How digitization and innovation can make the post-COVID world a better place

  • There is huge potential for digitization and innovation to add value to society and to contribute to public health, the environment and biodiversity.
  • A successful digital transformation will involve empowering people to work in new ways, including reskilling and upskilling.
  • Cross-sector collaboration will play a pivotal role in allowing us to ‘build-back better’ from the current crisis.

For some time now, we have been in a new stage of transformation where corporations and countries are focused on equipping themselves with advanced technologies and new business models in order to stay relevant and competitive in a fast-changing world.

COVID-19 has presented one of the most formidable challenges in recent history to governments, businesses, and society. Many consider it to be the ultimate tipping point for the 21st-century. The pandemic is a wake-up call for companies to have a plan to deal with disruptions to ensure business continuity. It is also a watershed moment that will signal the fast-track acceleration process for digitization throughout society.

In my view, these two goals are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I think there is enormous potential for digitization and innovation to add value to society and to mitigate important issues, including public health, our environment and biodiversity.

Reimagining different sectors

Technological advances and innovation can play a key role in helping us reimagine how different sectors, ranging from healthcare, telecommunications to agriculture, can leverage technology to make a positive impact in society.

For healthcare providers and public health institutions, outbreaks will continue to be a threat but it is possible to mitigate the impact of outbreaks by harnessing big data and AI to predict and forecast epidemics, as well as to source medical supplies. There are promising examples where big data and the insights they provide have improved epidemic readiness and tracking.

In Thailand, via the Digital Council of Thailand (DCT), C.P. Group and True Corporation is working alongside other Council members to launch digital platforms and applications to help source medical supply donations as well as to track, trace and contain the spread of COVID-19. We have also been working with HG Robotics to deploy robotic solutions at 41 hospitals around the country to enhance communications between medical professionals and patients under quarantine. Each robot can help reduce actual physical contact by up to 70 cases per day.

A key element to business continuity and economic resilience in this crisis is telecom and network providers maintaining bandwidth for consumers and businesses. There is enormous potential for tech to help connect people during lock-down periods, and the shift to remote working and e-learning will likely extend beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Collaboration with governments, financial institutions, and regulatory bodies will be necessary to build the right digital infrastructure to serve society.

In the area of food supply chains and retail, integrating breakthrough tech into agribusiness, farming and e-commerce will help bring more transparency and traceability into value chains to serve customers and society in a more responsible and sustainable way.

For example, we have seen how satellite systems can help farmers better locate suitable arable land for farming, how the Internet of Things (IoT) allows irrigation systems to better manage water utilization, and how blockchain brings transparency into supply chains by enabling buyers and sellers to trace agricultural goods throughout the production process.

Continuous R&D in satellite technology, biotechnology, nanotech and robotics has also shown that technology, when properly deployed, can have an enormous impact on helping us to better understand animal diseases and the life cycle of commodities to ensure that farms are more productive and sustainable.

Upskilling, reskilling, and training the workforce

The digital transformation is as much about transforming business processes as it is about empowering people to work in new ways. A key priority for us at C.P. Group is thus to prepare our workforce for the future and enable them to adapt to the new realities of the world and the industries in which we operate. This includes providing training and reskilling opportunities for our employees, and actively involving all business units to ensure our company from top to bottom is driven by innovation and digital upgrades.

This is particularly relevant for Southeast Asia, which is now in a golden era for tech start-up growth as people’s livelihoods improve. The internet economy in Southeast Asia will reach US$100 billion this year and triple to US$300 billion by 2025, according to a report jointly issued by Google, Temasek Holdings and Bain Capital. From 2015 to 2019, the online population in the region surged from 260 million to 360 million, of which about 90% use mobile internet.

Providing a supportive ecosystem for start-ups is hence incredibly important to encourage more entrepreneurship and innovation in the region. This involves providing entrepreneurs with incubation programmes as well as support in terms of funding, skills development, and exposure to business networks. This was what motivated us to set up Southeast Asia’s largest start-up ecosystem, True Digital Park, focused on creating an environment that encourages connectivity and knowledge-sharing

Public-private partnerships

Upgrading the infrastructure around digital and innovation is critical for business continuity and for our future society to thrive, but it cannot be achieved by the action of one company or country alone and it requires global public-private partnerships.

As we tackle COVID-19 together, many technology companies are already taking action to directly support the healthcare industry, preserve jobs and safeguard their own workforces and communities, among many other notable efforts.

While the private sector will need to plan how they can use technology to stay agile and resilient, companies also need to work closely with governments and international agencies like the World Economic Forum to develop a set of global norms and broad-based policy frameworks to support the transition to a 4.0 world. We will continue to raise the awareness of this through our current partnerships such as United Nations Global Compact and Global Compact Network Thailand to galvanize more public-private partnerships in this area.

By harnessing the potential that exists in cross-sector stakeholders collaborating with each other, there is a real chance to radically rethink value chains to make sure a digitized, connected world will facilitate society as we “build back better” from the current crisis.