Designing for Zero Experience

The world is becoming more interactive. The microwave wants to have a conversation. The gas pump wants to sell life enhancing products. And the public restroom wants feedback.

We now live in a world of sensory overload where someone or something is constantly trying to find and occupy every available gap in our cognitive spectrum. Social media platforms and productivity apps constantly seek our attention, as they pursue “stickiness” and recurring revenue. The process of distraction – engagement – retention is now a lucrative science, aided and abetted by psychologists and user experience (UX) experts who study the human mind for a living. All of us are familiar with the tools of their trade – alerts, notifications, suggestions, clickbait, rewards … all of which entice us to follow them down myriad intriguing and engaging rabbit holes. And before we know it, another hour has gone by, and it is time to reset and get back to what we were doing.

It is in this context that I would like to talk about user experience design for the infrastructure that powers our daily lives. With applications that range from creature comforts like air conditioning and hot water boilers, to essentials like transportation systems and production machinery, to life-critical like electric and water utilities, these products and systems have a huge impact on our day to day lives. Can new interactive technologies make them better?

Infrastructure solutions have been around in some shape or form since humans decided to mechanize. However, the way we interact with them has not changed all that much over the years. Yes, these systems have progressively become more intelligent through the introduction of sensors and automatic controls. Some user interfaces like buttons and switches have been replaced with touchscreens. But the overall user journey has pretty much remained the same. And quite frankly, we have not really expected more. As long as these systems have worked well and not demanded too much cognitive effort from us, we have been fine with things as they stand.

Given this backdrop, is there anything we can do to significantly improve the user experience on these systems? What types of features could bring about a measurable increase in customer satisfaction and retention? This is a conundrum that many companies are currently grappling with as they try to make their products stand out in a market that is seen more and more as a commodity.

As interactive tools like mobile apps, speech recognition, facial recognition, natural language processing and 3D sensing have matured and become mainstream, there is a strong desire to adopt these technologies and insert them into products. FOMO can push companies into launching all sorts of new projects without a clear understanding of customer benefits or return on investment. Unfortunately, one size does not fit all. Things that work in the media and consumer electronics markets will not necessarily work in the infrastructure business.

The most important question to ask before launching any new project should always be – what do customers most value and what can we do to make their user journey 10x more memorable? Once we know the true pain points, we can select the right technologies that have the potential to deliver an order of magnitude improvement.

Moving towards a Zero Experience paradigm

Think about how you interact with the machines and appliances that power our everyday lives. Is this something you look forward to? Personally, my preference would be to not interact with them at all if that was an option. In fact, every time products demand my attention, they likely pull me away from other more interesting or intellectually rewarding activities.

Think about the experience of commuting to work every day. If you live in a big city, this might involve riding the subway, using a cab, gaining secure access to a building, riding the elevator, and switching on the lights in your office. All of these actions expend some level of cognitive effort and take you away from other things like reading the news, talking with the interesting person next to you, or updating your social media feed. Given this, would you like more audio-visual bells and whistles along your journey or less? Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just keep moving undisturbed and everything just happened automatically – doors opening, lights switching on, thermostat being set, etc?

The same applies to the people who manage all this infrastructure. Would they like to be inundated with more data? Or would they prefer not to have to deal with any of this stuff and spend more time building relations with their customers? I think that when it comes to infrastructure systems, the answer might be that less is more and zero experience is the most memorable experience.

Let’s explore this a bit. What would a zero experience (ZX) paradigm look like and what would be some of its key attributes? I consider the following three to be most important.

Frictionless – the key to a zero experience user journey is to get rid of all effort. To achieve this, the entire journey must be mapped from end to end, and any friction along the way must be ruthlessly eliminated. Anything that requires input or cognitive effort from the user should be questioned and either eliminated or redesigned to make the process extremely easy. This is where sensing and edge analytics can help. For example, cameras and motion sensors can be used to infer the user’s intent, and this information coupled with their personal preferences as well as historical behavior can be used to make a majority of decisions without the user’s intervention. As one of my ex-colleagues used to say, our goal should be to create an experience where people can keep moving and things happen “auto-magically” along the way. A great example of such an experience is “Just Walk Out Shopping” at Amazon Go, where you can simply walk into the store, pick up whatever you want to buy, and leave. Steps like user identification, checkout and payment are all taken care of behind the scenes without needing the customer’s intervention. Could our daily commute be similar?

Minimalist – another key element of a zero experience journey is minimalism, where interfaces and touch points are completely eliminated or drastically reduced to only present the bare minimum of information that is needed to get the job done. Most of the functionality is automated and only actions that require higher-level thinking and decision making are delegated up to the user. A great recent example of minimalism is the cockpit design of the SpaceX Dragon, especially when you compare it with its predecessor, NASA’s Space Shuttle. As can be seen quite vividly in the below pictures, the space shuttle was crammed with displays, controls and switches, whereas the Dragon just had a large and customizable touch-screen. What a great use of technology to cut out all the clutter!

Left: NASA Space Shuttle | Right: SpaceX Dragon (Click here to see the image source)

Intuitive – once you have settled on the minimal amount of information that must be presented, it is must be done using clean and intuitive formats. Well designed dashboards that draw your attention to the most important content and present it in a way that the brain can immediately digest, can go a long way in speeding up the user’s response and minimizing the disruption to whatever else they were doing. This is the domain of UI and data visualization professionals. I am constantly amazed by the beautiful new formats in which data and information are getting presented nowadays. The one underlying theme is simplicity. Instead of drowning you in data, the best dashboards highlight the outcomes that you care about and then give you an option to dig deeper if you wish. One of my sources for good ideas is the Visual Capitalist – check it out if you have a moment.

The above three elements – frictionless, minimalist, intuitive – can be used to create experiences that “wow” their users by expecting very little from them. If done well, they create “uneventful days” which are most memorable because everything went well and according to expectation.

