NEW YORK, NY – MARCH 31: General view inside Grand Central Terminal during the Coronavirus pandemic … [+] GETTY IMAGES
The ongoing global pandemic is causing deep reflection about what this will mean for how our society functions. In a matter of weeks, we have seen working from home skyrocket to nearly 30% of Americans. Public transportation and traffic in major cities decreased dramatically as offices, factories and schools have shut down. In Europe and China, satellite images are showing lower levels of pollution as a result. If we wanted an experiment to see what the future of work would look like in a truly digital world, this is it.
Many of us have logged into Zoom (NASDAQ NDAQ:ZM) and Slack (NYSE:WORK) and adapted to our home and work lives coming into greater contact with one another. But as we look further out – to the point when the immediate crisis subsides and we see the long lasting effects on our lives – what could this mean for how our society functions? And how might our living and work environment evolve as a result?
The Internet-based Society (Almost)
Five years ago, remote working on this scale across multiple industries would have seemed unfeasible. That signifies the huge shift that has taken place, both in terms of technology (cloud technology, apps, remote working tools), but also infrastructure, including faster wi-fi and phone data.
Internet providers currently appear to be coping with the increased and shifting demand as people work from home. However, the roll-out of 5G has arguably become even more paramount for these companies; it will increase connectivity, particularly in remote or underserved regions, and provide the necessary infrastructure for the Internet of Things in a more decentralized society.
Even once the immediate crisis subsides, it seems likely that there will be a lasting impact on work habits. More people will feel that they can be successful working from home and may negotiate for it as a benefit with their employers (particularly if wages stagnate in a recession). Employers, for their part, will realize that cutting costs on office space outweighs any challenges to productivity. That may sustain an increase in remote working tools, such as Zoom and Slack, although no doubt there will still be a return to old working practices in many companies who don’t have the option to work remotely.
What is clear is that we will need flexibility in our technology and infrastructure to cope with the change in demand from diverging work practices between remote workers and commuters. That will likely bring new innovations and solutions across commercial real estate, education, information technology, HR, telecommunication and energy.
A Step-Change in Smart Cities
If more activities need to be done remotely, then we can expect to see greater demand for smart city infrastructure.
Social monitoring technologies, including cameras, drones and security systems, will become more pervasive. Both as footfall decreases in certain areas, it will create more security risks for businesses who want to protect their premises. We may also see authorities use this technology in future health emergencies. In the U.K., local police have already been using drones to enforce social distancing. A more permanent response could see the use of sensors with data analytics to monitor for foot traffic in certain areas, such as shopping districts, and warn people if the crowds are too dense.
A picture shows a sign warning of police drones in operation in central London on April 6, 2020, as … [+] AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
It will take a long time for society to adapt to these measures; there is an inherent and understandable distrust of governments monitoring its citizens, and public groups have already opposed Smart City projects where data monitoring is used.
However, the use of drones and sensors to monitor infrastructure will be more widely accepted as a way to reduce the need for essential maintenance workers to go outside. Both during health emergencies, but also in extreme weather events, which are likely to become more common. Rather than having to go on-site to check an out-of-service telecom pole, for instance, a worker will be able to check what the issue is from their smartphone – and possibly even fix it remotely.
A Shift To Cleaner Transport
With fewer people commuting to work or visiting urban areas for shopping, restaurants and leisure, as some of these services switch to online or delivery, we may see a permanent shift in demand for transport.
If vehicle traffic is reduced in city centers, that will leave more room for green highways: cycle paths and pedestrian routes that will enable people to move around the city and get exercise, while still maintaining a reasonable distance from each other. For municipalities and governments, that will affect urban planning, including changing road layouts, widening sidewalks, providing more alternative transport options in collaboration with private companies (e-bikes and e-scooters), and improving street lighting.
Providers of mass transit – train and subway companies in particular – may be expected to reduce overcrowding and create more distance between passengers, although it is hard to see how these measures will be effectively implemented. In all likelihood, demand for mass transit will grow if fewer people have a reason to own a car for commuting, and instead can rely on car services or rentals for occasional trips.
An empty New York Subway car is seen on March 23, 2020 in New York City. Train cars are currently … [+] AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Learning From This Crisis to Address Climate Change
If anything, the coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of listening to the experts and scientists. The biggest threat facing society is climate change. In a survey of 800 of the world’s political and business leaders by the World Economic Forum in January 2020, climate action failure, biodiversity loss and extreme weather topped the list of risks in terms of likelihood and impact.
As a CEO of a publicly-traded small-cap company, and as a citizen of Canada (which has a very large oil and gas industry), any actions we take must be in consideration of the economy and the way the world runs today. However, there is an opportunity here to change human behaviors and implement clean technology solutions that will make these effects more permanent.
We’ve already seen the powerful effect that reducing traffic and industrial activity has on air pollution levels in a relatively short space of time. We would also need to see a worldwide economic impetus for the adoption of clean tech, including hydrogen fueled transport, electric vehicles, renewable energy, carbon capture and storage and cleaner fuels across industries. In doing this, we will have the chance to change our course before the effects become unmanageable – in other words, to flatten the curve of global temperature increases.