What does 5G tell us about responsible innovation?

By Liliana Arroyo

We are just weeks away from another Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. For the fourth consecutive year, 5G and expectations about this new connectivity will echo around the stands and presentations.

Last year’s highlight was the demonstration of a remote surgeon application with a specialist doctor assisting remotely in an operation on the abdomen of a patient at the Hospital Clínic of Barcelona.

5G technology promises hyper-fast connectivity for transmitting inconceivable amounts of data without latency. When implanted, it will become possible to connect infrastructure.

Cisco estimated that in 2020 there will be more than 50 billion connected devices, meaning an average of six connected devices per inhabitant of the Earth.

The Internet of Things (IoT) can finally be deployed at commercial and household levels because the information highway will be able to transfer colossal amounts of data per second.

It is estimated that 5G will provide profits of € 247 billion for operators worldwide in 2025

In Europe, 5G is considered necessary to achieve the digital single market. This strategy aims to eliminate barriers between EU nations and better position Europe in the international digital economy.

A good example of this was the elimination of mobile roaming charges in 2017. Operators then kept prices frozen or even lowered them in 2018. This is possible because the business model is shifting from consumer prices to ownership and control of the infrastructure through which information travels.

Huawei 5G
Huawei is one of the manufacturers with the most 5G infrastructure contracts worldwide (Photo: Sakdam/iStock)

It is estimated that 5G will provide profits of € 247 billion for operators worldwide in 2025 – with the US and Canada, Asia-Pacific and Europe being the main markets.

The EU action plan envisages the application of 5G in sectors such as energy, digital health (ehealth), manufacturing and the vehicle industry. At the household level, a revolution is expected in communication and entertainment based on virtual and augmented reality.

According to the European 5G Observatory (a partnership between the European Commission and the French firm IDATE DigiWorld) there have been more than 220 pilot projects since 2016 (focused mainly on Industry 4.0, transport and mobility). Orange, Telefónica and Vodafone have launched the most pilots (each participating in around 10% of the projects).

Responsible innovation can minimise risks and contribute social value with ethical guarantees

According to the latest report from the observatory, Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia are the manufacturers who have signed the most 5G infrastructure contracts worldwide.

The development of 5G is another example of the current pattern of innovation: big players and companies in the technology sector developing systems and solutions. Methods, tools, instruments are conceived and developed without necessarily being linked to specific purposes. 

However, promises about our future should not centre on how to transmit more data even more quickly, but should instead aim to answer the questions of "why" and "for whom."

Social innovation is about to move into a higher gear

Alliances with state administrations and participation with civil society are still at early stages and so there is no space where common and collective interests in technological development can be proposed and defended.

Responsible innovation can minimise risks and contribute social value with ethical guarantees. Social innovation is about to move into a higher gear, and 5G is becoming an essential agent in even the first stages of the creative process of generating, developing and communicating new ideas.

Now that digital disruption has jeopardised the social contract, it is increasingly necessary that a voice representing social interests connects engineering visions with the most urgent global and community challenges.

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