Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

Look to China for a glimpse of the future

Technology has been a lifeline for all of us during this disruptive time, but how critical will it be in the new post-COVID-19 world?

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COVID-19 has forced billions of people to stay at home to keep safe and stem the spread of infection. This has led to the biggest social and economic shift of our lifetimes. 

Thankfully, modern technologies, from cloud computing to mobile networks and cashless payment systems, have mitigated the vast disruption to our daily lives. The ability and capability of existing digital infrastructure to enable remote working, learning, socialising, entertainment – even healthcare delivery – has been nothing short of remarkable.

“Technology and connectivity have never been so important. It’s not a communication line. It’s a lifeline,” said Karl Song, Vice President, Corporate Communications, Huawei at London Business School’s first virtual China Business Forum in May. 

Less contact. More tech

At the start of the year, video conferencing operator Zoom had 10 million daily meeting participants. At the peak of the lockdown in April, the firm counted more than 300 million participants in virtual meetings a day. Other cloud collaboration tools, including Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype and WeLink, have also experienced exponential growth.

Meanwhile, sophisticated Big Data and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, cloud computing, and ultra-fast, next-generation 5G mobile networks have facilitated many critical applications in the fight against COVID-19.

This is particularly the case in China, where the mass deployment of Huawei’s fifth-generation wireless networks has been a literal lifesaver in efforts to contain the spread of the virus in densely populated towns and cities.

Commercial applications using 5G included drones broadcasting public health information, disinfectant-spraying driverless vans, robots performing logistics and even medical procedures in hospitals to reduce the risk of contagion. The low-latency data transfer speeds of 5G also enabled digital temperature testing at hundreds of key checkpoints, such as airports and train stations, up and down the country, at such speed that passengers could be tested without being stopped or even having to slow down.

Online medical and healthcare platforms, like DXY, whose data was used to develop the first COVID-19 web-based tracker, and telehealth providers have also benefited from China’s emerging digital infrastructure. They’ve been able to ramp up service delivery to cater for the increased demand, as the Chinese government urged people to stay at home and hospitals turned away non-COVID-19 patients.

Song also highlighted how China’s flagship hospitals in major cities were able to share resources, including images and scans. Doctors in Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu were able to support those in Wuhan remotely thanks to the real-time transmission of large amounts of data, which then improved diagnosis and treatment of patients.

“Technology and connectivity have never been so important. It’s not a communication line. It’s a lifeline”

Karl Song

Vice President, Corporate Communications, Huawei

“Can you imagine if the crisis took place 20 years ago?” asked Arthur Wang, General Manager, VMware China. VMware is a global leader in cloud infrastructure and digital workspace technology for accelerating digital transformation, headquartered in the Silicon Valley.

Speaking on a panel on the theme of how technology will shape our future, he said: “The profound influence of technology on our lives is reflected in the 10 biggest companies in the world today.

“Thirty years ago, these were in banking, energy and pharmaceuticals. Now, they are mainly technology companies: Microsoft, Apple, Google, Alibaba, Tencent. This is proof that technology has changed our world. The pandemic will only accelerate this trend.”

This is not a drill

Wang believes the pandemic is just a “test” for whether people, enterprises, organisations, healthcare systems, even governments, are prepared for the rapid change and uncertainty that will become a permanent feature of life in the 2020s and beyond.

China is certainly betting that a sophisticated digital infrastructure, powered by 5G, AI technologies, cloud computing and Big Data, will not only help to revive its battered economy but could be the ticket to sustainable economic growth in the future.

The government has recently pledged to invest trillions of dollars in digital innovation and the rollout of key software that will boost the industrial internet and create the world’s first 100% digital economy and society.

“The pandemic will change our society and the mindset of decisionmakers deeply and profoundly,” Wang said. “It will be the trigger for companies to put more attention on agility, flexibility and resilience, which is not only important in this crisis. This kind of agility, resilience and adaptive capability needs digital technology as a foundation.”

Huawei’s Song also predicts that the digitisation of daily life is not for the short-term.

“The pandemic changed people’s lives in a very short space of time. It has forced people to adopt new things. It created new demands and requirements and industries have been forced to digitise. We think that after the pandemic, many new user behaviours, like online shopping, mobile payments and education, will continue.”

