Hattan Ahmed, head of KAUST Entrepreneurship Center
Originally published, October 7, 2020, on Okaz website
COVID–19 has had an unprecedented impact on almost every aspect of our lives. Strict lockdowns have kept most of us cooped up at home away from extended families and friends; office spaces are empty; and the gears of industry have ground to an unavoidable halt.
While we clearly have a long way to go before COVID–19 is history rather than breaking news, a little pinprick of light has started to emerge at the end of the tunnel as many nations around the world are already easing restrictions and lifting curfews.
For the first time in many months, lives are beginning to regain at least some semblance of normality.
It's inevitable that people are, for the first time in a long time, beginning to look to the future. While parts of the short-term impact of the virus are behind us (for now, at least), there will undoubtedly be many long-term effects in the months and years ahead.
As discussed in my most recent article, black swan events throughout history have proven to provide fertile ground for entrepreneurs and genuine innovation. It's highly likely that COVID–19 will be no exception, but which areas are likely to see the most growth?
Humans are a tactile species, and our hands are our primary means of interacting with our environment. It isn't surprising that we have developed a world with the human touch in mind.
But during a pandemic, this design becomes problematic, particularly in public spaces, where shared touch points like door handles, lift buttons, and ATMs can become hotspots for transmission.
There may need to be an increase in the use of automation, voice activation and motion detection to get around this problem in the future. Or perhaps, a more elegant solution lies in the kinds of materials we use for commonly touched surfaces.
Here at KAUST, faculty member Derya Baran is working on antimicrobial materials for use in smartphone cases and screen protectors (which are other common bacteria hotspots). These kinds of materials inhibit the ability of microorganisms to grow, and it's easy to see how they could be used to reduce the transmission of bacterial infections and viruses if we begin to install them in strategic, high-touch locations.
While VR has been around for some time now (it dropped off the end of Gartner's 'Hype Cycle' chart back in 2018), it's fair to say the technology has yet to truly make its way into the mainstream. I believe there's a good chance COVID–19 is going to change that.
After all, when you aren't able to be physically present at a given location, the ability to visit a virtual version of it is the next best thing. In COVID terms, we can think of VR as a travel-free, socially distanced way to do almost anything.
It's an area we are exploring here at KAUST in the form of virtual labs. Lockdown created something of a divide among the disciplines we teach - those that rely predominantly on theory were able to be taught relatively effectively remotely. At the same time, those that have a substantial practical element were far more limited. As a science and technology university, a VR lab would increase the continuity of study for many of our students in times when being physically present on campus isn't possible.
Beyond the implications of lockdown, a fully-functioning, simulated virtual lab would completely change the way our students experience science experimentation. This solution would provide them with a risk-free sandbox through which they could explore their subject in ways that aren't possible (or at least, safe!) in the real world.
This is just one example, but similar applications are possible across many industries. The areas of training, communications, and recruitment are perhaps just a few of the areas that may see rapid growth as the demand for social distance grows.
Automation and robotics already play a vital role in factories and warehouses around the world. Still, there's a good chance the robotic revolution will further accelerate in the wake of the COVID–19 pandemic.
Until now, the trend towards automation has focused on the desire to reduce costs, improve efficiency, and eliminate human error. But with industries like manufacturing and construction now facing major challenges in trying to deliver demanding projects against a backdrop of new COVID–19 safety protocols, social distancing requirements, and reduced headcount, the case for automation is only going to grow stronger.
Robots don't catch diseases, and though they almost always need some form of human supervision, headcount could be drastically reduced as automation is increased. As a result, automation may be the foundation of cheaper, safer, and more resilient business models in some industries. The shift towards automation and robotics could also mean new opportunities and roles that do not exist yet. New types of jobs may be created for humans with the need to make and manage robots—such positions will require human-thinking and problem solving to enhance performance and operations.
With the global population continuing to grow, the world's mass transit systems run with a single aim in mind: Efficiency. That means transporting as many people at one time as it is safe to do so. We've all seen pictures of the London Underground or commuter trains in Japan that are packed fit to bursting. In the pre-COVID world, those images might have been comical, but they've taken on new meaning today.
Avoiding public transport altogether and traveling by car isn't so much a solution as accelerates another pressing problem - climate change. Solving the transport challenge is going to be extremely difficult and will likely require a variety of different solutions in tandem.
Work practices have, and will continue to change through significantly increased remote working, but it's likely we will also see widespread innovation in transport solutions.
This might also include driverless vehicles, transport optimization powered by quantum technology (though this still needs a little while yet), thermal imaging at stations to identify passengers with fever, or an increase in micro-mobility solutions like eScooters and bikes with the kind of built-in microbial protection mentioned above.
We are currently living through the eye of the COVID–19 storm. From our perspective today, it seems inevitable that our lives and habits will have changed dramatically by the time the wind and the rain die down. But all being well, there will come a time when COVID–19 is truly a thing of the past.
World governments and leaders of industry are going to have a decision to make: How much time and resources should be invested in protecting ourselves from the next pandemic?
COVID–19 may be the biggest global public health crisis in living memory, but it certainly isn't the first. Previous outbreaks like MERS, SARS, and Ebola failed to dramatically change the status quo, as they were experienced on a much smaller scale.
Ultimately, efforts to eliminate the fragilities that have been exposed during this pandemic are likely to come down to a risk assessment. Some areas may see a major change, while others may recede into the background as other, more pressing issues arise.
For now, there's real public appetite for change, and that makes for an exciting and globally important market for entrepreneurs to thrive.