Dr. Stephan Sigrist
Founder and head of the W.I.R.E. think tank. He has spent many years analyzing interdisciplinary developments in business and society, focusing on the implications of digitalization in the life sciences, financial services, media, infrastructure and mobility. He is the publisher of the ABSTRAKT book series, author of a number of publications and a keynote speaker at international conferences.
Watch an extract from the interview
What has surprised you?
That it was relatively easy to do without certain aspects of daily life that I would have viewed as essential in the past. You start to distinguish between what’s truly important and what you don’t necessarily need. That was an interesting learning process.
Talking of daily life, what do you think life will look like two months from now and how will society develop in the process?
Uncertainty and the see-sawing between different perspectives will continue over the coming months. We’ll also increasingly have to engage in the urgently needed fundamental discussion: what will the far-reaching ramifications be for society and our healthcare system if the economy stops working, how much control is possible in balancing individual freedom and restriction, what is quality of life truly about? Currently, these discussions are dominated by polar opinions, with economy on one side played out against health on the other in ideologically skewed perspectives, although in fact the two systems rely on each other.
What do we know now that we didn’t half a year ago?
There are more facts. But that’s one of the issues. Real facts are shrouded in a cloud of semi-truths and mistaken theories, meaning that the person on the street will struggle to assess what is really relevant and what is not. The result is an unhealthy mix that fuels uncertainty and leads to a yearning for simple solutions and normality. This is a central cornerstone for the future: we must find ways to move on in an environment of uncertainty and partial truths. It’s worth noting that the difficulty in navigating information overload is nothing new; we faced the same challenge with fake news long before the coronavirus crisis. But the issue has drastically added to the pressures we’re juggling.
Real facts are shrouded in a cloud of semi-truths and mistaken theories, so people struggle to assess what is really relevant and what is not.
Relevant data could help us look to the future more accurately. Will society be more willing to release data in future?
We’re in the midst of a digitalization and especially virtualization push. Although working from home was almost unthinkable for many organizations in the past, lots of them were able to quickly get their people working virtually, and in many cases very successfully. The shift doesn’t stop at decentralized working, but has also strengthened platform-driven business models. This, in turn, significantly increases the urgency of fundamental questions like who owns the data, how do we protect it, how do we address discrimination in AI algorithms. Due to coronavirus, it is our shared social duty – an aspect of solidarity – to be prepared to share data provided our privacy is protected and on the condition that the government and companies can explain exactly what happens with that data. Willingness to provide individual data is increasing, but at the same time organizations that use it have a stronger duty to explain how. We need clear and binding ethical guidelines that transparently govern the use of personal data – and business models that enable data donors to get a real benefit in return. In the case of contact tracing for coronavirus, solidarity should be enough, but it won’t be in a market context.
Where do you think our society will be in this respect in two years’ time?
First of all, health will gain in importance in everyday life. We’ve already seen how closely the healthcare system is linked to the economy and society. This will lead to a greater general influence of social distancing principles, prevention of communicable diseases and the follow-on effects in our daily lives. Secondly, we will see a distinction between people and organizations, between those that manage to cope with the uncertainty and plan long-term despite not knowing all the facts, and those that play a short-term game of catch-up with the latest changes. The ability to anticipate long-term topics will be of central importance, as will stronger links between society and economy. The market will align itself to these factors.
Let’s attempt to look further ahead: how will your children deal with pandemics when they grow up?
Let’s assume for a moment that the experts have got it right, that we’ll have a vaccine by the end of the year or in the course of 2021 at the latest, and that the economic and health consequences do not become even worse; if that’s the case, there’s every chance that we will return to the old normal relatively quickly. There will perhaps be certain regulations regarding distancing and hygiene that will stay with us in our social lives. But over time they will follow the rules of human nature. But if no vaccine is found and we have to live with the virus, or if new pandemics emerge in a few years from now, then the future “normal” will be vastly different from our old life. Large events will only be possible with distancing and registration, we will have to rethink existing concepts like open plan offices or densely populated cities. Whatever happens, the immediate future will be about seeking resilience. This will help strengthen sustainable solutions, but push up costs as well.
If we have to live with the virus, or if new pandemics emerge, then the future “normal” will be vastly different from our old life.
What do we need to ensure for the future?
There’s no way around it – we need to set up early warning systems; and not just for pandemics. We are living in a world in which things can change rapidly. Uncertainty and highly dynamic developments will be a fixture in tomorrow’s reality. In actual fact, this was already the case before COVID-19, but if we want resilient structures, we need to identify risks and anticipate the potential consequences at an early stage. This demands cross-system thinking and action: health, economy and society are not separate sub-systems but actors in an ongoing interplay. The same applies when it comes to estimating the impact of new technologies. In that respect, the coronavirus crisis is forcing us to take an urgently needed learning step.
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