It bears mentioning that even before the digital revolution, engineers always strived to design reliable and comfortable infrastructure products that are non-intrusive and can be taken for granted. In my past life as a noise and vibration engineer, I spent many years working hard to eliminate all sorts of squeaks, rattles and bumps in elevators so that riders would never contemplate the fact that they were standing inside a metal box suspended high above the ground. As I explained to customers, I wanted them to think of an elevator as just another room in the building. You enter this room, the doors close, and shortly thereafter they open again, and you have been magically transported to a different part of the building. Along the way, you continue with whatever you were doing before you stepped in – having a conversation, checking the news on your phone, or simply watching people.

This is the original foundation of Zero Experience – building great products that are easy to use, perform intelligently and reliably around the clock, and only nudge their users for input when absolutely necessary. As newer interactive technologies become available, we should certainly consider adopting them but we should do so without forgetting why customers ultimately buy infrastructure solutions – to make their lives easier and uneventful.

What Makes Organizations Resilient?

What separates people who survive disasters from those that perish? This is the topic of a book I just finished reading titled “The Unthinkable: Who survives when disaster strikes and why”, by Amanda Ripley. Through extensive interviews with survivors from incidents such as plane crashes and building fires, the author provides an intimate look into the psyche and operating style of those who reacted well in such situations and managed to survive against all odds.

As I read the book, I could not help drawing parallels with how we sometimes react to crisis situations at the workplace. Unexpected disruptions induced by competitors or external factors can be abrupt and information-scarce, similar to modern life disasters. Are there lessons from the latter that we could apply in our professional settings to become more resilient? The following insights from Ms Ripley’s book could help formulate a path.

(True) preparedness: Across the many stories in the book, the single most important aspect that seemed to help the most people survive during disasters was preparedness. I particularly liked the story of Rick Rescorla whose dogged determination to prepare his organization for the unforeseen resulted in one of the most successful evacuations on 9/11. Rescorla trained the rank and file of his company to ensure that everyone knew exactly what they would need to do in case of an emergency. He ensured that the knowledge was deep and the rationale for various processes was well understood. He ran regular drills which everyone complied with, something that is quite hard to accomplish in an investment bank where every minute away from the desk translates to lost dollars. But he persisted, and over a period of many years, built a highly prepared and self-sufficient team. What Rescorla accomplished required sustained investment and commitment from his management to stay the course. And it resulted in a resilient organization that was able to react decisively when the worst scenario unfolded.

Strong institutional memory: A key reason why people don’t react accurately during a life-threatening event is because they mis-calibrate the risk. As people come and go in an organization, they may not have an appreciation for why things are a certain way and what drove past decisions. They can end up questioning policies and processes at a time when speed and decisive intent are critical. To this end, organizations that include their entire staff in risk assessment activities tend to react better during disasters. Yes, this requires a willingness to talk about difficult scenarios, something that many organizations tend to shy away from. However, tapping the knowledge of the larger team can surface all sorts of issues and considerations that only people with battle scars can recall and articulate with passion. Including them creates inter-generational bonds and results in stronger buy-in for policies and procedures that could be the difference between success and failure in a crisis.

Speaking up: The author described an interesting phenomenon called “milling” that happened in the early stages of a crisis. People walked around and tried to group up with others to see what the crowd would do. However, in many incidents, these groups of people just stood around and did nothing, waiting for someone to take charge. When someone did step up, it was usually not an authority figure – rather, it was someone from the larger community who decided to do something because at that instant, he or she saw something that others could not. There is much to be learned from this. In times of crisis, it is likely that the people in command will not have all the answers. As they mill around looking for clues, they will be best served by having a diverse set of people around them who are encouraged to speak up. Fostering a culture where everyone is empowered to step in and take charge can be a huge enabler for survival.

How Can Organizations Become More Resilient?

The British Standards Institute defines organizational resilience as “the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.”

Based on the above definition, how resilient are our organizations today? On the evidence, not very. The current Coronavirus disruption has mercilessly exposed many chinks that have crept into our armor. There is a lot of talk nowadays about developing indigenous supply chains, protecting intellectual property, controlling foreign ownership of critical domestic assets, etc. However, it bears mentioning that none of these ideas are new. In order to achieve financial objectives, many companies have made deliberate choices over the years to progressively outsource and restructure their enterprises, because the anticipated benefits were deemed as far outweighing the risks. And in their continued pursuit of profits, companies are now exploring permanent work-from-home policies which will further reduce the human-to-human interactions that form the basis of our learning processes and the hardening of our memory banks. Are we again going too far, too fast?

In my opinion, resilience is fundamentally built on long term thinking. People in resilient organizations eschew the path of expedience and instead play an infinite game. They respect the past and use it to prepare for their future. They display empathy and high clarity of purpose, and are willing to collectively endure the pain of short term disruptions in order to achieve their long term goals.

As leaders attempt to move their organizations towards a more resilient future, they will need to work with their people to honestly re-evaluate what is core to their enterprise, and what knowledge and infrastructure are critical for their long-term viability. And then they will need to truly make the investments that will strengthen these capabilities, with consistency, through thick and thin, over the long haul.

Just like it takes many years to grow a strong tree but only a few minutes to cut it down, it takes a long time to build a strong enterprise and only a few actions to weaken its foundation. As companies explore ways to become more profitable, decisions to cut down long-standing trees will need to be taken with a lot of care.

