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We live in a time characterized by immense uncertainty and an even greater reliance on digital technologies, more than ever before. COVID-19 has wreaked absolute havoc on almost every single industry, leaving the global economy in a state of distress and a future that has never been more ambiguous.

Necessity is indeed the mother of innovation. The crisis we have been experiencing as a collective society has essentially caused every industry to fast-track its digital transformation journey. So despite the dire implications of the crisis on the economy, what better time to innovate than right now?

An economy of mass disruption

The speed at which COVID-19 has affected our lives has been absolutely drastic, thus causing numerous businesses to respond to the current dilemma which is innovation as a means of survival.

As Dr. Amantha Imber, founder of innovation consultancy firm, Inventium, put it, “There has never been a more critical time to innovate and look at things different than there is now. If you stick your head in the sand and fail to innovate, probably the only thing that’s guaranteed is you won’t survive the crisis.”

We have seen this happen in the past. For instance, Alibaba went through its very own digital transformation as a response to the SARS epidemic of 2003 by launching its very own consumer marketplace, the first of its kind at the time, during a time where people across the entirety of China were self-quarantining. This led all the quarantined individuals to shift their focus to online shopping and essentially set the stage for the company to become the e-commerce giant that it is today.

Sam Altman, CEO of artificial intelligence research lab, Open Ai, stated, “This will be a before moment and an after moment for the world.”

“There’s incredible innovation coming,” he added and he might be right.

The pandemic has highlighted many gaps in our preparedness as a society to crises. It shed light on the weak spots of enterprises across the world, public and private alike.

Exposing these gaps is only the beginning, for this is an opportunity for innovation to come into play. While this crisis has brought with it many challenges, it was also coupled with tremendous opportunities for innovation and change.

Over the past few months, we have seen startups develop tools to help curb the spread of the virus through emerging technologies such as AI and symptom tracking via big data analytics, among many others.

Contact tracing technology and applying big data analytics to surveillance has become more important than ever. We have seen public-private partnerships come into fruition to tackle these gaps and such partnerships have generated amazing results. The ways in which Taiwan and South Korea have responded to the virus through innovation which stemmed from necessity, has been incredible. Their use of big data analytics to put together a search engine that was only dedicated to the coronavirus surveillance to ensure citizens were adhering to lockdown rules and regulations, contact tracing and reaching out to those who may have been at risk of infection, have been nothing short of amazing.

ABI Research’s chief research officer, Stuart Carlaw, explained, “To effect change, there must be a stimulation of a magnitude that means companies cannot do anything but make bold decisions to survive. COVID-19 is that magnitude.”

“In the short-term, there will be a retrenchment in outlooks, a reduced investment in modernization, as survival instincts trump the drive to prosperity,” said Carlaw.

Adding, “Before we feel this potential long-term impact, there will be some serious short-term implications. Contractions in consumer spending, disruptions to supply chains and reduced availability of components will create a rough sea for all boats.”

Innovation for healthcare

South Korea has been praised for the way it managed to contain the virus from spreading so quickly and it is safe to say that this is due to the way they used technology. South Korea developed testing kits in such a short amount of time, thanks to the use of artificial intelligence (AI). AI was also used to diagnose patients across the country through the use of algorithms which were able to identify any anomalies in chest x-rays and in fact, examine the lung itself within three seconds.

Another innovative use-case for emerging tech in healthcare would be Dubai Police’s usage of AI solutions to differentiate between drivers of vehicles that did and did not have movement permits during lockdown.

Additionally, towards the end of March this year, Microsoft Corporation and C3.ai, a company which specializes in AI, have partnered with six US-based universities to form a research consortium in an effort to speed up the digital transformation of governments, societies and businesses.

The consortium titled the C3.ai Digital Transformation Institute (C3.ai DTI) has been working alongside the University of California, Berkeley, Princeton University’ University of Chicago, University of Illinois’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at UIUC.

C3.ai DTI aims to synergize efforts from developers, researchers and scholars to take what society has learnt from the COVID-19 outbreak and to essentially mitigate its effects whilst simultaneously accelerating “knowledge, science and technologies” in an effort to lessen the impacts of potential future pandemics through the use of AI.

