The digital lessons from COVID-19

3rd April 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has already had a profound effect on how we leverage and continue our societal digital transition. What are the key lessons being learned? What type of new digital deal must prevail to adequately power a post-coronavirus world? By Bas Boorsma, Vice President, Cities Today Institute

A questionnaire has been making its rounds on social media asking: ‘Who has been the key enabler of digital transformation in your organisation?’ The multiple choice options are:

  • A: The CEO
  • B: The CIO
  • C: Coronavirus.

Beyond the quip, it is remarkable how much of an impact COVID-19 has already had, accelerating digital transformation out of necessity. And for stewards of digitalisation within these same organisations ‘never waste a good crisis’ has become a mantra.

This is no less true for our communities at large, for city communications, and for municipal and governmental organisations. Remote working has become the default. Video communications have been embraced at a scale that is unprecedented. And a larger suite of digital solutions helping us manage our teams, our processes, our communities is being discovered at a level few digital evangelists could have imagined just months ago.

Schools would not be able to continue operations without such tools. Italian hospitals would not have been able to converse and collaborate on a daily basis with Chinese experts, and government operations would have ground to a halt. In March, the BBC ran the headline: ‘What if this had happened in 2005?’ Indeed.

As we plough forward looking beyond the end of the coronavirus pandemic, as we prepare to mitigate the economic fall out, as we find ourselves in a position to ride the waves of change and develop key components of our post-coronavirus world, what can be distilled from the digital push we are currently experiencing, and what are the fundamentals for our communities, our cities, and our local and national governments to get the next chapter of digitalisation right?

  1. Vision

Governments and key leaders in public sector domains need to have a better articulated vision as to what type of digital futures they wish to embrace and what type of modes of digitalisation they wish to endorse. In tandem, these same leaders will need to be more articulate as to how to prepare the realisation of that vision.

Some have come better prepared to the current crisis than others. Yet, it has become distressingly clear how underprepared many communities, governments, hospitals, and schools ended up being, no matter how many have talked the talk for years. We need, what I have called, a new digital deal, and we need it sooner rather than later. Not digitalisation for the sake of digitalisation, but to help us mitigate the current crisis as well as the ones that will follow, and to ensure societal resilience and well being of tomorrow.

2. From optimisation of old models to digital by default

For many organisations, including governmental organisations and municipalities–yes, even for those working on smart city endeavours–digital often ended up being used to optimise legacy models of organisation, systems of the past, and inherently inefficient tools.

Digital to many, continued to be ‘nice to have’ features allowed to land on top of an old world, driving a number of efficiencies at best. Those more advanced on the digitalisation journey, those that operate in a mode of ‘digital preferred’ or ‘digital by default’, were the ones best prepared to meet the current crisis at hand. Digital Preferred or Digital by Default should be the mode to prepare for and, as such, the guiding principle for city operations and government at large as we prepare for a post-coronavirus world.

3. Upgrade your infrastructure, upgrade your networks

As a CIO of one of the largest universities in the USA stated: “Our networks were designed to deliver Netflix. However, the demand we now see requires high-end symmetric connectivity that can deliver on communications that are mission critical to society. Many organisations are currently scrambling to get online as a consequence of this mismatch.”

As the locked-down world immerses itself in high end video communications, those communities that have invested in broadband infrastructures will fare best. For the ‘fibre fundamentalists’–those who have been advocating fibre-powered symmetric connectivity for as long as 20 years–it’s time to wear that t-shirt that states, ‘I told you so’. The call to action must be: get your network infrastructure in order. Wireless is not the solution to it all: in the end a wireless bit is a bit looking for a wire. Plan, act, deploy. Nothing could be more important.

4. Resilience 2.0

The coronavirus crisis hasn’t bottomed out, and yet it has already become a (re)discovery to all how vulnerable we are in terms of our personal health, our economic mechanisms and the tools to keep society running.

Digital evangelists of the recent past have often advertised how ‘connectedness’ would help boost resilience. “Yes, but…,” has to be the answer at this point. Classic lessons learned in achieving resilience befittingly come from the world of battling pandemics and contagion: connectedness is all important–information, data, analytics, effective community communications–all of these are king, more than ever.

However, in battling a virus, there is that other component that is equally relevant, that is the ability to isolate, or operate in self-reliance. This truism and insight applies to many mission-critical tools, infrastructure and services in our communities. For example, take energy grids. Energy grids become more effective, efficient and sustainable by making them ever more connected. However, truly smart and resilient energy grids are designed as a series of interconnected micro grids that are able to continue to operate in isolation if the main grid fails. This very design, this balance of connectedness and isolation, needs to serve as a guiding design principle for the digitalisation journey of our communities.

5. Health, hygiene and digital

September 11th triggered a global response in physical security. The economic depression that commenced in 2008 resulted in a vast array of economic counter-measures. Coronavirus will no doubt trigger a demand for innovations in the domain of public health and hygiene. Zero-touch building access or elevators, self-monitoring of health status by digital means, and digitally informed hyper local dynamic quarantines, are mere examples of what is likely to follow. Let’s get ready.

6. Spend stimulus wisely

In order to help overcome the previous economic crisis, the Federal US government (among others) forged generous stimulus packages, with much of the government investments made in infrastructure–that is traditional infrastructure. The advice must now be: do not waste a good crisis. Do not solely invest in yesterday’s infrastructure, prepare for tomorrow’s war, not yesterday’s, and prepare the grounds for the sustainability and well-being of our communities tomorrow. Ensure a sensible percentage of infrastructure investment tied to near future stimulus goes digital.

7. Digitalisation we can trust

A very large majority of people living under coronavirus related lockdowns have willingly given up on many of their liberties. That has applied to our physical movements. It has also applied to our digital selves, our data, the whereabouts of our smart phones, the analytics run on top of the global orchestra of social media messages. Much of that does not and should not become a default way of operating.

Governments responding to a crisis is one thing (and largely understood). Governments slipping into a default mode of peering into citizen data is much less of an acceptable future forward in a free and open society. The same applies to private sector practices and services. On 31 March, it was reported that the New York Attorney General was set to investigate possible privacy holes in Zoom, the video communications tool that has gone stellar in a matter of weeks as lockdowns began to take hold in cities. By all standards, it was an exemplary move.

We must prepare for digital leaps, yet these must be leaps we can trust. This, too, is part of the new digital deal we must now forge for ourselves.

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