Before I conclude, I would like to talk about the chapter on Heroism at the end of the book. The author described numerous incidents where someone acted against their best judgment, disregarded the chain of command, and walked into danger to try and save lives. While I was filled with admiration for these heroes, it became quite evident on reading their stories that such an operating model is inherently unreliable and fragile. Some of the stories did not end well, and in many instances, only the people lucky enough to be near the hero survived. The key learning for me was this: if organizations want to become resilient, they cannot depend on statistical anomalies within their ranks to swoop in and bail them out every time there is a crisis. Rather, they must enlist their entire team to build an army of informed and empowered heroes, and leverage their collective strength to navigate the next disruption.

Image by jplenio from Pixabay

Unlocking Innovation in Smart Buildings

The Covid-19 pandemic is fundamentally altering our thinking on how we collaborate and cohabitate. As the social distancing regimen extends from days to weeks to months, many people are getting attuned to the idea of doing almost everything from the safety of their homes. In the few situations when they do venture out, they are keeping their distance from others and touching only what must be touched, ideally after a liberal swab down with disinfecting wipes. Masks have now become standard attire in public spaces, and it requires some amount of mental strain to recall what things were like just three months ago.

This lockdown is going to have long term effects. When it does inevitably come to an end, we will likely never get back to the levels of free movement and inter-mingling that we took for granted in the past. Instead, we will probably see the emergence of a new world where many interactions are managed and curated. As contact tracing gets implemented and becomes a normal way of life, humanity could find itself clustered into red, yellow and green categories, with associated privileges and access levels. Appropriate distances will need to be maintained in public spaces and the environment will need to be kept clean and sanitized.

The places where a lot of this will play out is in public buildings like offices, schools, and transport hubs. These buildings by their very nature tend have a high density of people operating in close proximity and physically interacting with the infrastructure. We will need to deploy all sorts of technologies and processes to make our interactions in such spaces safe and convenient, while hopefully retaining some level of amity and warmth that are so essential to the human experience.

We will likely see contact tracing data being coupled with movement tracking and access control to manage social distances and prevent mixing between people with different classifications. Wayfinding applications may now have an additional layer to create personalized routes and quarantine areas. While we will see more frequent cleaning, we will likely also see many physical interactions with hardware get replaced by touchless controls. Technologies like image recognition, wireless sensing and cloud networking will likely play a strong role in making all this happen.

According to a report from Gartner last year, building automation was expected to be the fastest growing IoT sector in 2020 with an estimated installed base of half a billion end points. Given our new realities, this trend will likely accelerate and potentially dominate new investments in IoT and M2M technologies in the coming years. While energy usage and asset management have been the key drivers for building automation in the past, we will likely see more investment in use cases related to people flow management and facility sanitation as we go forward.

Decentralized Control Can Truly Open Up the Smart Building Ecosystem

Building automation is not a new field. Over the years, a lot of work has been done by a number of well-known system integrators, like Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Schneider Electric and Automated Logic to name a few, to integrate various building systems such as HVAC, lighting, access control and fire suppression. The typical mode of operation is to have all the data from these assets come via a communication network to a central server that hosts a “Building Management System (BMS)”, which processes the information, makes decisions either autonomously or with a human in the loop, and sends out actions in the form of commands. This sequence of sensing –> decision making –> actuation is used to orchestrate and automate all sorts of outcomes such as energy savings and building occupant convenience.

While the above approach has worked reasonably well, it is highly dependent on the BMS which acts as a central brain and is in effect the single point of decision-making. Every sub-system or application in the building usually sits within its own private silo with all data aggregation and cross-system decision making left to the BMS. This approach can add a lot of complexity even for a simple action like switching on the lights in an office when the occupant arrives in the hallway. As requirements become more complex and the use cases grow, a more efficient approach might be to decentralize the decision making as much as possible and only use the BMS for executive decisions. This type of empowerment paradigm where most decisions and actions are executed through coordination at the edge could really open up the landscape. It could enable all sorts of innovative new subsystems and applications to easily join the building network, readily exchange data within local neighborhoods and clusters, and enable intelligent outcomes.

In large enterprises, decentralization would also promote variable feature implementations depending on the specific needs in a building zone, making things more cost effective for both the owner as well as the tenant. Unsupervised learning at local and global scales could be used to identify patterns, which could then be used to implement certain technologies and features only where they make a big difference.

Finally, a decentralized approach would be inherently more resilient to external disruptions because the brains of the operation would now be distributed all over the enterprise, rather than at one single point of failure within the BMS. In situations that demand coordination e.g. emergency evacuations, the various clusters could coordinate with each other in real time to assess current state and drive optimal decisions.

It seems evident at this point that decentralized automation has a number of merits. What do we need to make it happen?

Building Communication Needs a Narrow Waist

Adding a new feature into an existing building automation system is typically not easy. If a vendor comes along and offers a solution to monitor something new, e.g. leaks in your roof, they will likely offer a solution that uses their proprietary sensors that send data to their proprietary server or cloud, where insights are gleaned and then sent to you either via an API or through more conventional tools like email and text. The job of integrating this information into a building-level intelligent system is up to you, the building manager. And herein lies the problem. If you wish to share the data with other building systems, then it is not straightforward for the involved parties to perform a handshake and proceed. Instead, they usually need to go through a lengthy integration exercise with each other, and even once this is done, every data exchange instance can involve navigating many layers of protocols and networks to get information across from one node to the other.

Sounds painful, right?

This is a major reason why we have not seen the smart building ecosystem grow rapidly. If you look at the integrated solutions being provided by the large manufacturers mentioned earlier, all of them tend to provide solutions which leverage their own sub-brands, coupled with their own proprietary BMS. They may offer to integrate with solutions from other companies but with the caveat that there will be a cost, it will likely be time-consuming, and there would be a risk of experiencing glitches. This is because everyone uses somewhat different communication protocols and every integration exercise requires some special interfacing software to be written and tested. While these are all valid reasons, they unfortunately make it almost impossible for building owners to mix and match the best solutions from different providers. If we had a universal protocol for communication, we could remove these barriers and promote innovation.

