Covid-19: towards a new digital society for everyone

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They say that a week is a long time in politics, but a week seems an eternity in a Covid-19 world. Not only do the days seem to merge, but the news comes thick and fast – whether increasing numbers of infections as the virus continues to spread, or the numbers of jobs lost, or businesses not able to recover and bounce back in the new economy.

There is no time for strategising, or for constructing complex business plans – only to action the next most obvious action to keep in the market. 

A little over a month ago, we published a paper that looked at Digital Transformation and Payments in a world dominated by the battle against the virus. Last week we assembled a panel of a range of experts, and spent an hour discussing what we had each seen from different perspectives. The panel consisted of a number of senior executives and academics from across the fintech, digital and technology spectrum – including analysts, networks, communities and suppliers.

Changing the way we work

We started the debate with exploring how businesses had reacted, and how they had taken advantage of digital technologies, both in terms of the way they worked and the way they have responded to the crisis. I think we have all been involved in a number of conversations around the effectiveness of tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams over the last few months in maintaining the ability of professional services firms to continue to operate and collaborate.

Research has demonstrated that many organisations have continued to operate effectively, but there is a balance that needs to be struck in order to avoid Digital Weariness and maintain socially present contacts.

There was a feeling that community spirit has become stronger, that competitive barriers and profit are perhaps now less of a motive, and that there is a greater appetite to help others and the broader community.

Yet, there is also an argument that there is the potential to increase digital exclusion, impacting the supply communities (food, retail, hospitality) that have built up around offices and also those parts of society that still did not have access to the technology – not by choice, but by social exclusion.

The economic impact is stark, and corporates are managing financials tightly, forecasting revenues and cost lines as best as able, and minimising spend on everything. Against this backdrop, the case for treating employees with humanity is stronger than ever. The societal changes of spending more time with children (and yes the challenges that home schooling or monitoring presents) and reducing commuting time were seen to perhaps be a fundamental change to improve society.

Accelerating Digital Transformation

Beyond the way we work though, everyone agreed that they had seen a huge acceleration in digital transformation, driven by the necessity of survival. It wasn’t that the actions we had seen were necessarily innovative or new, more that organisations had no choice but to adapt and drive through what were traditionally longer investment cycles and business cases in a matter of days and weeks.

Where organisations already had a major online presence, it was often acceleration of demand resulting in onboarding and capacity, or supply chain challenges (we all experienced the shortages of toilet rolls, barbecues, weights, and various others goods). Where organisations didn’t – then they had to quickly pivot solving consumer experience and logistical challenges, in many cases addressing just in time supply chains and working smarter and more effectively locally.

Where consumers had little choice but to adopt new ways of engagement, it was felt that there would be a mix of those who would remain converts and those that will return to old ways. And whilst cashless adoption continues with relentless pace, we have yet to resolve what to do for those who do not have access – the unbanked.

A focus on financial inclusion is necessary to engage the big swathe of society that do not have access and to effectively support those organisations and communities dependent on cash such as charities and those increasingly struggling with poverty.

The conclusion here is that, whilst covid-19 has accelerated adoption and increased access for many (by necessity), it also has the potential to further exclude those most in need of support.

At a corporate level, there are many businesses still with legacy applications and estates that have proved too complex or too expensive to transform. This has led to reduced agility and adaptability to respond rapidly to changing needs.

We see more urgency now: prior resistance to change driven by risk assessments, cases for change or experienced workforces is now being bashed to one side by a need to survive. Sectors such as government, healthcare, transport and insurance have to take the opportunity to drive revolutionary change away from technologies that slow change, have to accelerate decision making and recognise that not all of the bets they make will pay off – yet many will. Experimentation, innovation and co-operation are more vital than ever in driving digital evolution.

The challenge is that “many businesses are driving on still looking in rear view mirror”, expecting to ultimately revert to legacy ways, claiming legacy regulation and compliancy as excuses to revert.

