How digitainability* is helping in the face of COVID-19 crisis - a short digest

by Dr. Shivam Gupta*

Digitainability

The noun ‘digitainability’ is a merge of the terms “digitalization” and “sustainability” and refers to the cross-fertilization between the processes of digitalization and sustainable development. The wording has been created within the project digitainable, carried out by the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research / Innovation Campus Bonn (ICB). Digitainable aims to understand the influence of Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence on sustainable development by utilizing the expertise from natural, technological, and social sciences. “Digitainability” characterizes something which facilitates both digitalization and sustainable development or combines aspects of both.

Digitalization: part of the solution(s)

We are currently witnessing a general lockdown in the hope to control the Coronavirus (CoVID-19) spread. Such situations are putting us all into a state of temporary stagnation, not only impacting personal lives but also striking the economy worldwide. After CoVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), national and local governments, the private sector from individuals to large businesses, and many others are already considering an array of possible contingency plans for avoiding severe disruption. Most of them have been embracing the power of digitalization as a way to stay connected with the world, to cope with the challenges of reduced public life to some extent, and to sustain workflows where possible.

Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence are playing a crucial role in mitigating economic risks and associated uncertainties by fostering effective measures to prevent crowds from gathering and control the spread of the CoVID-19 virus. Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence are not a perfect solution for every problem, but its absence could quite possibly have led to a much worse situation.

Vaccine development

Take the example of the polio epidemic in 1952. It took seven years (1948 to 1955) to get a polio vaccine from the stage of laboratory development to widespread distribution. Today, instead of seven years, there are hopes that it will take only about six months to get a Coronavirus vaccine into the stage of human trials, and about a year longer to introduce it onto the market. There are many reasons behind this acceleration, including tremendous scientific progress, but, besides, Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence have been acting as a real game-changer to expedite the development process.

Quarantine

Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence is further effectively helping in the monitoring process of combating the spread of the highly infectious virus, not only in the healthcare sector and the pharmaceutical industry. For example, South Korea and India are tracing quarantined citizens with a smartphone app. These apps are helping in taking measures to prevent exposure of people in vulnerable areas to the virus and is thus supporting in controlling the spread of the virus in the countries. Recently, India launched an app called Corona Kavach and Aarogya Setu to help citizens and the government check on the proximity of possibly infected people and those tested positive for the Coronavirus. However, the widespread concerns about privacy and data security concerning these applications are under consideration and will evolve with them. Germany is also on the way to implement the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing for Corona pandemic monitoring. Such systems can make self-isolating procedures go quicker for avoiding any further spread.

Furthermore, during the lockdown situation, public health regulations restrict people’s options to leave their homes, and especially elderly people cannot go outdoors. Digitalization can help people in need and serve a vulnerable population by driving a more vigorous development of the thriving e-commerce and food delivery services.

Industry 4.0 to stabilize supply chains

The power of industry 4.0 helps manufacturers make workflows more flexible in view of retooling production lines. For instance, an automobile manufacturing company can transform to producing ventilators, respiratory devices and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) required to fight the CoVID-2019 virus. However, this transformation process is still hard and slow at the moment. Nevertheless, the process might greatly relieve the supply-demand situation of medical devices and equipment in the near future, and Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence / Industry 4.0 can assist by acting as a stabilizer of supply chains.

Work from home

Because of the investments that countries and businesses have been making in digital infrastructure over the past years, the global economy still functions to some extent, even in a lockdown situation. People are able to work from home using telecommuting apps and can thus contribute to softening the impact of the pandemic on the economy to some extent. National banks are urging people to use digital transaction facilities rather than using physical cash to avoid the spread of CoVID-19. Such options would not be available or functioning if digital awareness and infrastructure were not in place.

Awareness

The opportunities offered by Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence further extend to vital health information and awareness campaigns so that the critical information can go viral and spread faster than the pandemic itself. Such campaigns can help us protect lives and vulnerable populations. Recently, the WHO and the Indian government partnered with Facebook to initiate such a campaign to support the dissemination of information on CoVID-19.However, with information comes misinformation. Recently, WhatsApp offered a $1M grant for setting up an info hub to fight coronavirus rumors.

Entertainment during social distancing

The CoVID-19 crisis is teaching us how to entertain ourselves while complying with the only valid measure for decelerating the pandemic, namely social distancing. Cloudflare's data team has found that traffic has decreased by 10 percent in office areas while there is an increase of 20 percent in residential areas. People are using the internet to keep them updated about the pandemic and to entertain themselves based on their personal preferences. People are socializing by using video-streaming facilities more than ever to avoid loneliness and to stay connected, which helps them stay mentally healthy. There is a noticeable surge in mental health apps and chatbots. Physical health is also going digital in the crisis, since gyms are closed, so people are now using digital platforms for staying fit. Furthermore, a lot of museums and tourism service providers are going digital and offering opportunities to engage in cultural activities: museums offer digital tours, operas allow for streaming a stage plan, and wine stores organize digital wine tastings. All these activities are, to some extent, also relevant to the economy.

All these briefly discussed services and advantages would not have been a reality without the great efforts taken by the decisive stakeholders to set up the required digital infrastructure which we are relying on today.

The CoVID-2019 crisis not only unveils the power of Digitalization and Artificial Intelligence in alleviating countless emergencies. It also enables us to explore new ways to live our daily lives and run the economy. Moreover, last but not least, it hopefully paves the path for more sustainable handling of resources in the coming time, and it can assist in combating similar threats in the future. Probably we will be adequately prepared for the next one!

Do you agree? Do you disagree? Would you like to collaborate and work on expanding the ideas related to the post or to the topic of digitalization and AI for sustainability? Please feel free to comment or contact personally.

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* The auhor is researcher and project coordinator of "Digitainable", a project carried out by the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research / Innovation Campus Bonn (ICB).