Is it possible to create a universal protocol for building IoT? There is a precedent for this. The growth of the internet was enabled by what is called the “narrow waist” of communication and it may be an approach that could be leveraged in building systems as well. To understand this concept, please look at the below figure. The way the internet works, all devices must communicate using the internet protocol or IP, which assigns a unique address to each node and ensures that any message addressed to it, finds a way to reach it. This network layer is the narrow waist that all internet traffic must go through. However, there is a high amount of flexibility both above and below it. Devices can still sit on their own local networks and communicate via a variety of physical media and protocols within their sub-nets. Additionally, once messages are delivered, there is huge flexibility for applications to do whatever they want with the information.

This unifying narrow waist structure is what enabled the large-scale connectivity and wide range of applications on the internet that we take for granted today. If we could implement a similar universal narrow waist for building communication, it would democratize access and unlock a lot of innovation. It would allow us to easily interconnect new solutions and networks while providing freedom to application developers to build without needing to know the underlying technology. It would be like creating an app store for buildings – anyone could develop solutions as long as they know the rules of the game. It would also enable easy and universal integration of buildings with mobility solutions, last mile delivery solutions and municipal infrastructure solutions, and effectively create a seamless continuum of experiences for their tenants.

What would a universal protocol look like? In smart buildings, a lot of the applications will not require a central command and control unit, but rather an ability to freely and securely exchange data between nodes. A good protocol for this might be Named Data Networking (NDN) which promotes easy data sharing and emphasizes broadcast and consumption in a high trust environment. Unlike the Internet Protocol whose primary focus is end-to-end communication, NDN is focused on distributing data, and fits well with our proposed decentralized approach for building automation.

We Need a Commercial Backbone for M2M Transactions

Now that we have discussed the mechanics of building automation, we need to talk about another important consideration – monetization. In a decentralized world, we would need to have some mechanism to keep track of the value being provided by the various applications. A record would need to be kept for every single time something of value was enabled by any application, as well as every time a piece of data published by one application was consumed by another one. The first transaction would be billed to the end customer whereas the second would be cross-billed to the other vendor, who in effect was a partner in enabling an outcome.

There are companies who have already started working on solutions for managing and billing these types of micro-transactions. They would likely use some form of tokens that are collected over time and turned in at the end of a billing period for reconciliation and payment. Since this would be a model where the customer would only pay for what they consume, there could also be mechanisms to set limits (like a prepaid SIM card) where if the quota for the month is exceeded, the feature would stop working unless the budget was topped up. This is an evolving ecosystem but soon to be a highly profitable one (imagine getting a cut every time an M2M communication occurs in a building!)

A Peek into the Future

We have now discussed three key enablers that could really expand the possibilities in smart buildings. What might life look like in such buildings with decentralized and coordinated automation? Here are three examples to jog your imagination.

Flow orchestration: In a decentralized world, the orchestration of many automated experiences could be handled locally without the intervention of the BMS. When a tenant enters a building and has been authenticated, the mobile credential that they are carrying (e.g. their cell phone) could create a seamless chain of custody and enable a series of actions as various sensors pick up its movement. Calling the elevator, switching on the hallway lights, opening locked doors, turning on the office HVAC system, etc could all be done through local communication and handoff. The exact same approach could be applied to a last mile delivery robot or drone.

Adaptive sanitization: In the post-Covid world, we will likely see the deployment of cleaning robots, UV lights and airborne disinfectants to keep our public buildings clean and safe. All of these actions would need to occur as often as possible, typically after one set of humans have passed through a workspace and before the next set arrives. Unsupervised learning could help with understanding the needs in various building zones, which could then be used to schedule the cleaning actions in a highly efficient manner. Swarms of robots could self-coordinate and deploy based on real-time demand during the day and fall back into a pre-scheduled operation in off hours.

Emergency response: Imagine an emergency situation such as a fire or active shooter in the building. Responding to these requires high situational awareness and there may be no time to bring human decision-makers into the loop. In such scenarios, a decentralized model could be quite powerful where cameras and people trackers could rapidly assess the location of the threat as well as the tenant population, based on which the access control system could partner with the way-finding system to create movement zones and lock-down zones, effectively blocking in the threat and ferrying people to safety.

OK, let’s get back to our present reality. There is clearly a lot of work to be done before we can implement this type of decentralized control in buildings. Specifically, we will need to deploy a universal data-centric communication protocol as well as a new micro-transaction based payment system. The question is – who will take the lead and make it all happen? Will the incumbents do it? Or will it be done by newcomers like Microsoft, Amazon or Google who are also building a variety of cloud based IoT platforms? Or will it be done by a trusted intermediary, such as a standards organization, that coordinates with all the interested parties to build out a common architecture?

The first mover will get to define the new rules of the game. I look forward to participating in the action as it unfolds.

Cover image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Software May Be Eating the World, But Hardware is Hosting the Party

Today, we are firmly into the fourth industrial revolution – one that is powered by software and data. Every company worth its salt is getting on board and embarking on an aggressive journey of digitalization to enhance their customers’ experience, increase internal productivity, and drive economies of scale across their enterprise. To move the initiatives forward with speed, significant investments are being made in digital infrastructure and software engineering talent. There is now a huge demand for people with skills in cloud computing, mobile development, UI/UX, cyber security, data science, machine learning … – the list grows by the day. As Marc Andreesen presciently remarked almost a decade ago, “software is eating the world”, and all of us are trying to join the party.

With all this buzz, it can sometimes be hard to remember that there are other engineers on this planet who do not write software but are nevertheless developing equally critical solutions for humanity. One group that sits at almost the opposite end of the spectrum from the software folks is the community of mechanical engineers. These erstwhile heroes of the first industrial revolution must feel like their world is under siege today. Even though the world literally depends on their creations to operate and survive, they as a community seem to be almost forgotten, with even their recent contributions classified under a catch-all tag called “tech”. This article makes a small attempt to bring some balance to today’s lopsided conversation. You may see it as a tribute to under-appreciated mechanical engineers in a world seemingly obsessed with software.

