Welcome to the first post on my new blog on technology and leadership in the age of disruption. I was considering a few topics for this inaugural post when the world suddenly turned upside down and presented me the best possible topic for the times – the Coronavirus Disruption. I must admit, I was not paying too much attention to this issue until about three days ago. Sure, I was aware that the virus was spreading, and that some companies were experiencing supply chain disruptions. However, I was assuming, perhaps naively, that this was just a slightly more dangerous version of the seasonal flu that would run its course and then we would get back to life as usual.
Then I came across this video on the Wuhan handshake. Did someone really refuse a handshake from Angela Merkel? Were the French no longer kissing? Was all this really happening? Oh yes, it was. A good friend of mine refused to shake my hand and offered me his elbow instead. I had clearly not been paying attention to the news. What else was going on?
I don’t watch TV so I turned to a few of my trusty online sources – theFactual, CNN, The New York Times, Fox News – followed by a search on good ol’ Google. And I hit the Mother Lode.
The world had indeed turned upside down while I was sleeping. Many companies were asking people to work from home. Schools were being closed for extended durations. Large conferences were being cancelled. Hollywood was postponing movie releases. College basketball players were asking that March Madness games be held in empty stadiums. There was even talk of postponing the Olympics! OK, this was already feeling like a lot. But then I read that Costco had run out of toilet paper and doctors were asking people not to touch their faces. Wait, what?
All of this is not normal. Our way of life is being disrupted in a big way. Because the coronavirus is highly contagious, the most effective approach to slow down its spread is to keep people apart for extended durations and hope that the virus dies in quarantine. All the recent disruptions to our lives – workplace closures, school closures, event cancellations – are based on this quarantine approach. Are there technologies and solutions that could help us cope, and potentially even thrive, in such an environment?
Let’s start by considering the circumstances and locations where we assemble and interact with people outside our home. Places that immediately come to mind are schools, colleges, workplaces, shopping malls, grocery stores, concerts, sporting events, movie theaters, theme parks and airports. When we are quarantined, how can we achieve our goals without going to these places? Here are some ideas.
Workplaces: White collar employees are not only being asked to work from home for extended durations, but to also avoid domestic and international travel. All of us understand the importance of face to face interactions in our work. As people are forced to telecommute, they will require tools that enable collaboration and interaction with co-workers and customers as effectively as being in the same room. Video-based conferencing apps like Skype and text-based collaboration tools like Slack are already quite pervasive across the industry. As we make telecommuting more mainstream, the next logical step would be a fully immersive environment that provides a three-dimensional experience of being in a meeting room. If this can be combined with digital collaborative tools like tablets and displays (think flip charts and post it notes), we could see the advent of a new age where white collar professionals leave their homes as an exception rather than as a rule. Imagine all the additional family time that the employees could get by eliminating their morning and evening commutes. And imagine all the money that companies could save if they did not need to rent office space. VR companies are probably working on this in earnest right now.
Educational institutions: As school children and college students are forced to stay at home for extended durations, they will need much better real-time and offline learning tools. A lot of education is based on learning by doing. While lectures and analytical exercises can be easily brought online with live instructors, there are still some gaps when it comes to products that enable hands-on physical interaction and experimentation. I expect that there are some innovative people already working on cost effective kits that could be safely deployed in a home environment (either through purchase or lease) and be used by small groups of students. This is a real business opportunity.
Shopping outlets: We have already seen a huge migration from brick and mortar to online shopping. The coronavirus situation will push more people towards this model. Imagine all your purchases being handled in warehouses by sterile robots and being delivered by autonomous vehicles and drones. It won’t be long before we will be able to buy pretty much everything online. This includes products that are customized for you and have typically needed a human in the loop. An example is fitted clothing – here is a company that has already developed apps that use the camera on your phone to measure you and send you a perfectly fitted suit. Can you think of products for which you must go to the store today? Someone is probably working on bringing them online right now.
Entertainment: This is a very big industry with lots of opportunity for innovation. People need entertainment to tune themselves out of the stress of their everyday lives and are willing to spend a lot of money on it. As they are forced to stay home, they will look for experiences that provide the thrill of sporting events, movies, concerts and theme parks, all from the comfort of their living room couch. Online streaming services are already taking significant share from the movie industry and this trend will only accelerate. Another high growth industry is gaming – people are not only spending a lot of time playing online games, they are also watching others play. As immersive media like VR coupled with synchronized motion become more mature, they will likely pull away sports and music fans from live events into online experiences (for an example, check out this solution). Such technologies could also provide a means for travel enthusiasts to experience the sights and sounds of far away lands without getting on a plane. And finally, the digital domain could be a great place for indulging thrill seekers – you can pretty much make anything happen with CGI (have you ever wanted to fly like a bird?). The palette is quite open on this one.
We have experienced global epidemics before – for example the SARS epidemic in 2003 was a lot more lethal – but things did not change too much in their aftermath. I think this time will be different. As people avoid social contact and use technology to fill the vacuum, we could end up in a world where most interactions become virtual. While this might feel abnormal, I would suggest that we have already been on this path for quite some time (just look around the next time you are in a public space and count the number of people who are hunched over their smartphones). In the end, technology is only an enabler. The choice of what we do with it still belongs to us.
Can you think of other products and innovations that will come about as a result of the Coronavirus Disruption? I would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org