7 minute read 8 Feb 2021
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Beyond COVID-19: How emerging technologies will shape our new reality

By Aleksander Poniewierski

EY Global Digital & Emerging Technology Leader

Leading-class knowledge in IT/OT security, IT systems risk management, digital transformation and digital business models. Keen photographer, spurred on by 2013 National Geographic competition win.

7 minute read 8 Feb 2021

Innovative technologies are emerging in response to the COVID-19 crisis that will increase access to personal data for real-time decision-making.

In brief
  • The need for trusted and reliable data will inform real-time decisions that can impact the health and wellbeing of stakeholders.
  • Increased hyper-connectivity has exposed more personal and medical data than ever before.
  • In the near future, IoT devices and interfaces will become part of daily life and human activity, with no discernable distinction. 

Technology has played an important part in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the world, innovative applications have helped to track infections, empower healthcare providers and connect humanity in unprecedented ways.

It is widely acknowledged that data and real-time information exchange has played a key role in helping to curb the magnitude of the pandemic. While the Spanish Flu (1918-1920) claimed approximately 100 million lives, at the end of 2020, COVID-19 had claimed approximately 1.8 million lives, according to the World Health Organization. This tragedy would have been far worse without the benefit of big data to help assess risks through statistical modelling and predictive analysis. While the economic impacts have been devastating, and will be felt for years to come, the swift and recurring restriction of movement through lockdowns has helped contain and manage the health crisis in many parts of the world.

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Chapter 1

Our connected world – accelerated

In recent months a surge in digital innovation has preceded a sharp peak in new tech adoption.

In 2020 the world became more digitally connected than ever before. The reliance and use of technology and data sharply increased for personal and business connections. We have experienced a surge in digital innovation in response to new market demands. Fundamental human needs of nourishment, physical security and psychological connections have been met through inventive tech solutions, resulting in a sharp peak in new tech adoption. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, regression to old ways of work and buying patterns becomes even more unlikely.

While there are many positive aspects to this accelerated use of technology, the darker side has been brought into focus too. Millions of people were required to work from their homes and rely on digital connections for their daily needs. Limited security of these environments—and external capitalization on these weaknesses through cyberattacks—has pushed cybersecurity to the forefront of organizational planning. Not only has our increased hyper-connectivity and system use exposed more personal information than ever before, but as a society we have willingly traded many civil liberties and personal privacy rights for the assurance of protection from infection.

As we enter another year where the pandemic is ever-present in our lives, many new questions will be asked, such as.

  • What are companies and governments prepared to do to protect themselves, and provide assurances of safety and security to citizens?
  • What price are citizens prepared to pay for that assurance? And, what are the trade-offs citizens are prepared to make?
  • What information is needed to provide assurance?
  • Who owns that information?
  • What controls are in place to secure that information?

A world of permanent lockdown is not economically viable. Therefore, governments and organizations need to create solutions that will elevate trust in systems and that minimize risk while meeting societal needs.

Undoubtedly, enterprise resilience must be woven into an organization’s strategic priorities to ensure future sustainability. During a crisis, the need for trusted information and reliable data will inform decisions that can impact the wellbeing of stakeholders.

It is not too far-fetched to imagine a world where access to public spaces and transport will be strictly controlled, providing access to only those who will not pose a health risk to others. This would be achieved through real-time health data of individuals corresponding with identity access criteria. Part of cross-border travel clearance—or even use of public transport—could require a real-time digital health passport, that transmits data through wearable technology and synthesizes it through a centralized blockchain solution that determines access criteria based on risk parameters.

Customers will demand assurances by goods and service providers for the protection of their personal safety. For example, airlines could offer their customers a promise of both comfort and protection against contagions, but what price are customers prepared to pay for this? What measures would airlines have to implement to make good on their promise and what personal information would customers provide to airlines in this trade?

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Chapter 2

Emerging technology infused

Data insights paired with intuitive communication interfaces will empower our decisions and increasingly connect humanity.

