When we published Accenture’s 2020 Technology Vision trends report in February, COVID-19 was not yet a global pandemic, notes Willie Schoeman, Managing Director for Accenture Technology in Africa.

Now, everything has changed. This pandemic is the greatest challenge the world has faced in decades, yet rather than slowing innovation, it is amplifying it to historic levels. We therefore revisited our 2020 trends to explore how they will impact people and businesses in the post-COVID world, and they are seemingly more relevant and urgent than before.

Technology is no longer a fancy option – it is a requirement to connect employees, consumers, and business partners. The pandemic has spurred a massive innovation effort from companies, governments, universities, and individuals. On the other hand, the challenges we need to solve are now two-fold – overcoming business disruption due to COVID-19 and overcoming tech-clash.

Dazzled by the promise of technology, many organisations created digital products and services just because they could, without fully considering the human, organisational, and societal consequences. This resulted in a tech-clash caused by the tension between consumer expectations, the potential of technology, and business ambitions. We therefore need to be able to outmanoeuvre the current uncertainty and shift our mindset from ‘just because’ to ‘trust because’.

Our revised Tech Vision report presents the five key trends that companies must address during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic to realise new forms of business value driven in part by stronger, more trusting relationships with stakeholders:

• The I in Experience
People are changing, and enterprises should update their personalisation strategies to keep up. Businesses need a way to quickly update their understanding of individuals’ wants and needs and retire information that is no longer valid. The enterprises that give people the agency to steer their own digital experiences will be the first to understand what their new wants and needs are.

The purpose of a digital experience will be transformed. Digital platforms and experiences are becoming many people’s primary source of interaction, albeit to supplement, not replace, in-person experiences. The need for virtual and extended reality experiences like these will continue to accelerate in the future, as businesses and consumers seek alternatives to in-person gatherings in a post-COVID world. The enterprises that start building personalized, interactive, and shared virtual communities today can carry that success far into the future.

• Reimagine the business through human and AI collaboration
In our AI and Me trend, we explore how leading enterprises are fostering human-AI collaboration – bringing AI’s capacity to identify limitless new possibilities together with people’s ability to direct and refine ideas. Before the pandemic, this was already top of mind in many industries. Our Tech Vision business survey found that 73% of organisations said they are piloting or adopting AI in one or more business units. Currently, only a third (33%) of South African organisations report using inclusive design or human-centric design principles to support human- machine collaboration.

AI should now be an even higher priority. The benefits of humans and AI working together have never looked more promising than they do today. COVID-19 will let us see human-AI collaboration at its best, potentially easing people’s concerns about the technology. Success today could permanently change the constraints surrounding AI deployment, and open new possibilities for businesses to reimagine their enterprise and workforce in the future.

• Growing the enterprise’s reach – and responsibility
No trend has escalated quite like our Robots in the Wild. As more people stay home, and distancing becomes the new normal, robots are moving from controlled environments to uncontrolled environments and from select industries to every industry faster than we could have expected.

Before the pandemic, robots were already becoming a driver of growth and value in many industries, offering businesses and governments “contact-less” solutions. Now they can help businesses do even more, while simultaneously demonstrating new use cases to regulators, workers, and the public. Post COVID-19, the entire robotics ecosystem will be accelerated. Robots, IoT devices, and 5G will likely have a similar relationship, as many robot use cases will need increased data transfer rates and decreased latency.

Similarly, the need for human workers to maintain and control robots remotely will grow. While today’s robotics leaders are stepping up to the plate to fill new, pandemic-related roles, the ones truly thinking long term are also building the foundation of a more automated future.

• The Dilemma of Smart Things
Assumptions about who owns a product are being challenged in a world entering a state of “forever beta.” They are frustrated by constant change in products they consider to be theirs. However, COVID-19 is increasing our need for smart and updatable products. Where repurposing smart devices or rapidly introducing new features may have upset people in the past, they are now much more welcome.

In our study, more than 80% of executives reported that their organisation’s connected products and services will have significantly more updates over the next three years. During COVID-19 the beta burden isn’t gone, but fighting the pandemic is temporarily taking precedence.

Smart and updatable devices are becoming tools in the fight against COVID-19 to help identify symptoms, monitor patients, and have troves of valuable health data that can save lives. In a sense, the challenges of the pandemic have brought a reprieve, granting organisations extra leeway and creative liberty to use devices to their full extent.

However, this liberal sharing of beta-data won’t last forever, and businesses must keep the threat of future backlash in mind. Device-driven efforts to combat COVID-19 are already sparking conversations about privacy, and many are worried that their data could be used against them in the future. Like Google and Apple, enterprises need to consider how they can introduce new features to their devices without overstepping. Regardless of intentions, the ones that fail to fully support these changes and updates will find that the benefits are short-lived.

• Create an engine for continuous innovation
In our Innovation DNA trend, we explore three different areas of innovation: mature digital technologies, scientific advancements, and emerging DARQ technologies (distributed ledgers, artificial intelligence, extended reality, and quantum computing). We argue that businesses will be set apart by the way they merge and combine seemingly separate strategies from all of these areas.

As emerging technologies gain momentum and innovation timelines speed up, leaders are weaving together new innovation strategies and forming new partnerships to help them pivot quickly and continuously during this crisis.

The pandemic is putting ecosystems through an innovation stress test. COVID-19 is pushing companies to keep up with change by working together in new ways, exposing the possibilities of ecosystem-wide innovation. The pandemic is driving enterprises to consider and test many new partnerships and possibilities. Whether they are rolling out technology to keep the world running or working to prevent industry collapse, the partnerships, products, and services that enterprises are building today have the potential to last long after the crisis, defining business and technology for years to come.

The rules around innovation will never be the same. If we are to compete and succeed in a world where digital is everywhere, companies need a new focus on balancing “value” with “values,” aligning their drive to create business value with their customers’ and employees’ values and expectations.

Enterprises should think long-term as we rush towards rapid innovation, and businesses not embracing the rapid change will face mounting resentment and distrust. To open new opportunities for the future enterprises must play their cards wisely, by exploring how emerging technologies can meet people’s new and evolving needs.

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