Disruptive tech is saving us
The author, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.
From crowdfunding to cryptocurrencies and ridesharing to online marketplaces for hotels and homestays, technology is challenging if not yet transforming large parts of established economies and industries. We should not fear this.
That power of technology to disrupt has certainly been one of the focus areas of on-going discussions around the world from Los Angeles to London, and Singapore to Abu Dhabi — even in the age of coronavirus.
This past month, the Milken Institute — a non-profit, non-partisan economic think tank with which I am affiliated — brought together in the U.A.E. a curated group of interdisciplinary thought leaders and decision-makers to discuss, develop and deploy solutions to some of the world’s pressing challenges.
The two-day Milken Institute Middle East and Africa Summit, Feb. 11-12, in Abu Dhabi, made clear the benefits of technology in areas ranging from access to capital to medical innovations.
Yet, resistance to technological change has long been with us. From the crash of a Boeing 737 MAX airplane in Indonesia in 2018 and in Ethiopia in 2019 — blamed in part on the plane’s high-tech design and software shortcomings — to the on-going Covid-19 pandemic driven in part by increased air connectivity in our globalized world, setbacks and unintended consequences stemming from technological advancements are fueling new levels of skepticism. There is a persistent fear about what a technology-enabled future might bring, from job losses and the deaths of industries to drone attacks and cyber-crimes.
Modern media, including Hollywood and social media platforms, have amplified such stories and fears, intentionally or not. Yet, menacing or malfunctioning machines and software only tell one side of the story. We should not lose sight of the positive — and often overlooked or forgotten — ways in which our day-to-day lives have already assimilated high-tech innovations in ways big and small.
Whether it is in the clothes we wear, the way we light our homes, or the way we keep our houses clean, technology has begun to revolutionize basic everyday products and services as tech assumes an ever-more pervasive role in our daily lives.
This everyday technology revolution has also added opportunity for businesses and entrepreneurs, including in Southeast Asia and around the world. In the past, consumers might well have expected the most basic of household products to be relatively inexpensive, partly because their functionality, and so their value, was so limited.
But with advancements — indeed, with technology now embedded in consumer goods’ very make-up — groundbreaking new commercial avenues and opportunities have opened up.
Take something as basic as clothing. A few years ago, a classic cotton T-shirt cost a few dollars, or less, and was worn by many for all occasions: as an undershirt at work, as casual weekend-wear, or while at the gym or working at a labour-intensive job.
But now, technological innovations even in a basic T-shirt are seemingly boundless. Manufacturers today use new technology to reduce odour-causing microbes. Sun protective clothing is produced from specially-designed or treated fabric and rated for its level of protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
There are fabric blends that wick away sweat and are fast-drying. Other shirts offer stretch-mesh panels that lead to easier ventilation. There are compression fits for athletes. And that does not take account of all the hugely popular trademarked fabrics that have upended the lucrative sporting-apparel-meets-casualwear industry.
Or consider the way we light our homes. Light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs have swept through the market in recent years, consuming up to 90 percent less power than the old incandescent bulbs and drastically lowering energy costs. They also last much (much) longer.
Lights, like T-shirts, now do high-tech backflips as well. They dim or intensify with the touch of a button, often remotely controlled by a smartphone or via scheduled timers. Some new bulbs employ technology known as “geofencing,” which links the bulb to the GPS in a smartphone and triggers it to turn on when the user is nearby.
Then there’s the way we clean our clothes and our homes. Technology is pointing new ways forward away from the use of traditional — and often harsh — chemical cleaners. I have seen this first-hand through my work serving on the advisory board of Equator Pure Nature, a Thailand-based “clean-tech” company that produces, markets, and sells a line of natural, environment-friendly, biodegradable household cleaning products under the brand name Pipper Standard.
The company’s founder and CEO Peter Wainman, who started the company after suffering from a debilitating allergic reaction to a chemical fabric softener, told the MIT Technology Review in February last year: “If we decrease unnecessary chemical exposure, particularly in the home, we may have a positive impact on allergy rates. A healthy environment starts at home.”
Just as technology has raised new worries, we need only look to the past to see those same old fears but also how evolving technology has provided solutions and better lives. Achieving sustainable trade growth, robust capital markets, financial inclusion, food and job security, and gender parity will remain the challenges of today even when we get past the present pandemic.
And far from something to fear, technology is already saving us. It is not just respirators, and innovative medical treatments. We need only look at some of the simplest things — the clothes we wear, the lights we use and how we clean our homes — to see how in our tech-enabled, everyday lives there already exists the power of disruption by technology for good.