Move fast and break things – done the right way

Mechanical engineers are not new to disruption. It comes with the territory when you are operating in one of the world’s oldest engineering disciplines. They have learned over the years to adapt as the world changes around them and keep doing what they have always done best – build great infrastructure products that make modern life possible.

However, in a world obsessed with all things digital, we seem to have lost our appreciation for what it takes to build something that we can touch and feel – something that our life may very well depend on. Our power generation plants, our transportation systems, our appliances, our climate control systems, our water purification plants – all critical to our day-to-day life – are highly dependent on smoothly running mechanical hardware, and we just take them for granted.

Unfortunately, the physical world is messy and does not always work predictably. Mechanical things by their very nature deteriorate and wear over time. They can stick, jam, fatigue, and fail, sometimes in catastrophic ways. We don’t have to worry about this stuff because of dedicated mechanical engineers who work behind the scenes to manage these risks and ensure our safety. These folks expend a lot of effort to test their designs well beyond their operating limits and ensure fail-safe operation when things do break. They literally move fast and break things – but they do it in controlled tests conditions with crash test dummies rather than in the real world with live humans.

As the industrial world aggressively pushes forward to digitalize, our mechanical engineers are ensuring that the hardware on which all this new software will ride is robust. For if software is eating the world, hardware is hosting the party. Even the most intelligent control system or the most appealing user interface will be of no use if the underlying system does not deliver its core physical functions. For example, would you ride a car with the most beautiful touchscreen interface if the brakes failed every so often? So while we should wholeheartedly recognize and celebrate our software engineers for all their innovative products, we should equally celebrate our mechanical engineers, and for that matter, all types of hardware engineers who build the infrastructure that supports them. As they innovate and push their new designs to the very far edges of what is possible, we can rest assured that they will also be working hard to unearth any new failure modes, analyze them, and design them out, before the products are ever put in front of humans.

Mechanical Engineering in the 21st Century – what does it look like?

At the turn of the millennium, mechanical engineers started realizing that humanity’s expectations from products have evolved. Traditional vectors of differentiation such as cost, safety and reliability are now increasingly considered background noise – these things are expected, everyone has them, and only order-of-magnitude changes in these attributes create noticeable value. In order to differentiate, these functional “hard” KPIs need to be augmented with some softer ones like convenience and user delight. Form is now as important as function, and there is a significant premium to be had for the best designed products.

Given these changes in expectations, how have mechanical engineers adapted, and what new tools have they added to their repertoire to develop our next generation of products? In my view, there are three important developments and trends that are enabling breakthrough innovations by mechanical engineers in recent days:

Advanced simulation tools and new manufacturing techniques are progressively opening up the design space. For the longest time, our designs have been constrained by how well we are able to model and predict the performance of our physical systems. This capability has seen a huge evolution in the past decade. With the progressive increases in computational speed, we now have access to multi-domain simulation tools that can optimize for weight, cost, and a variety of performance metrics, while running on consumer grade computing platforms. Millions of designs can be simulated in a matter of hours or days to iteratively migrate towards the best solution, which can then be built to validate its performance. Such advanced simulation tools are generating highly optimized design concepts that were not possible to conceive in the past, with complex topologies and material compositions. Which brings us to another important topic – manufacturability. Until very recently, the designs generated from simulation tools had to be modified to be manufacturable which meant that features like weird shapes and intertwined materials had to be made simpler, which ended up compromising the overall performance. With the advent of techniques like additive manufacturing, this is no longer a constraint. 3D printing systems now allow us to create highly complex shapes and have rapidly expanded the range of sizes and material compositions that they can support. With this freedom, we are now truly able to explore human centric design and develop products that are ergonomic, customized, visually pleasing and fully optimized for performance.

Advances in materials science are enabling a slew of mechanical innovations. Carbon-fiber composites and aluminum alloys are among a class of lightweight materials with much higher strength-to-weight ratios that are powering the growth of industries like electric vehicles, robots, cobots, drones, and soon, personal flight. Smart materials and polymers are enabling applications such as adaptive fabrics and artificial muscles where properties can be changed on demand and be responsive to ambient conditions. New engineered surfaces and coatings are allowing us to better tailor material properties for friction, wear, corrosion, aerodynamic drag and moisture resistance. As we combine these tunable material properties with our advanced simulation capabilities, what was not possible just a few years ago due to mechanical and physical constraints is suddenly becoming feasible.

Sensing and AI are making physical assets more predictable and intelligent. Most mechanical systems must be maintained at prescribed intervals during their lifetime to ensure adequate performance. Even so, a good proportion of them malfunction or fail without warning, resulting in inconvenience and potentially expensive repairs or replacements. All of this has been changing of late with the development of ultra-low-cost sensors that are being used to instrument infrastructural assets and track their performance. Sophisticated signal processing algorithms are being used to convert raw signals like vibration and temperature into actionable insights that help understand if the underlying system is working properly. This information is then used to schedule a maintenance visit before the onset of a malfunction or failure, hence increasing customer satisfaction and creating huge improvements in operational productivity. Mechanical engineers are playing a critical role in making all this happen. They use their understanding of the underlying physics to figure out what sensors to use and where to put them, and then use their deep domain expertise to develop algorithms that convert the raw signals into useful interpretations. These are then fed into an expert system or AI model to derive insights and take actions, either autonomously or via human intervention. This approach is now being deployed at scale and should eventually result in an intelligent system of systems that is robust, efficient and cost effective.

