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Digital awakening: the new shape of the future

The digital shift we are seeing globally is not new; rather, it is about waking up to the way the world has been changing all along, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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We all know the world has changed. We’ll never go back to the way the world was before COVID-19. Meetings, travel, shopping, learning, will all adapt to the so-called new normal. 

But the truth is, the world was always about to change. And, even once we settle down into the new normal, we will always be on the edge of change. 

It may also seem an obvious statement now, but every time I made that statement over the past 20 years, I had to prove it with elaborate sets of statistics, charts and scenarios. Now, for the first time, I don’t have to present a single graph to convince anyone. 

The real new normal is not a changed world, but rather that we are all part of the change, and we can all see the change. 

Not so obvious is the trend that underpins our awareness of change. For many years it was a buzzword designed to sell technology products and services. It even sounds like something a salesperson would push at you: “digital transformation”. It generally refers to the digitalisation of processes used to run an organisation or industry. 

It is the older sibling of digitisation, which merely converts existing information from paper to digital. Ultimately, digitalisation means that anything you do, can be connected to anything else you do, or anyone else does. 

When organisations move from digitisation to digitalisation, it suddenly becomes possible to do anything online, from live collaboration on a document, to sharing a live event instantly with 10 people or 100,000 people. 

Because this is not only about change, but about change suddenly being palpable, a better term for it may be “digital awakening”. 

There are schools and universities around the world that were able to move into online teaching and learning almost overnight, because digital awakening meant they were prepared for it, even though they had no idea in advance what the “it” was for which they had prepared. 

In South Africa, most businesses were caught flat-footed when this new world became visible. But many also thrived. And not only the big names. Regular businesses thrived because their level of digital awakening meant they could continue operating almost as normal. 

This tells us that the crisis has not suddenly digitally transformed the world. But it has highlighted the extent to which that is one of the keys to thriving in the new normal. 

This is what “digital awakening” really means. It is the dividend of digital transformation. 

It also gave us a clue to the scope of change we can expect through the next decade. 

In 2018, in partnership with South Africa’s largest market research operation, Ask Afrika, we found that only around 4% of South Africans shopped online. In 2019, that went up to about 6%. 

We expected that it could reach 10% this year, as companies invested more in the online world, payment options improved, and delivery services became more efficient and more cost effective. 

In February 2020, we were on track for that growth in penetration. In March 2020, the world changed. Suddenly shopping online was no longer about convenience. It became a matter of life and death. A survey by global media research company Nielsen showed that a huge proportion of South Africans were shopping online by the end of April. No less than 37%, representing a six-fold increase over the previous year. 

More than a third of consumers embracing the digital world. Some because they are forced to do so. Many because it makes sense. And in the business world, the digital embrace makes even more sense. 

And as it makes more and more sense to more and more people, that is when we will see the real shape of change. That is when the true shape of the future will emerge. 

The further significance of this digital readiness lies in the rapid pace at which the underlying technologies are evolving: 

  • Artificial intelligence isn’t only about self-driving cars: it is about businesses that will almost drive themselves, as basic customer care becomes automated, giving human beings time to devote more attention to solving complex customer issues. 
  • The Internet of Things isn’t only about vehicle tracking or smart lightbulbs: it’s about automatically and efficiently managing traffic, electricity, the water supply – on a personal level and at a city or even national scale. 
  • Advanced healthcare isn’t only about consulting a doctor via zoom: It’s about artificial intelligence and the internet of things combining to diagnose you, and even to recommend treatment, in partnership with medical professionals. 
  • Online shopping will not be only about how fast you can deliver, but about how much you care for your customer. 
  • 3D printing isn’t only about making plastic toys at home: it is about moving manufacturing closer to the consumer, reducing carbon footprint, and creating jobs near where people live. 
  • Nano-technology does not mean you will pack more and more into your smartphone: it means the handset may vanish altogether as all its functionality can be packed into an earphone, sunglasses, or just a ring on your finger. Your voice, rather than your fingers, will control your world. 

Those will be elements of the new normal by the end of this decade. And they all have one thing in common: they are made possible by digital awakening. 

· Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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