In late July, Resilience First held a series of webinars that examined the technological responses to the Covid-19 pandemic in the rail, retail, cargo (supply chain) and energy sectors. The responses formed part of resilient recovery programmes. All the speakers had their own stories to tell of the steep fall in trade and the slow climb out of the slump.
In the case of rail in the UK, there was a 96% decline in passenger demand at the peak and it was still down 87%, with £900m a month in lost revenue. In the case of container shipping, the downturn has been less pronounced at around 10% but some 300,000 seafarers have been stranded at sea or unable to travel home and 300,000 unemployed or unable to join their vessels. As for retail in the UK, the loss of 70,000 jobs and the closure of 9,000 stores since the start of lockdown, with the growth in retail sales in June down by 1.6% on the year.
A range of tech solutions was outlined to help alleviate the downturns. These varied from more automatic ticketing on the railways to increased remote (drone) surveys on ships, to more smart energy distribution for high-power users. Across the board, the trend was towards accelerating digitisation. Progress here is taking place over months rather than the years envisaged previously. It is reflected in greater data analytics (10 million meter readings per day by one utility company), higher on-line sales (£3 in every £10 are now spent on line), more automation and monitoring as staff work remotely, more autonomous shipping to reduce labour costs, and more digitised systems to measure and model complex builds.
The tech solutions for shops were illustrative of the effort to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 and thereby enhance shoppers’ confidence in store. While contactless, cashless checkouts at food counters proved safer and more cost effective than traditional serving methods, the use of thermal sensing, occupancy control, activity monitoring, and mask detection, together with touchless digital signage using voice activation, were all features to help manage shoppers’ experiences.
The New Challenges
These may be anticipated developments but they are coming into existence at an ever-faster place. The 4th Industrial Revolution heralded the greater use of the likes of robotics, artificial intelligence and neuroscience in our new world and this is proving to be a revolution rather than an evolution thanks to Covid-19. The cheaper and better these new technologies become then the more jobs are at risk, only exacerbating the effects of the pandemic. This will require significant structural reform to the jobs’ market, even greater than the move away from heavy industry in the 1970s and 1980s. It will demand new skills and new training for significant numbers in order to build a more resilient economy for the future.
One other aspect of this acceleration to digitisation will be the (in)ability of regulation, legislation and governance to keep apace with technology. As social media has raced ahead of the legislators, so other technologies will be chomping at the bit and the prospect of maintaining assurance and security will pose more significant challenges.
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