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COVID-19, 5G, and the indomitable human spirit

The COVID-19 global pandemic is giving us a peek into what a technology-enabled futuristic society might look like, when we let innovation prevail.

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

The flurry of precautionary measures imposed in Singapore since early February to contain the spread of COVID-19 brought back vivid memories of SARS in 2003. Over a weekend, building managers were imposing mandatory temperature screening for all visitors. Businesses were implementing work-from-home arrangements to avoid physical congregation. And while schools in Singapore have not been shut as part of COVID-19 preventive measures, unlike when we were battling SARS, they have been stepping up on e-learning arrangements to reduce the need for face-to-face interactions.

For over a month now, businesses in Singapore, including Deloitte, have applied protective workplace strategies including team segregation, rotational work-from-home schedules, and constant updates to ensure the well-being of our colleagues. This climate of no-hugs has encouraged, more than ever, businesses and even countries to embrace technology and we are getting a glimpse of the future of work, the future of education, the future of mobility, smart cities, smart governments, and possibly every digital future we have imagined for a futuristic society. Alas, the future of digital hugging is still an unknown….

Hello? Hello? Can you say that again?

One could say that the first week of work-from-home arrangements was about cultivating new work habits, particularly habits around having virtual meetings. While online tools are common in today’s workplace, we braced for the inevitability of dropped internet calls, choppy video conferencing, and lagging access to company databases, basing on China’ s experience with the surge of remote workers using these systems at a time when a national lockdown led to the homebound of millions of Chinese. Digital nomads might have familiarized themselves with some of these problems, but many previously office-bound people have yet to experience a work schedule that’s fully reliant on home internet.

As we were forced to choose the Skype call over a face-to-face coffee chat in what some have dubbed as the biggest work-from-home social experiment, it became clear to us that while some types of meetings could be done effectively online, others require spontaneous body language and interaction to forge relationships, and to allow group creativity to flourish. Certainly, this would be important for virtual classrooms and training as well, especially where learning is best achieved through social play.

The measures that we had to undertake seem to be advancing the future of work, and yet we wonder: If we cannot get past the phase of a simple teleconference without asking each other to repeat every other sentence every once in a while, how can we begin to consider holograms of our colleagues beaming into our living rooms?

The importance of 5G infrastructure

With the prospect of fifth-generation wireless technology (5G) on the horizon, one can hope that it would make using existing digital tools a more seamless experience. More importantly, for a truly better future of remote work and school, the promise of 5G should push us to consider how we can elevate the experience of a virtual meeting in ways beyond our current imagination. Not only can we expect the internet to become faster, latency—generally experienced as the lag time for an internet-enabled device to respond to a user request—is expected to reduce tremendously from the average 60 milliseconds with current 4G connection, to less than 1 millisecond when 5G is deployed for public use.

In Malaysia, telecommunications giant Maxis is already showcasing the potential of 5G in education with its eKelas program, which brings digital learning to rural and underserved parts of the country. At the end of 2019, the program concluded its first month-long Virtual Reality biology course, where students interacted with a remote teacher to explore the human cell through vivid experiential lessons. Demonstrations like this remind us that better connectivity has wider and more profound implications than just a good user experience; the potential for 5G to work effectively to deliver the future of education can level the playing field and be a catalyst for social mobility by improving access to education and jobs.

Managing innovation with a long view

4G connections took a decade to become dominant. In a similar fashion, the rolling out of 5G networks is likely to take years, with geopolitics, price wars and difficult economic considerations around upgrading infrastructure being some key issues to contend with.

Figure taken from Deloitte Technology, Media, Telecommunications Predictions 2019- Southeast Asia Edition

Still, COVID-19 has shown that it is never too early for us to sow the seeds for the future. Weeks into the outbreak, the ebbs and flows of the global spread continue to captivate us, as we watch how the different countries respond to this unknown virus. A new public order where social distancing is desirable is emerging, and businesses that have a solution for this sudden change in the landscape have stepped forth with their new propositions.

In China, e-commerce companies are putting autonomous delivery vehicles on the streets, bringing a solution that was still under development to the frontlines. For years, the idea of autonomous vehicles (AV) has engendered a lot of aspirations for the future of mobility, with skeptics bemoaning the endless toil of experimentation required for an ever-increasing amount of sensors, components, and network infrastructure needed to perfect the AV experience. Ready or not, under unusual circumstances like today, the “imperfect” AV provides the immediate solution to keeping some semblance of business-as-usual for everyone; it is keeping some businesses alive, and getting necessities delivered with minimal physical human contact.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, an artificial intelligence-powered temperature-taking tool was developed in just two weeks by public healthcare technology agency IHiS, together with healthtech startup KroniKare. Called iThermo, it uses a smartphone fitted with a thermal and a laser camera, and can measure 8 to 10 people per minute as they walk by. At a subscription of S$1000 a month, it provides an affordable alternative to high-end temperature screeners, and a more efficient method of screening bigger crowds than the current popular arrangement of temperatures being screened manually with a forehead thermometer. iThermo was adapted from KroniKare’s patented wound-scanning technology, which IHiS was already familiar with because of ongoing collaboration. By early February, it was already certified as a medical device by the Health Sciences Authority.

The quick implementation of new solutions is possible thanks to the pipeline of innovation projects and the pool of trusted partners being maintained by these providers. For governments and businesses to act effectively on new solutions—in times of crisis, and also opportunities—the building blocks for innovation always need to be in place.

Combatting COVID-19 with resilience

With more signs pointing to a prolonged COVID-19 situation, industries beyond travel and hospitality are going to start feeling the ripple effects of changing business and consumer behaviors. From navigating the financial and operational volatility and distress, implementing practical workplace strategies, to making sure the people around us are taken care of, businesses and governments can take decisive action and respond to uncertainty with resilience.

In a fortuitous and unexpected way, COVID-19 has given us unprecedented real-life experiment of the futures we have drawn up scenarios and contingencies for. It has shown us where modern technology is able to help us resolve the constant tension of wanting more and less human interaction in various situations. It has also shown us how a steadfast belief in maintaining a robust ecosystem of thoughtful and competent innovators—even when there is no pressing need for change—can be crucial and important to solve humanitarian crises. Perhaps, the best way to be prepared is to always strive for a better future, even if we cannot fully control it.

 

About the authors:

Richard Mackender leads Deloitte Southeast Asia (SEA) Innovation, a cross-function, cross-country unit dedicated to driving innovation as a long-term value creator across Deloitte’s Southeast Asia operations. This article was co-written with Chen Liyi and Lim Shu Jun, who are members of the team.