Radically Digital: How COVID-19 will usher in a new breed of digital services

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Life during this pandemic is life in a tunnel. The sudden darkness that has enveloped us is shocking and disorienting. Governments, companies, and communities are in triage mode, reacting to the crisis with a range of frenetic measures and actions. And yet, we’re beginning to see a new world emerge that will be with us long after the pandemic has subsided. Already, the highly contagious nature of the virus has made the world radically more digital.

Many of the services that previously required co-location are rapidly moving online to enable us to follow advice and stay home. The Chinese government transitioned 50% of their health care tasks online during the epidemic. Millions of students, teachers, and parents around the globe are getting a crash course in remote learning. Fitness instructors and physical therapists are scrambling to offer online instructions. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) selected eleven suppliers to provide video consultations for primary care after a 48-hour tender. Changes that normally involve years of hearings, debate and red tape are unfolding in mere days.

We’re already seeing digital service innovations springing up to help make these dark days easier, and there’s so much more we could – and should – be working on. Here are some thoughts:

From Volunteer to Unicorn?

The pandemic has unleashed a rush of volunteering activity not just among health care workers but also in digital. Help with Covid, one of the clearing houses for volunteers, features numerous digital initiatives ranging from pivoting startups to loosely coupled activists. Not surprisingly, epidemiology has taken center stage: Can the data collected from wearable devices help to predict the virus’s spread? Other focus areas include diagnosis, data aggregation, remote monitoring, even locating service manuals for critical medical equipment. It’s easy to imagine how one of these projects could become the Square or Stripe of digital health.

Elsewhere, volunteers are coming up with new approaches to philanthropy that uncover the “underutilized assets” of our economy. For example, giftcardbank.org is asking people to donate gift cards to people most affected by the pandemic, trying to tap into the $3 billion of unspent gift cards that go to waste in the U.S. alone.

Digital Health on Overdrive

For obvious reasons, Covid-19 has put digital health into overdrive. Telemedicine has been around for over two decades but struggled to overcome the intrinsic inertia in health care. Now, some health care providers are doing more virtual visits in a day than they did in all of 2019.

Most of us certainly prefer the direct human interaction with a doctor over a video call. And there’s an argument to suggest that the elderly, who are most at risk from viral outbreaks such as Coronavirus, are the least likely to be able to seek and benefit from remote care. (Although the crisis is already converting some who now have no choice but to try digital options, which turn out to be easier and less scary than they thought.)

Smart digital solutions for home and telecare can improve the reach and effectiveness of modern health care systems and reduce their exorbitant cost. A physical therapist can watch a patient who lives in a remote area do his or her exercises after a knee replacement, improving after care and eliminating the need to travel.

In the future, patients will be able to do more tests and therapeutic interventions from home – from simple tests that might require a urine sample to more complex procedures such as home hemodialysis. A robust telecare infrastructure will be critical in making this happen.

An Education in Remote Learning

Coronavirus caught most schools and universities wholly unprepared to support remote learning. Students and teachers lack laptops, devices, connectivity – particularly those students of limited economic means, widening a divide in opportunity to learn.

However, the health crisis also presents an unprecedented opening to experiment with new, adaptive, interactive learning platforms. Digital learning tools may offer more personalized educational experiences – for example, more introverted students may find it easier to contribute in the virtual classroom. Additionally, teachers can see students do writing or math in real time and can offer immediate feedback, rather than being limited to grading once an assignment has been completed.

Keeping students engaged and focused in remote settings will require some fundamental rethinking of instructional methods, lesson plans, and educational technology.

Sales in the Radically Digital Era

How do you acquire new customers if you cannot meet with them? The pandemic presents a whole new challenge for marketing and sales for industries that have heavily relied on in-person sales interaction, from car dealers to real estate brokers.

Again, China is giving us a glimpse into a potential future. Some Chinese car companies have switched to a “fully contactless” sales model: People can customize and order vehicles online, and the cars are dropped off at the home address for a test drive.

Lessons from Estonia

A look to Estonia, often referred to as the world’s most digital country, gives us a sense of the type of infrastructure that we need to build in response to the pandemic – and a preview of what life might soon become.

The tiny country of 1.3 million people supports electronic voting and digital prescriptions; electronic medical records and tax filings; digital birth registry and remote learning. Only marriage, divorce, and the transfer of property require a person’s physical presence. Virtually all medical and pharmaceutical records are digitized, and Estonians can control which medical professionals can access their information.

To make sure that this digital infrastructure benefited all citizens, the Estonian government not only put computers in every classroom but offered free computer training to adults.

Estonia is the first radically digital nation.

The Tasks Ahead

Radically digital solutions have the potential to help fight the pandemic, address climate change, improve health care, transform education, and make organizations dramatically more efficient. They may also widen the gap between rich and poor, and increase the potential for governmental surveillance and interference.

This is a technology transformation but it’s so much more than that: Enabling radically digital solutions involves comprehensive changes in our behavior and culture.

Creating an effective and fairly distributed digital ecosystem is going to be one of the central tasks of our time, and crucial in fighting this and future pandemics.

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