He added: “Today, we face a lot of challenges, from climate change, biodiversity loss, incurable disease, tsunamis and earthquakes. This is not the last time that we’ll face a major challenge for mankind.

“So, how can we better fight against these issues? The only thing is to rely on nations and companies working together and rely on technological advancement. For Huawei, we want to move innovation from 1.0 to 2.0 – from customer-need to vision-driven, to better respond to the challenge for all humankind.”

Song expects greater automation in the near-term as industry focuses on improving business efficiency and process while social distancing remains in place.

A digital future

Xing Sun, of AXA Next Lab Asia MBA2017 and Nick Ibery EMBAL2017, General Partner and Global Head of Health and Life Sciences Investments at NCL Technology Ventures, predict that digital innovations will continue to transform global healthcare.

Sun said: “During COVID-19, AXA provided telehealth services to an estimated 6.5 million people in Asia. In China, AXA partnered with online medical services provider Tencent Trusted Doctors to provide access to 450,000 professional medical doctors and psychologists for AXA customers and employees. This was not just a tactical response to COVID-19 but a reflection of a global movement of the insurance industry from simply issuing a cheque to customers to providing value-add services.

“Business school students are increasingly important for technology conglomerates and fast-growing technology startups that need people who understand structured innovation, fundraising and entrepreneurship”

Dickie Liang-Hong Ke (LBS Sloan Fellow 2014) technology veteran, mentor at Tsinghua Schwarzman College

“During the outbreak, we’ve seen a surge of usage of telehealth in China. It might taper off, but in my view, the telemedicine industry won’t go back to where it was. I believe the pandemic will act as a catalyst for the development of telehealth in China,” she added.

Meanwhile, Chenyang Xu, Co-Founder of Silicon Valley Future Academy and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Fellow, who has worked in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) for 30 years, believes that AI will be the catalyst for change in “almost every corner of our lives”.

He said: “AI has come in many waves and the impact has been limited until this wave. Why this wave is so different from the previous waves is because of three major factors.”

He points to the speed of machine learning, which is accelerating much faster than Moore’s law – the doubling of the number of transistors on a microchip – as well as the explosion of data as a result of the increasing number of internet-of-things (IoT) sensors, which is necessary for AI to perform more effectively. Lastly, he points to the algorithms, which are also improving as a result of the increasing amount of data available, to reach - in some applications - human-level performance.

“This is making the deployment of the current wave of AI economically compelling,” he said, adding that the three factors mentioned above will create “the most transformative force since the birth of the internet”.

Dickie Liang-Hong Ke (LBS Sloan Fellow 2014) suggested that the “intersection of technology” would hold the key to changing the way we live and work, with the advancements of AI-enabled technology together with the developments in cloud computing and 5G – 20 times faster than 4G – paving the way for commercial applications like autonomous driving and virtual reality (VR) without the need for expensive headsets.

Optimistic that the digital revolution will create new jobs, Liang-Hong Ke, a technology veteran, business incubator and corporate innovator, who has had senior leadership roles at Microsoft, Ericsson Business Consulting and Nokia, sounded a positive note on the future of business degrees, particularly with the increased frequency of shifts in buyer behaviour and the shortening lifecycle of technology.

“Business school students are increasingly important for technology conglomerates and fast-growing technology startups that need people who understand structured innovation, fundraising and entrepreneurship,” he said.

Wang agreed: “Modern industries need experts with a business school background. The mindset of the customer is changing. Buying behaviour is constantly changing. Enterprises need the innovation management and business management techniques to deal with this.”

 

The China Business Forum 2020 was organised by the CBF Committee, led by Gaby Wu MBA2021 and Yan Hou MBA 2021. Founded in 2012, the China Business Forum is one of the largest China-focused business forums in Europe.

This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event moved online for the first time in its nine-year history. With a line-up comprising Dean François Ortalo-Magné, four LBS faculty, five LBS alumni, and more than 15 world-class speakers, it attracted over 2,000 registrants and over 1,400 unique viewers. For more information, please visit www.lbscbf.com.