New technologies such as AI and blockchain, or communities such as fintech are leading the trojan horse charge into the enterprise, but success will be dependent on driving resolutely forward. This new digital and data driven economy can engage the enhanced changed mindset of the public to help power an evolution that benefits more. The question becomes how to engage all – including those most vulnerable?

Supporting those most vulnerable

In that regard, the definition of vulnerability has changed, especially in the sense of delivering services to all. It is not only about getting access to technology for all but using it anywhere – for example, “how do you run a call centre from home”.

The consequences of that are not just digital – fast broadband access for all as a utility, a human right – but also logistical, the economies or facilities set up around occupation in the offices versus homes, yet now homes versus offices.

A flexible, holistic view is needed for the country – in regard to both public and private services. We need to ask the question as to how digital can drive effective connectivity and localisation of economies as we rebuild in the new abnormal.

Re-imagining rather than just improving

So far, much in the crisis has not been the development of new or innovative technologies, more a scrabbling around to use existing technology to enable survival – ordering groceries online for those most at risk as the most obvious example, or mass video conferencing both in and out of the workplace.

Yet, rather than technology enabling an approximation of a roundtable discussion, or a conference event, or shopping, or a talk on gardening, how can we re-imagine and make it better – increasing access and benefit for more of those excluded.

How we can help that? What decisions of the past would we make differently today? Does HS2 or universal broadband access for all better enable Britain to bounce back in the new world economy? As one of our panellists said: “Digital access is moving from being a utility to something approximating a human right!”

Without such, there was an opinion that the digital divide will continue to grow – rapidly & starkly. As we said earlier, the impacts will vary greatly between those who have and those who have not – tensions will grow and the consequence for the very fabric of communities could be dire.

The question then becomes what we can proactively do to better engage, to re-imagine more positive outcomes and increase belief. There is a growth in the last few years in the criticality of social purpose, of societal value, of giving back – and that has been heightened by this crisis.

Last year’s survey of US CEO’s stating that profit was perhaps not the most important criteria in a capitalist economy is being backed up now by actions rather than just words – at least in some quarters.

Purpose above Profit

The “purpose motive is gaining traction over the profit motive”, and this enables the trust gap to be reduced – both at a corporate brand and potentially government level. In previous work on “digital society”, we found in our global survey that the value of digital assets increased with regular use where there was a time and convenience benefit to the individual, or indeed there was a personal health benefit outcome.

Digital adoption does therefore now have an opportunity to remain sticky, given that we will have all relied on it massively more so in 2020 than before. As citizens (and consumers) we will perhaps more greatly value those corporations that are exhibiting purpose, social consciousness and inclusive digital adoption and engagement – a corporate digital responsibility as such.

If the profit motive dominates purpose, then problems may result. In driving for financial inclusion for example (employing digital technologies), how can we ensure that all get fair value and are able to improve their personal financial wellbeing, even if simply through improved awareness and access?

Now more than ever there does appear to be a growing community driving towards the realisation of a more equitable and authentic digital society, providing we can spot ethical washing – purpose used to sound good and gain competitive edge vs. actually making a difference.

This also challenges us to think about brand affinity and trust. The traditional banks have retained loyalty and trust despite the emergence of the often more consumer friendly neo-banks and challenger banks. The traditional banks know they have to be more effective at innovating, yet are encumbered by legacy.

Loyalty will only work for so long when the consumer wants access to money easily, cost effectively and without having to expose themselves to risk. Yet a cashless society, or the advent of mass adopted digital currencies, is still a jump too far for many.

Maybe we should imagine, one day in the distant future, how we will look back and reflect on this time. Many will recall some positives in amongst the angst and trauma that all have been touched by – more time together as families, cleaner air, less commuting.

Yet of course for each positive there will be many more challenges – mental health and wellbeing, consequential health crises, loss of family, friends and jobs. Which of these each of us will remember will depend on our own experiences.

