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The edge of disruption

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Davey Jose
Thematic Analyst, Disruptive Technologies, HSBC

Coronavirus made 2020 a disruptive year, but it could be a tipping point for digitalisation. Much changed: employees are working from home, students are learning online, and consumers are buying more than ever on the internet. Meanwhile e-sports and virtual events provided entertainment and telemedicine offered health advice.

And much of this change will persist when the pandemic is over. It could lead to the next phase of technology-led growth around remote access. Four key themes stand out – connectivity, automation, experiential events and digital health. But while they may drive digital growth, their disruptive nature raises environmental, social and governance implications, including privacy, energy and labour issues.

Not all technologies are at the same level of maturity and ready to disrupt at scale, even if they are at the edge of disruption. HSBC’s Disruption Framework classifies innovations into phases, including the ‘real applications’ phase, when a technology becomes adopted in trials or a small scale before it is ready for full roll-out. Then as the innovation is scaled up, it starts to disrupt the way business is done – not only in intended ways but with unintended consequences. At this point, the technology is firmly in the ‘new normal’ phase.

Connectivity

Connectivity is the first of our key themes. Today’s economy is, arguably, powered by data, bandwidth and processing technologies, yet only 30 per cent of software is currently in the cloud, leaving significant upside.

New connectivity technologies like 5G and space-based internet can bring the other 50 per cent of the world online and into a growing economy, thus driving equality. And low-earth orbit satellites can make working from home easier in rural areas.

However, the further rise of connectivity could have intended and unintended implications. These include a possible backlash – ‘cloud wars’ – stemming from privacy and ultimate data-ownership issues. Environmental concerns include decarbonising the datacentre infrastructure, and risks from the internet-of-things.

The edge of disruption (duration 3:05) Davey Jose explores the potential economic and social impact of new technologies

3D manufacturing might reduce carbon dioxide emissions but could impact jobs, tax and trade flows

Automation

The next theme is automation, which is now driven by a combination of robotics, artificial intelligence and sensors that improve productivity. It is already well established in many supply chains to ensure faster delivery times, reduce costs and improve the customer experience.

Drones, autonomous vehicles and 3D printing should make supply chains more resilient and localised. Drones may make last-mile delivery cheaper and distribution by automated vehicle may be faster, aided by cleaner, hydrogen-powered heavy-goods vehicles. And with only 5 per cent of warehouses currently fully automated, automation has a role there and in digital factories, farms and commercial transport.

However, augmenting warehouses with technology may replace manual human labour, and there are cybersecurity impacts in automation. And while 3D manufacturing might reduce carbon dioxide emissions in many industries, it could impact jobs, tax and trade flows.

Experiential events

Experiential events or transactions – whether music, newspapers, payments, social interaction and education – have moved from physical to digital. The transition has been very disruptive for businesses, including retailers.

Future trends will likely focus on building interactions between retailers and consumers while shopping: expect to see greater personalisation driven by artificial intelligence technologies.

But the next wave of virtualisation may involve experiences, through virtual or augmented-reality headsets, then glasses. While this might impact business travel, property and entertainment venues, it might destroy the digital-screen market.

Digital health

Digital health has lagged behind the other themes, but with the world ageing, healthcare costs rising and a shortage of doctors, there is growing scope for telemedicine and other futuristic preventative healthcare such as genomic medicine.

But again there are implications. Could telemedicine leave parts of the population behind? Is all health automation good? And does bespoke medicine like genome sequencing raise questions of bias, privacy and discrimination?

Virtual reality reaches a tipping point

COVID-19 is accelerating adoption of the technology for work and leisure, says Davey Jose.