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Lights and Shadows of Covid-19 on Digital Transformation – X

The Covid-19 Host Genetics Initiative provides an environment to foster the sharing of resources to facilitate COVID-19 host genetics research. Image credit: Covid-19hg

4. In addition to the previous questions, any other comments?

The fight against COVID-19 is being fought on several directions:

– decreasing the probability of contagion, usually through social distancing and isolation of potential foci of infection. Technology can help through sensing distance (Bluetooth based apps), data analytics (tracing of people’s movement and broadcasting of warnings when an increased risk of exposure is detected) and quarantine enforcement surveillance. Technology is available now, we do not need to wait for any evolution, as it has been shown by the adoption of tracing and tracking apps in China, South Korea and Taiwan first (and now in several other Countries). The problem is not tech, rather its adoption and this requires a conducive cultural/societal environment. As it was remarked by Derrick the Kerckhove in the IEEE webinar we hold last April the cultural set in the Far East Asia is quite different from the one in the Western world Countries, our being based on the mindset of “sin” (a personal issue) their on the mindset of “shame” (a societal issue). Hence in the Far East Asia requiring people to use a tracing app is a societal demand and as such it is culturally accepted. On the other hand in the Western world Governments have to “suggest” the use of the app whose adoption has to remain voluntary. This in turns create the issue of ensuring a sufficient adoption to make it effective. Adoption shall be driven by — guess what?- advertisement, through the use of “influencers” since imposition is almost impossible. Technology is not the issue. Let me put it blunthly: most people (I am part of those) do not understand the technicalities of ensuring privacy, of having data in a central location or distributed at the edges, of cryptography applied to the data storage versus applying it to the transmission channel and so on. People react on hearsay and perception. With part of the social and press screaming about privacy violation, democracy in danger… only advertisement can work (I feel sad stating this, I would love to be proved wrong, please comment).

– finding possible preventative measures (specific vaccine, pre-existing vaccines able to decrease susceptibility…). Technology can help in various ways and it is already widely used. The sharing of information/data is crucial to speed up the process both in discovery and testing effectiveness and safety. There are now several unanswered questions on why the Covid-19 seems to hit more certain areas than others, why its symptoms are severe in some people and almost invisible in others. Some are speculating that specific genome characteristics may be at the root of these differences and work has started to sequence the whole population genomes in Vo, one of the small cities hit in Italy. These data will be used by researchers to have some answers emerging (data analytics) and will feed into a transnational cooperation project to investigate the relations among the coronavirus and the genome, the “Covid-19 Host Genetics Initiative”.

-balancing the above measures against economic and societal cost. This is actually the big issues facing political decisions and we can see the different approaches followed in different countries. Notice that most measures today are based on an over-reaction to the problem, just in case. We are using a cannon to hit a mosquito. If we look at figures, even though the number of affected people is staggering, the ratio of affected people vs population is very very SMALL and yet the measures implemented affect ALL the population. Technology may help in limiting the number of people affected by the containment measures and this would decrease the economic and societal impact. The help comes from better tracing and focussed measures, as pointed out, as well as from the re-engineering of supply and distribution chains, from the reconfiguration of manufacturing processes. This latter is a very complex task, since our society and its economic underpinning is very much connected. Stopping a cog is most likely affecting the whole machine. China has been able to halt activities in the virus affected region by fencing it because the rest of China could provision all required goods to that region. That involved significant reshaping and reorganization of supply and delivery chains. Not so in Europe where basically each Country was playing an independent game and the lock down of a Country could not be as strict as it was in China since you had to keep the essential logistics running. As an example, the lock down in Italy kept 40% of the people on the move, just to ensure the provision of essential goods to the population.

The re-engineering of supply and value chain will become a major topic in the post pandemic world, with plenty of technology (artificial intelligence, data analytics, data lakes, robotics) involved. It will likely become one of the main drivers for Industry 4.0. Whilst supply and delivery chains have been designed, and refined, for optimisation they will have to be re-designed for resilience and reconfigurability as well.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.