The above three trends are helping mechanical engineers innovate and should keep them quite busy for years to come. And humanity will continue to benefit as these innovative products are rolled out into our daily lives.

So here is a shout out to my fellow mechanical engineers, the unsung heroes of the digital age. You may not be getting a lot of attention nowadays, but I know that you are still plugging away, working on that next life changing product that will make our daily existence just a little more comfortable. Keep going – the world depends on you.

Photo courtesy of Bill Oxford on Unsplash

Flattening the Curve on the Cost of College Education

Our neighborhood is suddenly teeming with college kids. They were sent home after their campuses were locked down due to the coronavirus. Now they are living with their parents, taking classes from their bedroom couch, and doing their very best to squeeze maximum benefit from the hard-earned dollars they shelled out for their college tuition. This is not the college experience that they imagined, but is it possible that it is a preview of things to come?

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, I had been thinking about the state of higher education in our country. I had started discussing college options with my son, a freshman in high school, and was pushing him to understand the cost implications of his decisions. We spoke with family friends who have recently sent their children to college and learned that the fully loaded expense including tuition, room and board for a four-year degree at a private college could be two hundred thousand dollars or more! This made me wonder – what percentage of people going through this system are actually getting a good return on their investment? Is it time for a radical change in how we think about higher education?

When I went to college, the cost of an undergraduate education was low enough that you could pay off your student loans within a few years and move on with your life. Over the last few decades, this cost has grown way faster than median household wages, resulting in a skewed situation where someone graduating today could end up with a college loan obligation that lingers for as long as the mortgage on their house! This is just wrong. Going to college should not be a high stakes business decision where if you make a mistake, you could end up struggling with crushing debt for the rest of your life. College education should be accessible to all, with reasonable levels of financial risk, and a high probability of payback. Is it possible to evolve the system towards this desired state? I see three disruptive trends that could help.

Online teaching and collaboration tools are creating economies of scale. Tools like Zoom, Campus and Google Docs have evolved to the point that distance education and remote collaboration are now fairly seamless and easy. The coronavirus lockdown is rapidly pushing this evolution forward as many more people take classes online and realize that this model could actually work. As the tools continue to improve, we will likely see a hybrid education model emerge where students will take a majority of their classes remotely and only come in for courses that require interaction with other people or hands-on access to equipment. With fewer students on campus, schools should be able to right size their infrastructure and allocate costs more intelligently to people who are accessing their facilities. Which brings us to another big driver of college cost – salaries for instructors and professors. While this cost has risen steadily over the years, the overall productivity of the education process has remained somewhat stagnant with pretty much the same class sizes, semester durations and course densities (e.g. 15 credits per semester). An online tuition model can expand the reach of each professor to a much larger class size, hence allowing the institution to spread the cost across a larger set of students. Additionally, pre-recorded classes and automated quizzes can allow students to set their own pace, letting the more motivated ones compress the overall time it takes them to graduate. All of this can add up to an order of magnitude reduction in cost per student. Platforms like Coursera are already showing the power of this model and it is only a matter of time before this goes mainstream.

Industry change cycles are becoming more frequent. We now live in a time when multiple transformative changes can happen within a typical career span of thirty years. By one popular estimate, 65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. With this backdrop, does it really make sense to invest a huge amount of money on an undergraduate education that may become outdated and somewhat irrelevant just a few years later? Perhaps a better model of learning would be one that is spread out over many years, where new knowledge and skills are added just-in-time, based on the latest problems that are being solved. This “pay-as-you-learn” model of education would ensure the most optimal allocation of funds with clear line of sight to the expected returns. This approach would also provide more choice – instead of being forced to take all their classes at one institution, students could select the best courses with the highest rated instructors, some of which may be offered out of private companies who are at the cutting edge of their field. This would truly level the playing field with educational institutions competing hard to create relevant offerings and attract the most students.

Educational institutions are starting to put skin in the game: One of the quirks of college education is that the institution charging you a large sum of money does not provide any guarantee of a return on your investment. After you exit their premises, you are pretty much on your own to monetize your investment, and the school has little to no skin in the game. This was all well and good in the old days when the financial outlay for a college education was quite small. However, it is an altogether different proposition now. With the astronomically high costs at some of our elite institutions, it is reasonable to ask for some sort of assurance that we will get a return on our investment. Enter Income Sharing Agreements or ISAs. This is a concept that is really taking off, where some educational institutions are offering courses for free in exchange for a percentage of the student’s salary for two or three years after graduation. This innovative approach puts an onus on the school to not only provide a high quality education, but also help their students find a job. I expect the ISA model to really take off because it encourages people to invest in themselves without taking on too much financial risk. Employers may also get into the game by providing educational allowances coupled with contractual terms that require the employee to stay with them for two or three years after graduation.

The above three disruptive trends promise to change the look and feel of our college ecosystem. When combined, they will significantly flatten the higher education cost curve and make it much more accessible to everyone. This is illustrated by the below figure. The red line shows our current “Blitz Learning” paradigm where a huge cost is incurred in the first four years, followed by many years of debt. The blue line shows the new “Lifelong Learning” paradigm with much lower costs that are spread out over our entire career. The curve is deliberately drawn with an upward trend under the assumption that our spending ability will increase over time.

I have been discussing this radically new approach towards higher learning with my son. He has been quite cautious with his responses. He agrees that there is some merit in what I am saying, but he also feels that these changes will not happen by the time he is ready for college, which is only three years away. While he might be right about this, I am quite certain that things will be much closer to the new paradigm by the time his sister, who is currently in middle school, is ready for college.

