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Outlook 2025: where are we? where are we going? – III

The graphic represents on the left the pre-pandemic relations – mutual influences – among technology, Society, Economy and Ecology, on the right the post pandemic situation (actually expected). Image credit: FDC IEEE

Technology no longer lives in its own “space” as it used to be in the last century. Today its evolution is steered by economics, society and the general perception of what should be done, what the priorities are.

The reason is simple: in the past technology was scarce and whatever became available was useful to solve a problem (actually, most engineers, scientists in the past were addressing ways to solve problems). Nowadays we have plenty of technology to the point that the real issue is not lack of technology but to determine which one to use to address a problem. It is not longer having a tech to address a problem but find one that would result in a solution that is competitive now and in the following years from economic and societal standpoints. We know that whatever tech we are going to adopt, in a short while there will be a better one, at lower cost and higher performance: adopting a technology means to invest resources (money, skill, processes) and we need to recover that investment. If a new technology becoming available next year can deliver a much better solution (performance/price) our competitors will have the upper hand on the market… So what tech and when to chose are the real challenges for decision makers today. More than that: the market success of a technology will steer investment to research and industry application thus accelerating its evolution: because of market success that technology is bound to become better and better in shorter and shorter time.

The graphic summarises the perception of several industry key people interviewed by the Industry Advisory Board of the FDC IEEE on the relation of tech, economics, society and ecology matters before and after the pandemic.

What comes up is the increased relevance of eco-aspects on the overall landscape. As an example the greater focus of politics and society on green sustainable world will lead to economic aids for the application of green tech. In turns the increased market adoption will have industry focussing on bettering those technologies that over time will deliver better performance at lower cost.

As shown in the graphic the feeling of industry is that in the present stage of fighting the epidemic and recovering from it the eco-aspects have increased their impact on decisions but still economic drivers are the ones dominating (the economic slice of the diagram has grown after the pandemic, less, in percentage, than the eco-slice but still it shows a growing relevance, whilst the technology area and societal area have decreased – notice that this is due, graphically, from the increase of the other two areas).

The interviews took place between June and October 2021. However, it is interesting to see how the recent Cop21 has seen the debate exactly on economy versus eco. Eco does not come cheap and even if in some areas the balance may be even there are parties benefiting the shift and parties losing. Look at the decision pushed by eco consideration to stop the use of fossil fuels (mostly coal and gas). This, in the medium / long term may result in a zero economy change (no gain no losses) because alternative energy sources will progress to reach cost parity with coal and gas (although in a short term the energy cost will be raising – as is the case today and as it will be through 2023). However, Countries like Australia and China, that leverage on local coal mines, will clearly lose competitiveness also in the long term, hence their opposition to a short term stop of these energy sources. On the longer time frame the increased economic sustainability of alternative sources will decrease their competitive gap, thus their push for a delayed switch.

Also notice that banning gas creates short term issues on the adoption of solar and wind energy sources since gas is used to step in once those sources are not available (night time, no wind…). The nuclear alternative requires a decade in planning and deployment (see the actions being taken in UK).

Overall the pandemic has been affecting very specific technology areas, in healthcare, workforce management, green tech, leaving basically unscathed the overall landscape. The Digital transformation is accelerating, taking along with it those techs that are supporting the transition and those needed to work in the cyberspace dominated operation (sensors, data tools, AI, …). The present time is still characterised by strong turbulence, the real lasting impact of the pandemic won’t be visible before the second part of this decade once it will really be over and business / society will have to live in a new normal and most important will have to decide what the new normal should be.

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.