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GeoTech Cues April 13, 2020

Expert survey series: COVID-19’s potential impact on global technology and data innovation

By Stewart Scott

The global uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has inspired much speculation about the future of geopolitics, technological progress, economics, and culture. While the arguments behind these forecasts are important and compelling, surveying expert opinions for consensus is also critical. Accordingly, the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center submitted a questionnaire to more than 100 technology experts to record their expectations about the impact of COVID-19 on innovation in five key fields: the future of work, data and AI, trust and supply chains, space commercialization, and health and medicine. Participation was voluntary and anonymous, and each question had a participant response rate over 90%.

Key Findings

The vast majority of respondents believe that the coronavirus pandemic will accelerate innovation significantly in four of the five fields, while having little impact on space tech innovation (see figure 1). Respondents also believe that developed countries will be at the forefront of this innovation, while in the Middle East, Latin and South America, and Africa, innovation will be mostly unaffected or slightly hampered. Russia, an outlier, is expected to benefit only slightly (see figure 2). 

The experts also anticipate that the most impactful innovations in the next two to five years would come from developments related to data and AI as well as to health technologies. They expect significant innovation in the future of work and in supply chains, too, but are slightly less optimistic. Only a tiny fraction of respondents believes that space commercialization technologies would see meaningful innovation in the near future (see figure 3).

Finally, respondents believe that innovation will not be distributed evenly when it occurs, either geographically or technologically. Their answers indicated belief that the same countries—the Middle East, Latin and South America, Africa, and (to a lesser degree) Russia—would miss out on innovation in the next few years. Most interestingly, survey respondents also expressed a belief that the countries manifesting innovation will do so in starkly different fields. Western nations—the US, the UK, the EU, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—are expected to see the most innovation in medical, supply chain, and work-related technologies, but China (and Russia to a lesser extent) is expected to see more development in the data and AI fields and less in medical technologies or the future of work (see figure 4).

Limitations and Implications 

In many ways, these results are unsurprising. As the virus imposes heavy demands on healthcare systems, strains international supply chains, and changes the way we work, it will spur innovation in those areas. Likewise, as cloud infrastructure is forced to cope with increased traffic and public health professionals strive to harness massive datasets to fight the pandemic, developments in the fields of data and AI will accelerate. With changing priorities, innovation in space is likely to stagnate or at least remain unchanged. 

Acknowledging the limitations of this survey is also important: there is significant overlap between the technological fields identified here. For example, innovations in data and AI will inevitably affect other fields—most likely, automation and medical technologies. For that reason, the most exciting technological developments driven by the novel coronavirus will probably come at the seams of this survey’s categories. 

Analysis of the regional-technological data provides the most interesting feedback. The regional differences in expert expectations of innovation, for example, might be explained by different economic systems. While more free-market countries will be forced to innovate their changing work practices in a turbulent labor market, government-controlled economies can always create employment on a whim. Conversely, more autocratic governments will be less constrained by privacy regulations, popular opinion, and disconnected datasets, allowing them to innovate more efficiently and aggressively with regards to data and AI, and to integrate those technologies into society more rapidly. 

Also notable are perceptions that developing economies will not see a surge in technological innovation as a result of COVID-19. These might reflect different notions of what innovation will look like and where it will come from. While more developed economies will probably continue incentivizing innovation alongside their recovery efforts, others will not have that luxury. And, accordingly, innovation from more developed economies will more likely consist of new technologies shaped by the pandemic and their response, i.e. innovation and recovery. On the other hand, less developed economies may be more prone to innovate by adapting older technologies and systems to better suit their current needs—innovation in recovery.

In addition, one should remember that nations are heterogeneous: Different demographics will benefit from innovation in the aftermath of COVID-19 to different extents. For example, while the automation of work might experience an incredible spurt of progress, the employees it displaces won’t profit from the investments that firms have made in their technologies. It is therefore crucial to consider not just where innovation will occur but who will be best situated to benefit, what constituencies will need to be repositioned or retrained, and how the innovation can be harnessed for good.

Perhaps most salient though is the overwhelming positivity of the respondents. The experts rarely, if ever, indicated a belief that the virus would hinder innovation in any field, implying that they view innovation mainly as a response to crisis and challenge, and less as a function of resource allocation. However, handling the pandemic demands ever-increasing amounts of time, money, and manpower, some of which must be diverted away from fueling innovation. Importantly, the crisis is still ongoing, making accurate predictions about recovery rather challenging.

The GeoTech Center champions positive paths forward that societies can pursue to ensure new technologies and data empower people, prosperity, and peace.

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