As we witnessed in the first round of global lockdown measures, critical supply chains of basic goods, medication and food were disrupted, and in some cases collapsed. What we know as traditional supply chains—billions of connected information nodes—have been altered forever. Supply chains depend on the declaration of information between one node and another. This linear transmission of information has inherent weaknesses. But future supply chains will rely on multiple continuous alternative data points, such as sensors and monitors, which are synthesized onto one complete view of the supply chain based on facts, and not declarations. This infusion of technology into supply chain nodes will help to stabilize markets and effectively respond to market needs. For example, satellite tracking of goods on oceans and roads can be mapped against production activity in manufacturing plants, to ensure streamlined production and delivery of goods, ultimately avoiding shortages and directing goods to where they need to go.

The opportunity for revolutionizing the infusion of emerging technology to enhance human life lies in the countless innovative ways we can manage and make sense of massive amounts of data points using intuitive communication interfaces that will empower our decisions and actions.

As a result, Intelligent Automation (IA) will play an increasingly important role to bring this together by ensuring that any business process can seamlessly integrate technology to automate manual processes and continually improve productivity over time.

In the healthcare sector, we are witnessing radical advances in the use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices that are elevating healthcare delivery. This includes activities such as the administration of medication, quarantine support, remote monitoring devices (such as pacemakers and stroke detectors) and even remote surgeries. Drones are delivering medication to outlying areas, robots are standing in for humans in high-risk environments, and autonomous surface-area disinfection is becoming commonplace in hospitals and public spaces. Together with open, centralized blockchain solutions, patient data and statistics such as blood pressure and glucose levels can be available at any given time.

Many of the latest smartphones and banking interfaces already require facial recognition. This will proliferate by 2022, particularly as access control to public spaces is required to manage infectious outbreaks. The benefits of facial recognition to bypass the need for biometric touchpads and fingerprint scanners for identity verification are obvious. As governments and state institutions consider the repercussions of their centralized data solutions, in the longer term we could see the complete phasing out of current formats of bank cards, passports, identity documents, and even banknotes and coins, toward a reliance on facial or even optical recognition scanning.

Voice-activated devices and voice recognition interfaces will also bypass the need for traditional touch keypads and scanners. We can expect to see an increase in such technologies, not only for entertainment or hands-free activities but also for access control, payments and identity authentication.

Social interactive experiences will increasingly move toward capitalizing on technology to connect people. Extended Reality (XR) devices and interfaces will become more affordable as the appeal of bringing immersive digital experiences into the home grows. The opportunities for education, entertainment, retail, consumer products and real estate in the XR space are considerable and will help to drive innovation and lower the cost of development and production.

In the future, consumers will experience technology in a deeply infused and integrated way. IoT devices and interfaces will become part of daily life and human activity, with no discernable distinction.

As we increasingly integrate technology to meet our daily needs and improve our lives, our individual digital footprints and technological dependencies will grow. Those who own that data, namely corporations and governments, will have intimate knowledge of every transaction, interaction and activity we undertake. With this enormous power, it is critical that societies insist on transparency, accountability and controls to be built into policy and governance frameworks. The potential harm that could be inflicted by the abuse of that data is unthinkable.

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Chapter 3

The focus of our world is shifting – but will we shift with it?

Companies that delay transforming to meet the needs of the new market risk lagging behind.

In addition to the human toll and economic devastation left in its wake, COVID-19 will also be remembered as the greatest accelerator of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Companies that successfully integrated enterprise resilience into their strategies are the same ones that are well on their way to achieving their digital transformation objectives.

Looking ahead, this will alter our economic landscape, as corporations become victims of lagging behind in digital evolution.

Our role as facilitators of this change and custodians of digital transformation must be proactive, as we work together to shape a sustainable future that uses technology in a responsible and ethical manner to benefit mankind.

Summary

The opportunities to enhance the quality of human life lie in the countless, innovative ways we can use emerging technology to make sense of massive volumes of data that will empower the decisions and actions of those in positions of power. But as we became more digitally connected than ever before, are we shaping our new reality, or is it shaping us? 

About this article

By Aleksander Poniewierski

EY Global Digital & Emerging Technology Leader

Leading-class knowledge in IT/OT security, IT systems risk management, digital transformation and digital business models. Keen photographer, spurred on by 2013 National Geographic competition win.