At our global digital event, Conversations for a Changing World, Robynne Sisco, president and CFO at Workday, was joined by Fareed Zakaria, CNN host and The Washington Post columnist. In the discussion, Zakaria, author of the book "Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World," shared his perspective on how COVID-19 is speeding up history and shaping the world.
Don’t Mention the “U” Word
If there was an award for the most-used word of 2020, “unprecedented” would surely take the gold medal. A seemingly endless plethora of public health, economic, social, and environmental crises pushed the world into a continuous vacuum of uncharted territory. Yet the pace of change was truly unprecedented, and the uncertain world we are moving into equally ambiguous. Zakaria told attendees he believes the pandemic may be the most transformative, unique thing to happen in our lifetimes—in part because it impacted virtually everyone on the planet.
Citing an interview with a CEO, Zakaria said: “When I look at the effects that this pandemic has had, then I think back to 9/11, and I recognize that in India, 9/11 had very little impact. The same in China and in Brazil—very little impact. We all got better X-ray scanners at airports, and we had to go through those lines for a little bit longer, but that was about it. When you look at the global financial crisis, it was actually very similar. And then I look at the pandemic. Every single person in India has been affected by this pandemic. [It] may be affecting every single person on the planet in a way that no event certainly of my lifetime has ever. And also changing the world.”
COVID-19: Accelerating Trends and the Pace of Change
As the global lockdown forced businesses to accelerate their shift to digital virtually overnight, enabling a remote workforce became a huge priority. Of course, remote work, cloud computing, automation, and other aspects of digital transformation are not new trends, but businesses were forced to push the button on them when the pandemic hit. There is normally a catalyst for transformation, but that catalyst is not usually a global pandemic.
Zakaria explained, “If you think about COVID-19 and the lockdowns that followed, collectively, what they have done is not to change the course of history dramatically but to accelerate it. If you think about it, the biggest effect of COVID-19 has been to accelerate trends that were already underway; sort of put the world on fast forward. And that has enormous, interesting, and seismic shifts. Sometimes when you go much, much faster than you were, it does produce unintended side effects.”
The Power of the Platform
Discussing the second phase of the pandemic recovery, following the emergence of vaccines, Zakaria pointed to the success of many nations in keeping their economies afloat by accelerating their digital processes. That is to say that large parts of the economy have been able to function even though physical interaction has become extremely limited. He points to the role of technology and various digital platforms in enabling this success.
“What you're really seeing is the transformation of whole industries. Telehealth is probably the best example, because it was a wonderful example of a psychological breakthrough, more than anything else. People did not like going to their doctors online. There will be, by the end of 2020, a billion visits between a patient and a doctor online. We were predicted to reach that number in 2035. So, you've had a 15-year acceleration of this trend.”
“It’s worth keeping in mind that even 20 years ago, that would not have been possible. We have now built a digital infrastructure in much of the advanced industrial world, and actually, in large parts of the world that has been able to withstand this massive upscaling of traffic. The last number I saw was traffic has risen tenfold on the Internet, and yet, the system has been able to handle it pretty well.”
“The coming acceleration is going to be around artificial intelligence because as everything has moved online, it's important to remember what that also means. It has moved to software. In other words, software has become the controlling factor in these businesses. And what is happening increasingly to software is it is being ruled by artificial intelligence, quantum computing, the cloud, all those revolutions, but fundamentally driven by artificial intelligence, which is able to produce algorithms which increase productivity dramatically.”