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Science, technology and innovation: the troika set to rule the post-pandemic world

Oriol Alcoba

We had a terrible 2020 and we are still suffering from the fallout of the wretched coronavirus pandemic. Just over a year ago, we were taken by surprise when the GSMA decided to cancel the Mobile World Congress. I remember angry conversations with managers in the tourism and IT industries who could not believe their ears. Back then, not many could imagine the impeding catastrophe: a few weeks later we were all confined to our homes, increasing our everyday word power with terms such as “flatten the curve”, “infection rate” and “resilience”.

We were victims of a new paradigm characterised by an exponential evolution of things. We humans are programmed to understand linear evolutions of events. The frequency with which we observe a specific phenomenon enables us to imagine where we will be after a certain time. If something happens just a few times and its evolution is less than linear, we tend to disregard it.

When something evolves exponentially, it seems negligible for a while, and either we downplay it or it goes unnoticed. But when the curve crosses the line we had imagined, there is no turning back. The phenomenon is out of control and what we start seeing exceeds all expectations, surprising and frightening us in equal measure.

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A year ago, as the pandemic exploded exponentially, we placed ourselves in the hands of the so-called “essential sectors”: healthcare, farming, distribution, industry, science, and technology. Industrial equipment became vital; supply chains worked around the clock to relocate themselves and find local suppliers; high-tech start-ups providing video conferencing systems suddenly went global; little workshops started producing personal protection equipment and emergency medical devices; healthcare workers learnt how to use AI as they went along to pinpoint factors causing the condition of patients to worsen; producers and distributors of foodstuffs and other products sought ways of keeping up production and supplying consumers in very adverse circumstances… And, above all, scientists around the globe joined forces in collaborative projects, both public and private, focusing their efforts on finding real solutions in the shape of possible treatments and vaccines.

Society as a whole, leaders and citizens, became more aware than ever of the importance of investing in science and technology. We apparently already knew that no other factor was more crucial for creating wellbeing and prosperity for nations but perhaps we had lacked the sense of emergency or urgency that a small, unknown virus suddenly gave us.

Society as a whole, leaders and citizens, became more aware than ever of the importance of investing in science and technology

Producing vaccines in little more than ten months is no mean feat. By way of example, it took more than 40 years to produce a vaccine for Ebola virus disease, sadly remembered for its impact a few years ago on areas such as western Africa. Even worse is the case of the Zika virus typified in 1947, for which we have still not managed to produce a safe, effective vaccine. The combined effort of thousands of organisations and people around the globe, plus a huge injection of capital, wrought the miracle.

In other words, we finally understand the crucial importance of market-oriented research quickly available in the shape of goods and services able to solve people’s problems and needs. The dramatic lessons learnt recently from the pandemic, plus the sense of urgency and exponential lack of control we have suffered must prompt us to take far-reaching decisions for change. It is not merely a question of being better prepared for the next pandemic but of seizing this opportunity to improve our society. From this viewpoint, the two main considerations that will affect the post-pandemic world will be technology-driven innovation and relocated, high-tech industry.

1. The relentless evolution of science and technology.

Digital technologies evolve exponentially and astound us when they exceed our linear forecasts. In the post-pandemic world we must lead this evolution rather than be passive agents. Huge opportunities will arise and those who lag behind will be swept away by the tsunami of events. Last January, one of the first steps taken by the new US president, Joe Biden, was to send a letter to a select group of scientists and representatives of universities and research centres in which he made a commitment to science and sought advice on how to keep his country at the forefront of technology and combat the biggest challenges to humanity such as health and climate change. Meanwhile, a few months ago, the Chinese government passed a new R&D budget, undertaking to increase it by 7% per annum for the next 5 years. The world is gearing up for a renaissance based on the knowledge and technology stemming from scientific activity.

2. The increasing importance of industry.

Manufacturing is what creates jobs and stability for our society. We must seize this opportunity to condense the knowledge value chain (from its creation to its actual application). Part of this process involves relocating manufacturing activities to near the sources of knowledge and near the markets where it is more useful and less threatened by uncontrollable global trends. The resilience of our economy, in the sense of its ability to overcome unexpected events, is conditioned to a considerable extent by the hyperconnectivity of industrial clusters. Achieving a resilient economy means more than encouraging companies with fine words.

The world is gearing up for a renaissance based on the knowledge and technology stemming from scientific activity

It calls for down-to-earth, industrial policies able to absorb part of the risk inherent in companies’ capacity to generate and integrate technology and new business models. When the European Union agreed to create the NextGenerationEU funds, it did something previously unheard of: it almost doubled the EU budget for the next seven years whilst pooling the financial risk amongst the different member states. The additional funds are earmarked for three crucial areas: economic recovery, support for private investment and the shift towards a more digitalised, sustainable system. This, in other words, is Industrial Policy (with capital letters). Public administrations have learned the lesson and companies must seize the window of opportunity now emerging.

In short…

The world in which we live is still in the throes of coronavirus. The West is pushing ahead with vaccination, whilst new variants of the virus keep us alert. Science, technology and innovation are the new triad guiding the post-pandemic world, and the three of them will govern all things in a concerted and coordinated way.

The entire, globalised world has awoken and the outlook is optimistic: humanity is moving towards a new paradigm of prosperity, providing it manages to understand and control its fast-paced development. Locally, the benefits of this global prosperity will be concentrated in zones and social systems that are more sustainable, high-tech and industry intensive.

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