The Unintended Consequences: Covid-19, Business & Technology
As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc and countries begin to chart uncertain paths out of lockdown, this Thinkin focused on the unintended consequences of the pandemic: on technology, on business, and on our relationship with the state.
We were joined by joined by Ed Vaizey, former Conservative MP and senior advisor to FTI Consulting; Harper Reed, President Obama’s Chief Technology Officer; Martha Lane Fox; Founder and Executive Chair, doteveryone and crossbench peer and Dr Linda Yueh; Fellow in Economics at St Edmund Hall, Oxford University and Adjunct Professor of Economics at London Business School.
The ThinkIn was chaired by James Harding, Co-founder and Editor at Tortoise.
A big moment for big tech:
- The pandemic has made us realise the value of the internet and the luck of having a fast connection. But it’s also drawing attention to the huge numbers of people who don’t have internet access: nearly half the world is not online. Institutional use of digital technologies in Britain remains sluggish, Martha Lane Fox said. The crisis could be the impetus to change this.
- Covid-19 has “put a hold” on the techlash, Ed Vaizey said. Big technology companies have a unique opportunity to redeem themselves by helping us through the pandemic. But, he argued, they had to show themselves to be genuine participants in the public sphere.
- The crisis has also shown the limitations of technology, Harper Read said. Video conferencing is great but still fails to replicate many of the human interactions we take for granted in physical settings.
- Younger people are often less concerned about technological limitations and more worried about their elders’ inability to get a handle on the technology, however. Rachel Bentley, a mature student and audience member, said Zoom worked well for her lectures but was more challenging for seminars when she really wanted to dig into ideas and resolve conflicts.
Winners and losers
- All our assumptions about how businesses work will be challenged post Covid-19, said Mr Read. Firms now place huge value on employees’ ability to work from home: something unthinkable a few months ago.
- The changed economy will favour privileged workers in service-based jobs who can work remotely and have tech access, said Linda Yeuh. Long-term social distancing will exacerbate these advantages.
- There will be a “suck to the big”, Ms Lane Fox said. Investment cash will flow into safer places and large companies will see an opportunity to swoop in on smaller rivals.
- The worldwide economic consequences of Covid will be staggered, Ms Yeuh said. Some countries have come out of lockdown only to reimpose it to combat a second wave. Others – like Britain – are still in the middle of the first one.
Collaboration and localisation
- Technology can help combat the pandemic, but it shouldn’t be a replacement for standard public health procedures, said Mr Read.
- The British government will keep working alongside big tech, Mr Vaizey said. But Covid-19 had also shown that the platforms can deal with disinformation when it was a “matter of life or death” – reinforcing arguments for regulation in this area.
- The pandemic will speed up the localisation of supply chains, Ms Yeuh said. 3D printing had already transformed the aircraft manufacturing industry. Covid offers another incentive – on top of climate change and risk management – to move away from cross border transit and just in time supply chains.
- Covid-19 has put pressure on countries to be more nationalistic. If Joe Biden wins the US presidency he will be torn between an Obama-era instinct to collaborate with China and a more modern suspicion of the world’s second superpower, Mr Read said. He hoped that the US would track back towards a collective idea of cooperation. Mr Vaizey described the US’s relationship with China as a “21st century Cold War.”
- Any solutions to the crisis should come from a new, more diverse, generation, Ms Lane Fox said. Not just the same voices, places and faces.
Relationship with the state/privacy
The panel had differing views on how much would change post Covid-19.
- Ed Vaizey was cynical. The government was top of the table for technological innovation a decade ago but had since let things slip, he said. It should now take a “long hard look at rebooting its digital programme.”
- But the crisis had shown how ministers can move fast when they want to. Mr Vaizey said he’d like to see “government by task”: where the best brains were gathered together to deliver concrete objectives.
- Importantly, the crisis has mitigated consumer concerns about privacy. People are now prepared to give up their data for health benefits.
- Mr Vaizey said there was now an opportunity for a much better understanding of how the government can use big data sets – such as the NHS’s – for the public good.
- Charles Palmer, also of FTI, predicted that technology was poised to influence industries from healthcare to financial services.
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