5G and the (Not Quite So) New Normal

Isaac Asmiov’s 1957 novel “The Naked Sun“, set on the planet Solaria whose inhabits interact with each other solely through “trimensional images”, and avoid personal contact

(This post was originally written for the August 2020 issue of the UK 5G Newsletter)

In the early 1980s, I read Isaac Asimov’s 1957 novel “The Naked Sun“, set on the planet of Solaria whose 20,000 inhabitants interact with each other solely through “trimensional images”, and avoid personal contact. For the last few months, Asimov’s 60-year old ideas have seemed eerily familiar.

A few years later, I joined IBM as a pre-University employee, and discovered the power of the company’s global online instant messaging service for communicating with other student employees. At one point I was disciplined for using the entire processing power of the local mainframe computer to run a socialising and collaboration tool I’d written for them. Mark Zuckerberg would have been about to start primary school at the time.

As with many applications of technology – personal mobility services, end-to-end contactless experience for air passengers, remote healthcare, optimised preventative maintenance, instrumentation of distributed infrastructure – remote working and online collaboration is something we’ve adopted at scale many years after it was first possible, driven by imperative rather than by choice.

As we begin to emerge from national lockdown into an uncertain period of social distancing and local lockdowns, and as we begin to imagine both short-term and medium-term “new normals”, it’s worth reflecting on both the benefits and challenges we’ve discovered in the process.

On the one hand, I’m in the 4th month of a new role as Director of Smart Places for Jacobs, who I joined whilst under lockdown. Of Jacobs’ 55,000 employees, I’ve met just six in person. I’ve read opinion pieces in recent months asserting that remote working can’t go on indefinitely as it is “depleting social capital” that has previously been built up through face-to-face relationships. That’s clearly not the case, or at least is an oversimplification – since joining Jacobs, I’ve built scores of new relationships, and collaborated to win innovative contracts with clients that are new both for me, and for the company.

However, we mustn’t ignore the fact that lockdown has been a catastrophe for many, and often for those that were already the most vulnerable. We have spoken for years about the “Digital Divide” between those who have digital connectivity, devices and skills and those who do not, but done little effective about it. Anyone who has spoken to healthcare, social care or education professionals in recent months knows just how devastating we have learned the divide to be. We must now respond by closing it.

There are reasons to be optimistic.
The emergence of 5G had already led to a new level of dialogue between Local Authorities and the telecommunications industry to secure the connectivity that places and communities need, through both traditional and disruptive models in the market. That process will continue, and we’ll be exploring lessons learned so far and evolving models of collaboration and partnership through a workshop in 5G Week organised by UK5G’s Connected Places Working Group, which I Chair.

We’ll also need to extend our newfound adoption of digitalisation into the infrastructure and places that we need to support post-COVID economic growth – not to mention post-Brexit competitiveness, the “levelling up” agenda, and climate change. As the Government’s Industrial Strategy noted in 2017, two of the most effective tools for boosting national growth and productivity are infrastructure and skills. In today’s world, both should be digital, smart, sustainable – and accessible to everyone. I’ll be talking more about these ideas at the FT-Siemens Future Cities Briefing on 18th September and at Connected Britain on 23rd September.

COVID-19 has led us individually and as organisations to work in ways we had been reluctant to adopt before. They are not a panacea, but they have also proven to have real benefits. Now is the time to fully realise the potential of 5G and digital technologies, to adopt them throughout our communities, infrastructure and the built environment in a way that is sympathetic to our needs as physical, social beings, and to address the issues that currently prevent too many in our society from benefiting from them.

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