Perhaps we will reflect on the ease and time saving of ordering all our shopping from home, of managing our money on our mobile, and getting video assessments from our doctor. Maybe our new-found relationships with our local wine merchant or brewery, our local nursery or garden centre, will begin to revitalise a better balance between localisation and globalisation.

Certainly, it seems critical to realise that we need to equip our local economies with the tools that allow them to be locally brilliant and compete on a local and national stage, and beyond.

Enable our local merchants to simplify the online and mobile experience, our local tradesmen to engage and travel in an effective and trusted way. Many of these organisations may need to come together in communities to take advantage of digital solutions that exist. We have seen this through, for example, the UK Catapults or Innovate UK, promoting connectivity between innovative solutions providers and representatives of these industries.

In conclusion

As I sit in a broadly empty office, looking out over a train station that trains occasionally pass through, yet I see no people, I am reminded that we have lost that social contact we crave.

Yes, we may have gone to work to work, but also to see colleagues. We used to go for a meal out, not just to eat, but for the experience and the contact. We visited a gig or a theatre or a theme park for the thrill of the experience, for moments of magic. Memories that seem long gone.

Digital has enabled many things over the last few months, but it has not necessarily enabled the thrill of going out. This Saturday night (27 July), I’m going to a rock gig. It’s live. It’s not recorded. The bands will be there. I won’t.

I’ll be sat at home, laptop streaming the TV quality pictures (allegedly) through my projector and me – on my own, probably – headset on imagining I was in Birmingham. Will it work? I’m intrigued. Will it be as thrilling as the last time I watched the same band (Stone Broken) live in October 2019. It seems unlikely. And no, I’m not going to wear my VR headset, even if I could stream it through that.

The rate of technological change is of course relentless. Most organisations struggle to adapt to take advantage of it at the same pace. Consumers adopt consumer technology quickly, and gaps appear. In this new touchless society, the thing that we are each most comfortable with is .. as always .. our mobile phone.

Corporates need to quickly catch up and ensure that they are present in their customers hands, and that their customers hands can touch as little as possible – whether selecting items in a shop, checking in to a hotel or visiting a football match (remember doing that?).

In doing so, we can drive continued engagement and participation. We can provide more access, can work on solutions and brands that increase the value of trusted solutions – whether the trust is in information, in payments or in people.

Corporations must become “promulgators of trust”, yes acting with more transparency, but importantly behaving with community improvement and societal benefit as goals in addition to profit and survival. These are the brands that will sustain.

It is not just about covid-19. The pandemic provides a momentous challenge but there are others to come, such as climate change. The continued wave of automation too presents challenges, needing to find an appropriate balance between the things that machines are best at and the things that humans are best at – achieving a symbiotic, complementary relationship perhaps rather than one that tips us into more dystopian realms.

Finally, to return to the music, I loved the summing up by one of our panellists. “I’m of the age where I was shaped by punk rock of the late 70s. Fintech is the new punk rock. It shook up the music movement, but it was about much more than music. It invited people to take part and challenge conventional thinking. Yes, it didn’t always live up to everything it promised, but I look back fondly.”

I’d like to think that digital, and fintech, is absolutely the new punk rock. Challenging, difficult to understand at times, happening at an intense and crazy pace, but making waves and opening wide a much broader scene in which people can play.

It is up to us, as leaders and visionaries in the art of the digitally possible, as promoters of the fintech revolution, to participate, support and ensure accessibility for as many as possible – from global corporate to local SME, from financially privileged to the unbanked and excluded.

Let us all continue to collaborate, and in doing so help our economy, our digital economy, bounce back strongly in an inclusive, benificial for all in our society.

Many thanks to our panellists, Stephen Ingledew, Dr Karen Elliott, Paul Connolly, Erica Stanford , Miranda Sharp, Ben Brabyn, Wendy Merricks, Andy Campbell, Toby Lewis and our host David Daly.

This post was first published at LinkedIn.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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