Why am I so optimistic? Because I have personally experienced the disruptive power of online education. I recently took a machine learning course on Coursera. This was an eleven-week course that exposed me to the most important concepts and techniques in machine learning, along with hands-on programming assignments that ensured that I truly learned the material. The course was taught by a renowned AI expert at Stanford, which is one of the top technology schools in the country. I was impressed by the quality of the materials as well as the effectiveness of the pre-recorded sessions and have already recommended this course to many other people. Can you guess how much I paid? $70. Yes, you read that right. Seventy dollars! When I last checked, the course had 2,778,902 registrations from all parts of the world, and I am sure the low cost had something to do with it. There can be only one conclusion. Online platforms like Coursera are bringing about a true democratization of knowledge. And they will change the world of education as we know it today.

So here is a question for you. Imagine that you are looking to fill a position that typically requires a four-year undergraduate degree as a minimum qualification. Would you feel comfortable hiring someone who does not have this but instead has a highly relevant portfolio of real life experiences and continuation education credits? Why or why not? The world is changing rapidly around us. Are you changing with it?

Photo credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Five Leadership Steps for Navigating a Disruption

The Coronavirus has created a huge disruption in all our lives. Within the span of just a few weeks, most large economies have executed some form of lockdown, with only essential services in operation and most people confined to their homes. A number of businesses are shutting down either temporarily or permanently, while others are trying to figure out how they can keep running and be ready to bounce back when things ease up. Amid all this, employees and contractors are looking on nervously, wondering what the impact on them might be and how they can help their organization emerge at the other end unscathed. The effects are still percolating through their work and personal lives, with every day bringing new and unanticipated developments.

Navigating this type of rapidly changing and uncertain environment can be quite challenging for any leader. They not only have to rapidly assess the situation and make the course corrections that will keep their business alive, but they also need to shepherd their team through the crisis and hopefully come out stronger at the other end. What are the tactics they can use to navigate a disruption like the one they are experiencing today? Based on learnings from my career, I propose the following five steps that could help.

Set a clear north star. Confusion reigns supreme during a crisis. Leaders can help everyone cut through the noise by getting them aligned around a common mission – a “north star” that guides the organization every day. It should be actionable, unambiguous, very easy to comprehend, and must have 100% buy-in from the top leadership of the organization. It should be regularly communicated to the rank and file and reinforced through a variety of channels. A good example of a north star is “Flatten the curve” which is being used to explain how everyone can contribute to slowing down the spread of the coronavirus. It is easy to understand and allows everyone to get behind it.

Empower the organization. Once a north star has been established, the next step is to empower every single person in the organization to take initiative and contribute actively to driving outcomes.  Since time is of the essence during a crisis, leaders must do everything possible to remove decision layers and increase velocity. Empowerment and autonomy can have a cloning effect – together they create a next line of fast movers that can strongly amplify your ability to deliver results.

Align incentives. In crisis situations, it is very important to ensure that all teams in the organization are marching in lock step towards common objectives. This is a good time to examine incentive structures and ensure that the metrics strongly reward collective success over individual brilliance. Emotions can run high during a crisis and the last thing you need is to have individual silos competing with each other and creating friction that not only slows down the overall organization, but also creates heartburn and saps morale.

Crowdsource data and information. Disruptions and crises are a time of uncertainty. Information is usually scarce and it is impossible for leaders to confidently lean on their past experience to make high quality decisions. Just look at the coronavirus lockdown – due to its unprecedented nature, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the coming days, weeks and months. The best thing that leaders can do at this time is to actively engage their diverse talent pool and surface as wide a spectrum of ideas as possible. They must then adopt a learning mindset, listen honestly, and select the best ideas for implementation. The beautiful thing about such an approach is that it engages the larger organization in the journey, which in turn creates buy-in and fosters trust.

Inspire the team. Finally, a critical element of leadership is to walk the talk and demonstrate support for the mission through visible energy and enthusiasm. Times of crises can severely test the temperament of a team and they usually look at their leaders to gauge how things are going. Leaders must display empathy, listen patiently, and do everything in their power to inspire their people towards the better future that lies ahead.

The above steps are designed to make an organization coalesce around their leader and use their collective inner strength to power through a crisis. In such times, success is not powered by a superhero who swoops in from the outside and single-handedly saves everyone; it is powered from inside by people who understand the intricacies of the business, care deeply about it, and are inspired by their leaders to collectively navigate uncharted waters and transform themselves for future success.

How is the coronavirus disruption affecting you and your organization? Do you have a clear north star that everyone can work towards? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay

Moving with Speed and Accuracy during a Disruption

Last week there was a story in the New York Times about an infectious disease expert in Seattle who tried to react quickly to the coronavirus situation, but unfortunately got bogged down by decision gridlock across various government bodies. This doctor had been running a different flu study for which she had collected samples from many people over a number of months. She also had test kits that could be used to determine if any of the donors had contracted the coronavirus. This was a unique opportunity to get an early start on testing and trace infections to their source. However, since she was redirecting the samples for a new purpose, she needed permission from various authorities at the state and federal level to proceed with the tests. Unfortunately, because of the privacy and ethical issues involved, her requests bounced around between various people for weeks and by the time she did start testing, it was too little too late.

This story made me think about how we react in times of crisis. Clearly the doctor was trying to do the right thing, the authorities were trying to do the right thing, but somehow the system did not deliver. I wondered about what could have been the outcome had the right people been engaged very quickly, reviewed the request, and found a way to overcome the procedural issues given the very special and urgent circumstances?

Disruptive crises like the one described above happen in the business world all the time. Commercial enterprises can get disrupted by competitors who stealthily introduce a new product or solution that threatens to significantly erode their financial results. They can be disrupted by unexpected quality or safety issues that blow up out of nowhere and threaten to destroy their brand reputation. And they can be disrupted by black swan events like the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 coronavirus that create conditions that were totally unimaginable before the fact.

