How mainstream industries are catching up with tech tools that were only used by “techies.”
A Sudden Change...for Some
Video conferencing tools have been around for decades. The standard go-to software for many years was Skype, which came out way back in 2003. While these tools have evolved considerably (along with internet speeds) and there are now a number of strong competitors in a crowded market, the focus of this article is rather on how we have evolved in response to the coronavirus pandemic. How behavioral change, more than a technological change, is the real success story.
What has been so impressive is how the generations and industries with a stereotypical anathema to change seem to have been forced to catch up with the times. The silver lining of a health crisis, the scale of which we have not seen for a century, is that it has dragged many late adopters into the 21st century. If necessity is the mother of invention, then the need to stop the global economy from grinding to a halt has birthed a global consensus that a lot of what we thought we needed to do face-to-face or at the office (on the far side of a back-breaking commute) can be done from the comfort of our own homes.
“My prediction would be that over 50% of business travel and over 30% of days in the office will go away,” - Bill Gates
Titan of the tech industry, Bill Gates, thinks that business travel will be cut in half and we will spend a third less time at the office, all while the same amount, if not more, work will get done. What was once the luxury of a lucky few who managed to hoodwink their boss into letting them work from home, is now seen as the future of work in many industries. Why pay rent when your workers can work from the comfort of their own home, buy their own coffee, are more happy, and produce the same, if not better, results.
With a remote working environment performance review becomes less about hours spent at your desk and more about deliverables. One could make the argument that when your boss can’t see you there’s nowhere to hide.
The Rise of Zoom: when nouns brands become verbs
Go hoover up that dust! I’ll just quickly google it. I’m ubering to you now. We used to turn nouns into verbs (called “verbing”), but more popular recently has been brands that we identify with a certain action because the tool they have created works so well, that we don’t bother to look for another name. For the foreseeable future will we be zooming each other?
In 2020 downloads of Zoom increased 30 times, year-on-year. Since March 18 the application has been the top free app for iPhones in the US and went from an average of 10 million daily users to 200 million in March 2020 as the pandemic started to run wild.
Everyone I know has now had a Zoom call. I set up meetings (and remote social events) for my mother. I organised bingo and pub quizzes for my brother, who hadn’t seen his friends in months. And I set up multiple work calls with organisations and advice offices in far flung rural areas of South Africa. And while the technology can sometimes still be a bit of a challenge, the idea or practice of doing things over the internet has now been normalised.
Education and a new type of homeschooling
Another area of common life severely affected by the need for social distancing has been education. The platform that many schools in the Cape took up was Google Classroom . A combination of word processors, spreadsheets, presentations, and a central cloud storage system combined into a single service with the ability for centralised control by teachers, Google Classroom emulates what a lot of technologically progressive companies have been using for years. Schools across Cape Town started using these kinds of tools in order to save their kids from losing a year of school, which would have had disastrous knock-on effects.
OpenUp uses many Google tools to work collaboratively and remotely. If you took away the humble online word processor, Google Docs, my professional life would be thrown into chaos. Once you are so used to being connected, losing connectivity would be like cutting off blood to a vital organ. The other side of this coin is how the lack of connectivity (whether through infrastructure or cost) prejudices many South Africans with jobs and employment rapidly moving online. It will be interesting to see how much cloud schooling technology is retained when schools return to normality.
Codebridge Youth Webinars
Even in our own work we have had to shift events and activities that were traditionally facilitated face-to-face in communities outside of the big cities, online. The issue of connectivity sits at the heart of the struggles we faced in our Codebridge Youth programme in 2020. Social distancing necessitated a re-think on how we connect with our youth hubs and the eventual winner was the webinar.
Even though we are a civic tech company the CBY team had (and still have) a lot to learn about teaching and engaging with people online. We will eventually go back to in-person workshops, but we will use them alongside online interaction activities that allow us to scale and reach new audiences around the country.
Progress for Some and the Exclusionary aspect of the Internet
Above are just a few of the many examples of how we have been forced out of our comfort zones. It takes an event of epic proportions to shake things up. In the past war has been a catalyst for immense technological and behavioural change. Today it’s a war against an invisible foe and a war against the preconceived ideas of what constitutes a productive work environment.
The trick is to ratchet up these gains, and make sure that flexibility becomes a part of our working culture. As humans continue to encroach on the last remaining wilderness, it’s likely we will have more zoonotic pandemics in the future, and hopefully we are better prepared for them.
Notwithstanding the recent global digital empowerment, the elephant in the room remains: if the future of the economy relies heavily on digital connectivity, without major investments connectivity for all, our most marginalised communities could fall even further behind. I will cover this in a following article.