The pandemic’s silver lining is the chance to experiment with technologies and co-operative approaches across borders that could lead to safer, more sustainable and more inclusive global futures.
The theory of punctuated equilibrium, proposed in 1972 by biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, holds that populations of living organisms tend to experience a significant amount of evolutionary change in short, stressful bursts of time. 1Gould and Eldredge argued that evolution isn’t a constant, gradual process—it occurs during episodes when species are in environments of high tension or especially crisis.
The human species is going through such a period right now: the covid-19 pandemic. The profound pressures that individuals, organisations and societies face in this crisis are accelerating the fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), blurring the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological worlds.2 The current state of emergency compels us to consider the necessity of structural shifts in our relationship with the environment and how we conduct ourselves as a global community.
The pandemic is forcing all of us to appreciate how much we rely on 21st-century technologies—artificial intelligence, the internet of things, social media, digital learning platforms, augmented and virtual reality, drones, 3D printing and so much more—to keep us healthy and to transform economies. The unprecedented context is simultaneously driving us to become far more reliant on breakthrough digital, biological and physical technologies and far more inventive about how we can use these emerging technologies to create value in new ways.
More than 7bn people live in countries that have implemented extraordinary restrictions on the movement of people,3 and more than a third of the world is under stringent lockdown.4 In response, systems that have resisted change for decades have gone virtual. Video conferencing as the primary means of co-working? Old news. Remote learning? More than 1.5bn students are doing that today.5 Organisations from all sectors are building new technical capabilities, harnessing digital technologies and evolving their business models at a pace unimaginable only months ago.
The virus is crowding new technology paradigms into healthcare everywhere. Networks of epidemiologists are tracking the coronavirus using low-cost gene-sequencing technologies6 which are also driving some of the most promising vaccine candidates.7 Researchers and medics are using machine learning to search repositories of scholarly articles published about covid-19, such as the 47,000 articles indexed by the covid-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19) Explorer.8 Informal networks of hobbyists and manufacturing firms are using 3D printers to make tens of thousands of face shields to help protect front-line medical workers.9 And in an unprecedented move, Apple and Google have partnered to invent a contact tracing application embedded in the operating systems for smartphones.10
This explosion in innovation started when covid-19 threw humankind into uncharted waters. During historical periods where the equilibrium has been dramatically disturbed, organisations and economies have struggled to survive.
But we are technological beings who purposefully—and at scale—adapt the environment to our needs. Scientists have called our current epoch “the Anthropocene” because humans are the overwhelming force shaping the planet’s ecosystems. Hence, those who successfully adapt won’t just thrive in the accelerated 4IR—they will shape it.
The question is, into what?