Disruptions can throw all the best laid plans into disarray. However, during such events, clarity of thought and creativity of actions are vitally important because time is of the essence. As you are racing to recover, any delays due to poor decision-making or bureaucratic logjams can set you further behind, sometimes in an irrecoverable manner. So, what can companies do to avoid this? What kinds of behaviors and culture can they implement that would allow them to move with speed and accuracy during a crisis?

Perhaps we can get some ideas from the world of startups. Startups are usually small and work on risky new ideas that challenge their assumptions on an almost daily basis. They are usually on a very tight budget and cannot afford to make any unnecessary mistakes or detours that could burn their cash and end their enterprise. In effect, every day can feel like an existential crisis. For them, time is clearly of the essence. So how do they make decisions? Collectively, creatively, objectively, and rapidly. Because the team is small, it is quite easy to assemble all the key decision makers in one place and avoid losses in translation. Once assembled, the team examines the issue from all directions and is quite willing to explore unconventional out of the box solutions, especially if it can save them significant amounts of time and money. They then make a decision that is honest and data driven because it would be silly to act otherwise (remember, their very existence is on the line). And all of this is done with speed because time is literally money.

Can the above approach be reproduced in large corporations? I believe the answer is yes. The first thing that must happen is that the people who make decisions must have a very personal attachment to the company and its people. If this is true, they will come to the table prepared to do whatever is needed to keep the enterprise alive and thriving. The next ingredient for success is the removal of decision layers. For any critical decision, all the decision-makers must be assembled in one place so that they can all listen together and make a call. This will prevent decisions from bouncing around in a maze of hierarchy and bureaucracy. The third ingredient is a culture of openness and honesty – or put another way, a culture of learning. Everyone must be willing to listen and then work together to make decisions based on the facts, even if they are controversial or run counter to past thinking. And finally, there must be an imperative towards moving forward rather than asking for more data and kicking the can down the road. It is better to make a hard decision immediately and cut your losses than to push out the decision and bleed to death.

As I think about speed, I am reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with a colleague who was doing a functional rotation at HQ. He had spent his entire career in the operations and his new assignment felt like a 180 degree change. Everything seemed slow. He was spending hours and days aligning and convincing a variety of stakeholders to get anything implemented. In contrast, the way things worked in the operations environment seemed so much more efficient. For example, if there was an issue in the factory, he would just walk over to where the problem was, assemble the right people, have a 15 minute discussion, get alignment on how to fix the issue, and then give the go ahead to proceed! His whole approach to decision making was driven by an imperative to keep moving and achieve results. For him, time was of the essence.

Times of crisis call for a different way of thinking. Can we learn from how things work in startups or in the operations environment? Could we use these learnings to speed up decision making during times of disruption, and potentially stave off an existential challenge?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Image by Jiří Rotrekl from Pixabay

Setting Priorities and Driving Focus During a Disruption

The coronavirus disruption continues unabated. States have declared emergencies, schools have been closed, concerts and sporting events have been cancelled, and countries have started closing their borders.

I must say that I have been somewhat bewildered by all this. If this virus is indeed so contagious, won’t it eventually get to me despite all of the precautions? If so, why not just let the transmission play out and get it all done with? What are all these actions trying to accomplish?

I found some answers when I read this article from NBC News that talks about the concept of “flattening the curve” during an epidemic. The gist is as follows. If the spread of an outbreak like the coronavirus is not managed, it can result in a very rapid increase in patients, which can in turn overwhelm the medical establishment and result in many sick people finding themselves without a doctor or hospital bed. Conversely, if we can somehow slow down the spread of the virus, we can reduce the number of sick people at any point in time and ensure that everyone gets quality care. This concept is illustrated by the graphic below where the dotted line represents the total number of patients that can be taken care of at any point of time, and the solid lines represent the number of patients seeking care.

Thanks to Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris for their image that I used as a starting point for this sketch.

The concept of flattening the curve is quite interesting and has some parallels in the world of business. The coronavirus pandemic has created a state of disruption that is somewhat similar to when a company finds itself in a state of competitive disruption, i.e., when well-armed and fast-moving competitors suddenly introduce innovative products or new business models and attempt to upend existing norms. In such situations, the incumbents are sometimes literally fighting for their lives and must act quickly, with clarity, in order to survive.

Unfortunately, being disrupted can be a very unsettling experience. If not managed well, everyone in the organization can get into a state of frenzy, ideas can start pouring in from all directions, and demands can build up so quickly that they overwhelm the people who are actually working hard in the trenches to resolve the situation. This is not a recipe for success. The way to succeed in this type of situation is to “flatten the curve” and give the team a chance to succeed. This requires slowing down and taking deliberate action rather than speeding up and bouncing all over the place. Feels somewhat counter-intuitive, right?

In crisis situations, leaders must slow down and listen, understand the situation from all angles, formulate a strategy, and create a clear set of priorities. The listening must be honest and unbiased, and the resulting list of actions must be practical and feasible. A clear north star must be established – everyone in the team should understand what the destination is, why the proposed path is the best one, and how they can contribute towards success. With this type of clarity, focus and empowerment, the team is set up for success and the results will follow.

I personally experienced competitor induced disruption at one point during my career and worked my way through it by implementing the above approach. It involved working with my stakeholders and partners to align on a common strategy, and then collectively forcing ourselves to down-select a critical set of projects and actions that would drive the most impact. Then we brought everyone into the loop, let them loose, and stayed the course despite all the distractions. I found this approach to be very effective in creating a highly engaged and collaborative organization that could contribute from the grass roots. While everyone on the team put in a lot of hard yards, they did not burn out because the expectations were grounded in reality and every little success created the special momentum that only comes from winning.

Does all of this sound familiar to you? Have you lived through a disruption? What worked and what did not? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Image courtesy of Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

The Coronavirus Disruption

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 vj@poweredfrominside.com

Image courtesy of CDC on Unsplash