The unexpected global Covid-19 pandemic forced people, businesses and institutions alike to quickly adapt to a new and uncertain reality. A new reality that disrupted our usual way of doing things and isolated us from normal life and people.
Interestingly, technological innovation stepped up to fill this void. Numerous advances were made in the fields of medicine (e.g. vaccine development using technology such as digital twins), virtual communication, e-learning, artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and e-commerce.
None of these are totally new technologies, but the accelerated pace of adoption, especially in healthcare and education that are usually quite slow in the adoption of new technologies, was unanticipated. What usually takes years to be adopted, happened in a few months. Digital connectivity suddenly became the focal point of our daily lives. Now, 20 months into the pandemic, it is becoming clear that many of these technologies will probably remain with us for some years to come.
Digital home offices
According to an online survey by Old Mutual among people earning R8 000 and above in August 2021, more than 65 percent of respondents are still working from home at least some of the time, with 25 percent working from home most of the time. Interestingly, the majority of people working from a home office reported a better work/life balance.
The number of people working from home is influenced by the many businesses that folded under the strain of Covid-19 and led to numerous retrenchments. Many people therefore developed multiple and diverse income streams while running a digital office at home.
Originally people struggled to find the best way to work remotely, with the result that collaboration and video conferencing software boomed. For the employer there are many benefits such as lower office and furniture rental, lower insurance and upkeep costs, as well as higher productivity of employees.
According to the Future of Enterprises Report, 60 percent of decision-makers are pleased to reduce their office space, while 43 percent strongly believe that by the year 2030 we will have no need for an office at all. There is little doubt that the future of work will be remote and that the digital home office is here to stay.
The healthcare industry has always been slow to adopt new technologies. However, the Covid-19 pandemic changed this (forever). During the pandemic the healthcare industry realised the value of technologies such as telehealth and robots to limit the spread of the virus.
In countries and cities where 5G connectivity is available, patients, ambulance workers or paramedics, and remote medical experts are connected in real time. This collaboration between clinicians and paramedics using superfast 5G technology enabled healthcare workers to remotely diagnose and treat patients when they could not get access to a hospital. Unfortunately, due to the current spectrum problems experienced by the government in South Africa, the availability of 5G is limited.
During the pandemic, access to health services was limited to enable hospitals to focus on Covid-19 patient triaging and safety. This forced healthcare providers to adopt alternative methods for consultations and services. Telehealth technology, distributed by some of the medical aids in South Africa, provided many health services at home through video-conferencing, online telephone consultations, e-mail, or smartphone apps. Research found that these virtual services were particularly valuable to older people during the pandemic.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced many changes in the healthcare industry, which will remain and transform the future of medicine.
During the Covid-19 pandemic hundreds of thousands of children and students were sent home. Suddenly pupils and students (and parents) had to adapt to remote digital learning with tools such as video conferencing, language learning apps, learning management platforms (e-learning software), and virtual tutoring. Great efforts were made by institutions to ensure that pupils and students had the necessary internet access and technology to promote digital inclusion.
Covid-19 forced universities in South Africa that were slow to adopt technology, to change in a very short period of time. After many months and a steep learning curve, many universities have now decided on a blended learning approach (contact and online) for the future. Some courses will in future only be offered online to ensure greater accessibility to all South Africans.
In the world of business, Covid-19 promoted contactless technology to limit the spreading of the virus through contact. Technologies that became popular are touch-free payments, walk-out shopping (without cashiers), and biometric check-in for travel and accommodation. Unfortunately, due to the culture of South Africa, walk-out shopping or self-checkout features at supermarkets that were preferred by customers during the pandemic, are very rare in South Africa.
In South Africa customers that were concerned about infection, had to resort to online shopping and delivery. All the major online businesses reported a major increase in business during the pandemic.
These safe and convenient innovations are possible due to the increased processing power of processors, better image sensors, smarter AI, and much faster communication networks. It will certainly increase in the future as the technology improves.
We are currently in the middle of an AI renaissance that has been greatly accelerated by the pandemic. Increasingly more companies are employing AI to reinvent themselves or modernise their business models in order to succeed in the long term.
During the pandemic many businesses replaced people with AI to limit the spreading of the virus. News agencies and papers increasingly resorted to AI. AI has been used to report on sports or highlights and write op-ed articles. Language generators have become so incredibly good that it is difficult to find the difference from a real journalist. In future writing will probably be a form of human-machine symbiosis such as in the case of predictive text and the modern features of word processing tools. Unfortunately, some journalists never returned to their old jobs.
AI was also widely used in many countries, not only for the prediction of the spreading of the virus, but also to monitor, predict, and manage healthcare resources.
In the future AI will move from a technology enabler to a technology driver. AI will thus become a core piece of all business strategies to drive long-term value.
Innovations will stay.
During the onslaught of Covid-19 many businesses would have come to an abrupt halt if it were not for innovative and cutting-edge technological solutions. It has now become clear that most of these innovative technologies would be part of our future.
Professor Louis C H Fourie is a technology strategist