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Preventive measures implemented by countries worldwide to halt the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak are forcing us to make fundamental changes to how we live, from work to play, business to education, policymaking to legislation. How long these measures will remain in place is hard to say, but it is widely feared they could be here for quite some time and will likely have a permanent impact on our lives.
While we must take every sensible precaution, we cannot indefinitely pause all economic and social activities. One way or another, life must go on, which is why it is now critical to find innovative ways to circumvent this pandemic or any other potential disruption.
We often hear that the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is a force for disruption, posing a threat to the livelihood of people and the economic prosperity of society. However, current circumstances are portraying a very different picture, where 4IR technologies are presenting solutions to restore many parts of our daily lives, helping us overcome unprecedented challenges.
For example, technology and digital connectivity are allowing many people to work remotely and meet virtually, while education systems are offering children distance learning from the safety of their homes through webinars. Moreover, while we have been buying products on e-commerce platforms for many years now, this trend has recently been overtaken by online shopping for household essentials — which may very well become the norm in our post-pandemic world.
Not only does the 4IR allow us to get on with our lives, but big data is also enabling us to triangulate the spread of the coronavirus, providing vital information that helps governments and healthcare systems react effectively and rapidly to contain the outbreak. Furthermore, 3D printing is also being used to ramp up production of essential medical supplies at short notice and that might be difficult to source through traditional supply chains, such as surgical masks, ventilator components, and diagnostic kits.
There is no doubt that 4IR technologies enable business activities to continue while maintaining the discipline of social distancing. For example, blockchain technology enables us to securely sign contracts without the need of being physically present. Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be used to power the factory floor and allow remote decision making, while robots can ensure production remains ongoing without exposing the workforce to any risk of infection. By combining the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) with cloud computing, global manufacturers could also remotely access a virtual command and control center to monitor and operate multiple facilities from anywhere in the world. At the current pace of adoption of these transformative technologies, we may very well end up ride-hailing an autonomous vehicle in the very near future, and thereby avoid being within close proximity of others who are contagious.
Therefore, we must embrace a new digital DNA for our society that will probably need to be fuelled perpetually with creativity and innovation. After all, innovation has proven to be an effective tool that can solve pressing challenges, and it remains to be the driving force behind the advancement of humanity and the acceleration of global good.
The Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations call, amongst 16 other objectives, for the good health and well-being of all. The current global health crisis has lent further urgency to actions that require us to be united and resilient. The pandemic will undoubtedly shock the manufacturing sector in the near term, and even force the temporary or permanent closure of many factories. At some point though, this global health crisis will come to a formidable end. The disruption to supply chains will shift countries towards more domestic production and capacity, building programs for their local workforce.
In the longer term, the crisis will spur more innovation to advance digital technology, leaving a legacy of fundamental change to the way many things are made, used, or disposed of. This is a new era of digital restoration — one that will not only restore our social and economic networks but will also pivot us towards a digital world that is empowered, enabled, and expedited by 4IR technologies to restore global prosperity.
Badr Al-Olama is Head of the Organizing Committee of the UN-backed Global Manufacturing and Industrialization Summit.