Where Tech Meets Community – Harnessing Tech For Good

People keep saying it – everything has changed

The speed and scale of the COVID-19 outbreak took the world by surprise and in just 100 days by storm – dramatically affecting how we live, work, socialize, move, teach, govern, fund, build and provide care. And it is beginning to look like it will impact daily life for much longer than most of us could ever have anticipated. COVID-19 is the third coronavirus to become an epidemic this century, alongside multiple waves of Ebola and two animal influenzas. But this time, in an historic first, half the world has been living under some form of lockdown – probably the single most extensive and collective act ever undertaken by humanity. So, what can we – must we – learn today to help us better prepare for further disruptions in the future? For me the key lesson is coming together.

Although much about this virus currently remains unknown, there are already key learnings emerging around its management – clear consistent communication and speed in response clearly matter in its containment alongside early and extensive testing, and physical/social distancing plays a pivotal role too. Further, the global nature of COVID-19 means no country can be seen in isolation. With the different approaches adopted, from the US, to China, to Europe – local, regional, national and international cooperation, organisation and coordination to share both ‘what works… and what doesn’t’ is key. Integrating knowledge rather keeping it in silos and sharing facts not speculation, unintentionally or otherwise, can help save lives.

Trust is also an imperative to our success in this fight. Trust that government is working for your good and that governments are working together; trust in our fellow citizens on following the rules, trust in technology to support us, and trust in the proper treatment of personal data, especially in relation to the rapid rise of tracing apps, which must balance personal privacy with insights for the collective good. Establishing structures that facilitate the use of data for the ‘common good’ can greatly help here and with AI in particular, international cooperation to address policy, governance, regulatory and technological challenges. But above all, it is trust that is a founding principle in all relationships and with people being asked to trust new forms of technology every day, it is the anchor that allows us to advance social progress. Trust in each other – and trust in tech has never mattered more.

Demand, supply, ethics and sustainability have also come to the fore over this time. We have seen a significant drop in pollution worldwide and the pandemic has both caused and exposed fault lines in supply chains and systems and in some cases, a re-personalisation of our relationship with them. Take food as an example, possibly for the first time in a long time, people are stopping to consciously think and appreciate, where did this come from? Similarly around clothing, people across the world are also commenting whether this could be the beginning of the end of so called ‘fast-fashion’. We are re-evaluating our relationships.

And beyond this, I see that the COVID 19 pandemic is proving to be catalyst in developing our understanding and perspectives across a whole range of areas:

– a new level of appreciation for roles that are often taken for granted

– the strength we all have in community – what bonds and connects us

–  an extended role for science and evidence based decision making in public policy

–  the need for expanded global collaboration, organisation and leadership

–  a revaluation of global supply chains and embedding sustainability by design

–  the value in an ethos of cooperation above competition for social good

–  the impact of AI and Machine Learning data analytics on decision making

– a new net-zero: the redefinition of the (shared) value of data

– the art of the possible: hybrid ways of working and learning

– digital equity for all as a renewed global priority

– greater awareness of the capacities of technology as a unifying force for good

– the level of innovation that can be achieved during emergency contexts

– the power of people, education and integrative technology in partnership

Indeed, it is when talent, technology and collaboration come together, that incredible advances can be achieved and at scale. This is exemplified in the solidarity of the technology sector to make a difference, bringing people closer across work, learning and entertainment despite lockdowns, and combating the virus through telemedicine and AI-assisted diagnosis, alongside helping to accelerate the research and drug development innovation curve.

A notable example is the rapid establishment of the HPC Consortium involving 11 tech firms assisting federal government, industry and academic leaders across the world with access to expertise and high performance computing capacity. With a mobilization such as this, it is no surprise that by early April 2020, 50 potential vaccines and nearly 100 possible treatment drugs were in development. A feat that would have been unimaginable just a few weeks ago and emergency initiatives and innovations like this can also lay the ground for long term change, from business and education, to healthcare and government.

We have also seen organisations stepping up to provide flexible financing and/or licensing terms, alongside opening-up access to their products and services. A great example was IBM providing its premier Spectrum Protect Plus solution free to eligible customers for 90 days to help business’s better navigate the COVID-19 challenge, especially around modern data protection and business continuity requirements. Additionally, IBM expanded its 2020 Call for Code Global Challenge to tackle COVID-19 by supporting developers and problem solvers to build and scale open source solutions that can make an immediate and lasting impact.

It has also brought to the fore the global imperative of addressing the digital equity gap so that everyone can benefit equally from the opportunities digital brings. A fantastic example of actualising that here combining skills build with primarily COVID-19 focused project developments – and where I have been delighted to be a mentor and semi-finals judge. And finally, with people longing to socialize, we have also seen technology stepping up to keep connectivity alive, creativity in flow and spirits uplifted – the very ethos of people and technology in partnership.

Concluding, I believe COVID 19 is the defining event for an entire generation. This pandemic should serve as an urgent reminder to support, come together and achieve all the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goal’s and their 169 targets — including one calling for universal health coverage with safe, effective, quality and affordable vaccines for all. COVID 19’s legacy will profoundly change many aspects of our way of working, learning and living, changing the very nature of our society, some of which will understandably be challenging.

But there will be positives too, indeed we must ensure this is the case. From recognizing what value really means, to our collective strength, innovation and resilience under pressure and the integrative power of intelligent technology to be harnessed for good. Although we have all been experiencing degrees of isolation, it is through collectivism not isolationism that we can achieve the meaningful and at times what feels the impossible – it is through this ethos we can beat COVID 19 too. Above all, I believe this pandemic serves to illustrate how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other and the reality of how precious life really is.

About the Author

Prof. Sally Eaves is a highly experienced Chief Technology Officer, Professor in Advanced Technologies and a Global Strategic Advisor on Digital Transformation specialising in the application of emergent technologies, notably AI, FinTech, Blockchain & 5G disciplines, for business transformation and social impact at scale.

An international Keynote Speaker and Author, Sally was an inaugural recipient of the Frontier Technology and Social Impact award, presented at the United Nations and has been described as the ‘torchbearer for ethical tech’ – founding Aspirational Futures to enhance inclusion, diversity and belonging in the technology space and beyond.

Featured image: ©Urupong