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Pivoting in Crisis: The role of technology

Our second Pivoting in a Pandemic webinar on panel 17th April, comprising Nick Chiarelli (Head of Trends, Unlimited Group), Shane O’Donoghue (Director, Nelson Bostock Unlimited), Leila Hajaj (Senior PR & Comms Manger, Ocado Technology) and Alfonso Ferrandez (CTO of Doctorlink), discussed how the role and contribution of technology is changing in the light of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Technology has kept us safe, fed, connected, and entertained in lockdown

COVID-19 represents an unprecedented challenge to global governments, health services, corporations, and individuals alike. With individuals in lockdown and many working remotely technology has been put very firmly in the spotlight as a source of connection, as an enabler of business functionality and as a source of entertainment.

Firstly, there has been a strong role for tech in keeping us safe and healthy. Healthtech has played a pivotal role in supporting the heroic efforts of individual healthcare workers. It has exploded very quickly from a start up to providing critical services and because of that it is unthinkable that it will not continue beyond COVID-19.

Next, there has been a strong role for tech in keeping us fed and provisioned. Modern food provision cannot happen without a huge role for robotics and automation, especially bearing in mind the huge increases in demand that we have been seeing recently – as much as ten times the usual demand.

There are no battles that have been won yet, it’s a battle that’s still going on. But the businesses that are positioned well are those that are all about bringing people together and allowing them to live as normally as possible. “

– Leila Hajaj, Ocado Technology

Another major (and perhaps unsung) aspect of how the tech industry has stepped up to address the unprecedented challenges of our time is by breaking down competitive walls and collaborating with each other – Apple and Google collectively have access to 3.5 Billion smart devices worldwide and the usage of those for contact tracing in the fight against the pandemic has been ground-breaking.

“Contact tracing itself won’t be worth much unless ways of testing and diagnosing people en-masse are also rolled out. So I think some of the big tech success could be in the smaller more boring things like writing software that improves the productivity of human contact-tracers, online interview forms for potential contacts, visualisation dashboards for relevant data and telemedicine for remote diagnostics.”

– Shane O’Donoghue, Nelson Bostock Unlimited

Technology has boosted societal and workplace cohesion

With populations and workforces in lockdown, apps that connect us like Zoom and Houseparty have taken off and (anecdotally at least) gone mainstream in the sense that no longer are they the domain of the young, upscale tech elite only.

The pandemic has also changed communication in the virtual workplace. But the transition has not been perfect. In businesses that already had collaboration very much in mind, it has been more of a seamless transition, while for others it has been more challenging. Nor is it a perfect, like for like, replacement. Planned conference calls simply cannot replace the multitude of accidental conversations (bumping into someone at the lift or the coffee machine) and have a fortuitous conversation, so there is still room for tech to innovate too.

The current situation has placed even greater pressure on individuals to be connected

The sudden enforced shift to remote working and social isolation merely accelerated a trend towards always-on connectivity that was present before the COVID outbreak.

“I think it was on its way before COVID. When the pandemic first came, you were expected to roll out of bed and immediately start communicating with colleagues, which was worse than before. Now, though, there’s also a respect that people have different commitments and there’s a better understanding that people can do their work well whenever it suits them”.

– Alfonso Ferrandez, Doctorlink

There have been changes in expectations, both good and bad and businesses need to find solutions that will ensure both productivity and staff wellbeing, such as having separate devices for work and personal use, setting personal boundaries about work hours that everyone understands and respects. Some of this will be tech-enabled and some is more about strong emotional intelligence. In all likelihood, we’ll all come out of this as better employees, employers and colleagues, both when we are working remotely and when we are back in our offices.

COVID is forcing citizens to forego their privacy, but only temporarily

The current COVID-19 outbreak has potentially given governments around the world a remit for ever greater public monitoring. China has been cited as an extreme case (link) but civil libertarians around the world have been worried about the precedent this sets for the future (link) and it is already happening in the UK and the US, law enforcement in the US using facial recognition tech from Clearview AI and X-Mode in the US tracking Spring Breakers flouting the lockdown rules.

“At the moment, COVID trumps our need for privacy and people are ok with that. Longer term the only way to get citizens ok with increased access is radical transparency.”

