The acceleration of digital

The way we live, work and socialise has been transformed over the last year and a half, but to what extent were these changes already taking place and merely accelerated by the emergence of Covid-19? And how much of this change will become a permanent transformation in the way we live our lives?

Two areas have been at the forefront of this transformation: technology and infrastructure. But while these areas appear distinct on the surface, if you dig a little deeper it is not hard to see that significant future change is being driven by one thing – the digital revolution.

Clash of the technology titans
For many, the socially distancing strategies adopted to deal with the pandemic have only been possible thanks to technology. Technology has enabled many of us to work from home, buy our groceries online and stay in contact with loved ones via video conferencing. If some people weren’t particularly digitally savvy before the pandemic, it’s fair to say they are far more digitally competent now.

Yet, the transference of so many of our daily habits from the physical to the digital world has enabled the already dominant technology titans to become even bigger, and in the case of online retail, even more dominant. Recent earnings reports have shown that the five biggest technology companies made a combined $75 billion in after-tax profits in the second quarter of 2021 alone. That figure is nearly 90% higher than the previous year and exceeded already high expectations1.

The tech titans haven’t had it all their own way, however. New companies have become household names during the pandemic, especially those offering video conferencing services and other remote working technologies. And the monopoly on television streaming services was broken down by the emergence of several new entrants into that field – although some of these were arguably already household names.

Interestingly, the ease of remote working has also meant that Silicon Valley’s stranglehold as a technology hub has been disrupted. Amid global lockdowns, successful new software and technology companies have emerged in remote corners of the world as cloud technology means they are no longer forced to be in specific locations.

Forced enhancements in tech here to stay
Many of the digital solutions used to make social distancing both possible and more bearable, have presented us with an easier way of life, thereby accelerating a transformation more likely to have evolved over the longer term. While flexible working practices have been around for some time, the widespread adoption of remote working is unlikely to be reversed significantly post-pandemic, with research suggesting the number of workers around the world permanently working from home will double this year2.

The success of biotechnology in developing new techniques around genomics and messenger RNA (mRNA) were quick to create Covid-19 vaccines. But this technology can and will be used to develop other vaccines as well as address other medical issues. The tech transformation of medicine is only just commencing. Additionally, the day-to-day delivery of medicine has also been revolutionised during the pandemic. Doctors are now using telemedicine in their daily practice to provide medical assessments and advice in a transition that could be particularly transformative for emerging markets.

The pandemic also led to an uptick in automation, particularly among service industries where social distancing kept many workers away from their places of work. However, the legacy of this acceleration in automation may have a negative impact on jobs in these areas.

Time for 5G
Given a digital way of life is only set to increase going forward, nations need to address the digital divide quickly. This means the infrastructure provision of broadband services needs to step up. First on this agenda will need to be the deployment of 5G.

As with each generation of the digital evolution, 5G is set to transform how we use technology as its improved speed and scale is expected to open up the market for smart connectivity, the increased use of big data, artificial intelligence and the automation of vehicles. Estimates suggest that 5G could unlock around $4.3 trillion in value globally3. Previously, the roll-out has been held up by concerns about using Chinese-backed providers in the core 5G infrastructure, but other – less contentious – companies can provide these technologies so the promise of 5G could soon become a reality. A significant step forward will be President Biden’s infrastructure proposal in the US, with the slimmed down $1 trillion just having received approval in the Senate.

The provision of satellite broadband is also well underway, which promises to extend global internet coverage to rural and remote areas of the globe that are not currently well-served by existing services and could be particularly transformative to those in the developing world.

The future is green Infratech
Given the changes to how we now live our daily lives, one of the initial areas of infrastructure transformation will likely be cities. Rising urbanisation in the developing world will increase the need for more traditional forms of infrastructure, such as water and waste management, energy provision and new transport systems. However, cities in the developed world will need to adapt to the changing needs of its citizens who are becoming less inclined to live in cities, using the freedoms provided by remote working to seek access to more space and proximity to nature.

Governments may need to reconsider existing planned infrastructure projects, such as airport expansions or changes to public transport systems to reflect the long-term reduced demand for such facilities. Instead, their attention may shift away from centralised infrastructure projects to support an upturn in localised needs.

Transport is a key area for transformation that could be highly disruptive. Aside from the much-discussed need for more environmentally friendly electric vehicles, the concept of transport-as-a-service will require significant infrastructure changes. If fewer people actually own their own vehicles, then car parks could be turned into communal charging stations and could eventually form part of the electricity grid in a bid to smooth out supply bottlenecks. Improved connectivity through 5G and greater use of cloud technology could help cities optimise waste and water management systems, as well as introduce smart mobility solutions to ease traffic congestion and reduce pollution.

However, any new infrastructure development will also need to place heavy emphasis on sustainability. ‘Build back better’ rhetoric will need to be backed-up by using sustainable building materials with an aim to reduce the environmental impacts of any new projects. Smart Infratech has the potential to create a better, cleaner more efficient environment for city dwellers and this opportunity should not be wasted.

The spread of digitalisation
The time for digitalisation to spread beyond the technology sector is upon us and has been accelerated by the unprecedented upheaval of the pandemic. While the level and pace of disruption will vary sector by sector, there is little doubt that the consequences of the digital advance will inspire profound change, giving way to opportunity, and this will require careful navigation for investors.

At BNP Paribas Asset Management, we believe it is essential for investors to distinguish between which of these opportunities will turn out to be short-lived fads or will become solid transformational trends. The answers will present opportunities for investors that might be difficult to imagine today. That’s why we look to the future and investigate before we invest.

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