2020 is a survival-mode year. Our reality has more similarities to the movie Contagion, than an-yone would have ever imagined. Still, being in the middle of a pandemic, it is not the best time to reach conclusions as we have to deal with many uncertainties, at least until we have a prom-ising treatment. However, it is of paramount importance to reflect on what has been done and what should have been done in a different way, in order to mitigate the risks and smooth the negative consequences of an emergency.
Working in the field of emerging and exponential technologies for so many years, I find myself wondering why we had to go through such a pandemic to realize the potential of science and the tools we already have available but we do not use. What if we had adopted a more radical view in the margin of technological exploration, and a more aggressive position in policies that accelerate the technology transfer from the lab to the market? Then perhaps the current mac-roeconomic shock would have been less deep and potentially less lethal.
Our world has been transformed; global challenges need common responses, and decentralized tailor-made solutions. In the digital era social platforms empower communities, and now more than ever we feel closer to each other although we are in “house isolation” and “physical dis-tancing”, since we face a common health threat that makes no exceptions or discriminations, and has no borders.
It is already proven that the businesses and public organizations that have digital capabilities and, most importantly, digitalized processes are significantly more resilient and agile in their responses to the shifts in the demand and supply curves, meaning higher efficiency in the preservation of both their value and supply chains. Even more dramatically, public organizations with strong capacity to collect and leverage big data analytics where much more effective to tame the pandemic dynamics, act decisively where the need really was, and ensure socially re-sponsible behavior.
We do not know the exact social, organizational, financial and economic consequences of the pandemic. We know, though, for sure, that the effect will be significant and most likely we are entering into a “new normality”. The shape of this “new normality” will be determined by our understanding of the very notion of safety. Safety in terms of the forms of human action and collaboration, in terms of decision making procedures, in terms of trusted systems, in terms of privacy linked with social responsibility, in terms of institutionalizing crowd-sourcing in scien-tific research processes in order thousands of people to work together on urgent solutions, in terms of strength of the supply chains and in terms of demand management in times of emer-gencies.
The first reflection from the crisis is that we learned – in a violent way – the difference be-tween digitization and digitalization. Having in place digital capacity and tools – or being digit-ized – does not mean that we are safe. We need to have also procedures in place and an opera-tional capability to merge these procedures with digital tools – or to be digitalized.
The second reflection is that decision making without strong big data analytics is very weak. This means that we need public organizations – especially health related organizations, to have ca-pabilities to collect data and analyze, with deep and reinforced learning techniques, high quali-ty of data. This means that we need to create reliable data governance methods with strong but agile privacy safeguards, to ensure high quality and robust algorithmic decision making to help health authorities in their work, to prevent the collapse of supply chains for vital instruments and inventories and to ensure a high quality monitoring of the emergency, in a level of granu-larity that is operationally optimal.
The third reflection is about the way we work. I have already made a comment on the need to design procedures. It is not as complicated as it sounds though. At the end of the day, we all work either on repetitive tasks, most likely without the need of collaboration, or on creative tasks, that we need “studio” types of work so as to ensure collaboration. Every “teleconference” type of work can be easily replicated with simple digital technologies in these two ways of work. The important here is to be able to visualize the contributions we make as individuals in a group effort. In this simple architecture we can resolve comparatively easily the problem of “scale”. This allows us to enter in a new era of crowdsourcing which is vital when many “brains” should work on one critical solution, especially in the fields of biomedicine and pharmaceuti-cals, and when significant public money is involved and the “patenting” is neutralized. EU should develop this capacity with secure procedures and in collaboration with other non-EU governments.
The fourth reflection is about the optimal use of budget for R&D and the acceleration of tech transfer, especially in moments of emergency. EU traditionally has very weak tech transfer ca-pacity. It funds, rightfully, long-run research projects that the market fails to support, but the patents it produces are few and the number of marketable products is disappointing. At the same time, many of the technological projects funded by the EU budget lack clear KPIs making the speed of technological adoption very slow. The current pandemic forces us to think system-atically about these issues.
It is in the center of the work of STOA in the European Parliament to speed up all the four areas of concern that I stressed, to define priorities, procedures and evaluation standards. We need to prepare the ground for standards that are based on our European values and could be adopt-ed globally.
To conclude, the COVID19 emergency has changed the priorities of the EU budget in the era of “new normality”, and the digital transformation is higher on the agenda, including a new para-digm of R&D in the fields of biotechnology and health management. Other priorities like the so called, “Green Deal” should be integral in a new paradigm of sustainable economy, rather than a distinct endeavor. Similarly, exponential technologies like AI, blockchain, big data, cyber-security, hyper-performance computing or edge computing, should be aggressively promoted not in isolation but in convergence with each other.
I am convinced that Technology is a significant part of any solution related to the health and quality of life of the Europeans, the agility and resilience of their jobs, the prospect of their welfare and wealth in the post-crisis period, the coherence of our society and our role in the global economy in the post-crisis years. We only need to act together and be smart on it.