– Shane O’Donoghue, Nelson Bostock Unlimited

Data and privacy concerns may be a universal truth but the way they manifest themselves varies hugely from one industry to another. In healthcare, for instance, there is a feeling that we need to be prepared to allow urgent medical needs to trump privacy concerns. In fact, the British public seems to back such a view, with recent research from YouGov (link) suggesting relatively high levels of comfort with various monitoring techniques during the current outbreak:

  • 51% comfortable with asking people to report others who breach the rules
  • 50% comfortable with using facial recognition tech to identify those breaching lockdown
  • 50% comfortable with using drone tech to photograph people making unnecessary journeys
  • 43% comfortable with analysis of social media accounts to identify those breaching lockdown

It is crucial to recognise just what an extreme situation we are in. While people might have a greater tolerance for monitoring than usual right now does not mean that they will accept the same once things are back to normal so, in many senses, the usual rules of data engagement will still apply.

Consumers remain willing to share data for tangible benefits

In the commercial world, data is very important, and can be used to optimise and improve systems and services and prepare for the future. Well-used, well-kept data is of high value. For example, with large numbers of people ordering groceries online more frequently, or for the first time, data will be vital in learning about their shopping habits so retailers can be prepared to offer them the best service possible.

Lockdown has accelerated our reliance on automated solutions

The lockdown has placed huge pressure on logistics, supply chains, distribution networks, manufacturing capacity. Bearing this in mind, automation is becoming increasingly important. It has enabled the redeployment of people to roles where the human touch is needed, it has kept infrastructure moving while there has been lots of illness and absence and can help keep contamination low.

COVID has forced businesses to up their responsiveness to the increased demand by automating processes so drive the rapid scaling of solutions which would otherwise be limited by having humans in the loop. The current situation will supercharge automation.

Before COVID, less than 1% of patient consultations with healthcare professionals were virtual. Right now, it is at 70-90%. We expect to see it settle out at around 50% of all consultations through video longer term. This situation has accelerated the adoption of technology because it has simply had to be implemented and then people see the benefits.”

– Alfonso Ferrandez, Doctorlink

Retaining the best of our new behaviours in the post-pandemic New Normal

Some people have claimed that “the world will never be the same again” after coronavirus, while others are very much of the view that this is more of a temporary interruption, that fundamental consumer needs don’t change that much, and within a year or two it will be very much business as usual. While it may be naïve to expect a totally new reality, it is reasonable to imagine (and prudent to prepare for) a post-pandemic working world that has changed permanently in some respects.

The panel were in agreement that we’ve seen many changes in attitudes and behaviour and knock-on effects for society and the planet from all this that are worth keeping – people being more thrifty, greater kindness and consideration, more time with family, cleaner air and water, for example. We’ve also been “forced” to adopt new ways of doing things, or at least adopt them in greater numbers – more flexibility with working patterns, telemedicine, online grocery deliveries, for example, and we can reasonably expect the post-COVID demand for these to be greater than before.

There will be great pressure on technology businesses to continue to deliver, and to innovate. Given that we will most likely be experiencing a global recession which will hamper growth and suppress investment, standards of delivery will be very hard to maintain. For tech businesses to “walk the walk” they may well need a variety of factors in place:

  • Rules about data use have been relaxed in certain medically vital use cases but they will need to be reintroduced post-COVID to prevent unscrupulous operators from misuse.
  • Significant inward investment will be needed to enable the necessary hardware acquisition to complement their software solutions.
  • The sector will need to build greater trust amongst consumers and a solid commercial model to underpin the data sharing needed to drive personalised product and service offerings.

That being said, it is more than likely that the tech sector will come emerge from COVID being regarded as being a strong net contributor to society, having kept us safe, fed, connected and entertained, though, some will clearly emerge stronger than others:

The businesses who may come out of this in the strongest position, under the circumstances, are likely to be the ones who haven’t had to pivot massively in their business models – like those who have been automation first from the outset.

– Leila Hajaj, Ocado Technology

What next?

Find our next ‘Pivoting in Crisis’ webinar here, where we look at brand reputation during a time of crisis.

This article was written by Nick Chiarelli, Head of Trends at Unlimited Group, and originally appeared on the Unlimited Group news page.