“We have the opportunity through public-private partnership to change the course of a global pandemic,” said CEO of C3.ai, Thomas Siebel.  “I cannot imagine a more important use of AI.”

“The C3.ai Digital Transformation Institute, with its vision of cross-institutional and multi-disciplinary collaboration, represents an exciting model to help accelerate innovation in this important new field of study,” said Robert Jones, Chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The consortium aims to bring announce bi-annual calls for digital transformation research proposals. Some of the topics which could secure a research award are: logistics and optimization analysis to improve public health strategies and interventions; genome-specific COVID-19 medical protocols; using machine learning and other AI methods to diminish the spread of COVID-19; drug design and repurposing through biomedical informatics methods; and strengthening societal resilience as a result of COVID-19.

E-learning

It is no doubt that COVID-19 has changed the ways in which millions of people all over the world are being educated. The sector’s shift to the digital has shown us that it could change for the better and how technology was readily available to save it from disorganization and collapse.

The academic sector is well-known of being quite slow in adopting more Industry 4.0 technologies to maximize efficiency and the use of available resources. The pandemic forced the sector to find solutions in such a short amount of time and that is where innovation and digital transformation made their debut.

Nick Kind, senior director at investment banking and strategy firm focused on education, Tyton Partners, stated, “This may be a short-term commercial opportunity for some vendors. But for this to become transformational for teachers and learners, you wouldn’t have wanted to start this way.”

This might just be the golden era for EdTech. However, what the available e-learning solutions have failed to do is figure out a way to maintain that student-teacher relationship or even peer-to-peer relationships. These relationships are instrumental to the development of a student.

Andreas Schleicher, director for the directorate of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), said, “The big question for me is will we develop an ed tech solution that capitalizes on the relationship between students and teachers, as opposed to just broadcasting stuff.”

“I think if we want to give this any chance of success for large numbers of students and learners, the teacher is going to be absolutely key,” added.

Indeed, EdTech has become a necessity and is no longer seen as a luxury.

Telcos: The unsung heroes of the pandemic

A huge burden has befallen the telecommunications sector. Telcos all over the world are under immense pressure to ensure connectivity despite the unprecedented demand of the world’s rapid and sudden shift to remote working and distance learning.

The rise of mobile and VoIP applications has made the telecoms industry more important than ever. When most of China was forced into lockdown at the beginning of the year, there was a 30 percent increase in the average daily hours spent on mobile compared to the average in 2019 and an 11 percent increase in Italy when it was in lockdown.

VoIP apps became more widely used for people to keep in touch with friends and family members and to hold meetings and video conferences. As social distancing has become the new normal, Zoom Cloud Meetings has topped the charts in app stores across a variety of markets and so has Microsoft Teams which saw a 775 percent increase in users in Italy.

This was also prevalent in the Middle East, namely the GCC where VoIP services were limited in availability due to telecom regulatory restrictions.

Service providers all over the world have disclosed that the internet traffic in residential areas has increased dramatically during the times of the day when people would typically be at work or school. While this might be a lot for them to handle, it has not resulted in many widespread outages or serious disruptions to the connectivity as of yet.

Telecom companies are working around the clock to ensure that people are able to navigate the new normal.

Many operators in Europe have stated that they might experience a collapse in their networks if people did not use the internet in a reasonable manner so as a response to this, a variety of streaming platforms reduced their streaming bit rates to help control the pandemic-induced internet traffic. Streaming platforms which were involved in this move were Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Facebook and Apple TV+.

Post-pandemic innovation

There is a huge possibility that once the pandemic subsides and life goes back to normal, these sectors will be forever changed because they have all been able to experience what technology could really do. We learnt a great deal, as a collective society, throughout the pandemic. We have seen the true benefits that technology bears and without it, economic collapse could have been on the horizon.

Governments, entire industries, businesses and individuals have all felt the effects of the crisis and all our lives have been impacted as we have been forced into lockdown.

Now that we have truly seen the true value of innovation, it is essential that we do not take it for granted and perhaps take what we have learned from this pandemic to encourage more innovation, for the greater good of our society.

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