In Luxinnovation’s report “Post COVID-19 Market Trends”, digitalisation is highlighted as one of the main influences in the years to come. But digitalisation has already been a hot topic for years…
Mohamed Toumi: That’s right: for quite some time now, digitalisation has been seen as a key driver for companies to become more efficient, reach new clients and so on. However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, digitalisation became a crucial element of survival for many companies. Working remotely has often been the only way organisations could continue to function, and selling online became a must. The same goes for society as a whole: schools switched to distance learning and many doctors offered remote consultations using telemedicine.
The speed at which this happened was unprecedented, and some experts say that digitalisation gained 3-4 years virtually overnight. I’m convinced that the changes of the past few months are here to stay, and that the most successful companies will be those that are able to adapt their business models to take new digital technologies and opportunities into account.
Implementing digital technologies also means collecting new data, on how clients behave for example, or on what is going on in the supply chain. Smart companies will use this data to improve their offering and to take decisions that are based on facts and not only on feelings. The data itself is also a precious asset that some will want to sell, but this is a sensitive point as it often linked to privacy issues. A new legal framework will be needed in the future to regulate the buying and selling of anonymised data.
What investments will companies need to continue?
Investing in digital technologies will be crucial to stay competitive. We found that in a recent survey by Tencent Research Institute collecting feedback from 1,600 Chinese companies about their COVID-19 exit strategies, the majority said that they will increase their digital investments in the future by 10-30%. They will focus in particular on big data, the internet of things, cloud computing and 5G.
Developing infrastructure that supports digitalisation, such as 5G networks and high performance computing capacities, is also essential. Here Luxembourg is doing quite well. The high performance computer under construction, for example, will make the advanced digital technologies needed for big data treatment much more accessible and easy to use for companies.
How important is the digital transformation of manufacturing production chains, often called Industry 4.0, in this context?
Its importance is rapidly increasing. Although Industry 4.0 is still best known to specialists, the public saw the usefulness of some of the related technologies during the crisis when 3D printing was used to produce visors and even ventilators, for example.
We can also see that the degree of automation and the use of digital technologies to control equipment remotely had a huge impact on industrial companies in China during thelockdown period. Firms that used robots that could be managed from a control room or from home continued producing, while many others came to a complete standstill when operational staff could no longer come to work. This clearly goes for Europe as well. The companies already working with Industry 4.0 are better prepared to face this type of crisis, and others are trying to catch up. The COVID-19 crisis will certainly accelerate the digitalisation and automation of industrial production even further.
What are the risks associated with this increased digitalisation?
The more businesses rely on digital technology, the more they obviously become vulnerable to various types of cyberattacks. The number of cyberattacks increased strongly during the lockdown, because hackers knew that people working at home often have VPN issues, connect to public Wi-Fi networks or use personal PCs that are largely unprotected. This made it much easier for them to enter into company systems and servers. Some companies set up online sales systems without really considering security aspects, and the new forms of communication related to Industry 4.0 – human-machine, machine-machine and machine-platform interactions and exchange of data – open up new vulnerabilities in industrial companies.
A main issue is that today, companies often introduce security measures once systems and websites are already in place – if they add them at all. In the future, new applications and platforms will need to be developed with a “security-by-design” approach. The cybersecurity market is forecast to continue growing in the coming years, but at a slower pace than before as companies are expected to focus on recovery and still consider investments in cybersecurity as an additional cost. More awareness about cyber risks and resilience is definitely needed. In case the next major crisis is a massive cyberattack, we need to be prepared. If there is one lesson we have learnt from COVID-19, it is to be prepared for everything and expect the unexpected.