public health. We will start to see more partnerships between those collecting the data and those looking to use it for mass behavioural analytics to help track health. It will also soon become apparent that due to the use case for this type of data analysis, regulations such as GDPR will have to be amended to ensure that data can be shared and used more freely in some circumstances. Behavioural analytics will become increasingly common, lauded as a boon to public health. This will also be true in the workplace, with companies using them to support government health efforts and support their other objectives.
COVID-19 has changed the way we think about physical contact with others and this change is likely to stay with us for some time. Social distancing in many countries is forcing people to stay over apart to limit the spread of the virus. This is limiting physical contact and changing the way we interact with one another. Many shops are only taking contactless card payments and deliveries no often longer require signatures. With the coronavirus likely to remain endemic for some time, there is a high chance that these measures will be in place at least until a vaccine is discovered. When we go back to work though, we will have to consider how to use technology to remain contactless in the workplace.
There will be a significant drive towards making everything contactless and this will go hand in hand with personalisation and voice control. Nobody will want to be sitting at a desk and using the same keyboard and mouse as everyone else; indeed, to do so will be seen as a safety hazard and reasonable grounds for refusing to work in those conditions. Peripherals will move with the person and to prevent contamination from plugging things in and touching devices, they will be wireless via Bluetooth wherever possible. A whole range of services are also going to be wirelessly operated via mobile phone applications and NFC technology to reduce unnecessary touching, for example lift and door operation. As these technologies are already in use, their application will likely increase. Voice controls will also be used where possible to limit proximity. This will have important corollaries for design as it will change the acoustic landscape of the office.
Since the gravity of the crisis became apparent, we have seen an exponential growth in virtual ‘everything’: From virtual happy hours, virtual quizzes, virtual will signings and even virtual funerals Many businesses have suddenly and unexpectedly had to have all of their staff working from home. This has led many to find that they actually have capacity to be a lot more virtual than they realised. Being forced into the new situation has stimulated innovation and adaptation in processes, technology and design that companies may not have known they were capable of. This will be an important lesson for companies going into the future. This ability to adapt and overcome challenging situations is extremely valuable in business and will become an important cornerstone of business operations in the future. The ability to have almost all business conducted virtually will be another.
One of the industries most severely affected by the pandemic has been the airline industry and this may take many years to recover fully. The combination of many companies finding that business travel is not as important as it seemed and inevitably higher air travel prices soon is likely to reduce drastically. Along with the enhanced capacity for virtualisation, this will precipitate a shift to universal virtuality – everything that can become virtualised will be. Tourism has already been pushed online with the emergence of virtual galleries, museum and zoo tours; soon it will be possible to see the seven wonders of the world without leaving your couch.. Face to face meetings will stay at very low levels for at least the foreseeable future and technologies like video conferencing, cloud storage and instant messaging will become the new normal. These will be used even more extensively within and between organisations, and common standards will develop as the market for providers consolidates.
Robotics and automation
With the hideous vulnerability of humans exposed by this virus, robots and automation have speedily mobilised to become one of the most successful beneficiaries of this crisis. Viewed with scepticism and disbelief in the post-covid world, robots have become delivery drivers, caregivers and even friends, as they – immune to this disease – fill roles that increase risk to ordinary humans. At a time where many global supply chains and industries, such as fresh produce and medical equipment, require all hands-on deck, the fact that robots can work 24/7 and do not require sick leave makes them increasingly compelling. That their abilities grow daily through AI and other intelligent learning process makes them more compelling still. The most telling growth in the industry has been the normalisation of it in the physical world; Robots have become a regular sighting on the streets of Milton Keynes where they navigate roads and deliver groceries to those in lockdown, perhaps giving an indication of what the future might look like.
Similarly, in a period defined by cancelled travel plans, empty hotels and postponed events, automated chat bots have been utilised with increasing frequency, enabling companies to interact with customers and filter queries with greater ease. Yet, while automation ramps While robotics and automation have come out as early winners in this crisis, the picture is not clear enough for us to determine whether this will continue once the clouds have cleared.
The world of work is no exception to the rest of the world when it comes to having to change practices, policies and tools when circumstance demands it. As companies move forward into the new world, we will find ourselves in, those that are ahead of the trends and aware of how work will be changing will be best placed to recover. With many of the issues explored throughout this piece, there is a ongoing debate about how transformative this period will be. Where advances in robotics, virtual happy hours and public data will boon during the crisis, the notion that we may ‘elastic back’ to normality remains. In social rhetoric, we all yearn for a time where we will ‘return to normality’; what this normality looks like will remain shaky for many months beyond lockdown ending. One thing that is clear is that during this time habits surrounding technology will be developed and become entrenched (especially across a range of generations) – these habits, as the old adage goes, may be difficult to shake.