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COVID-19 Innovation; some industries have literally re-tooled, whilst tech giants have stagnated!

These few weeks have shown the best and worst of industry. We have Lego factories moulding protective face shields, Burberry re-tooling their factories to make protective masks and gowns, LVMH producing hand sanitizers, Decathlon converting diving masks into respirators equipment. The latest being the collaboration between rivals GSK and Sanofi to mass produce vaccines . Chaos gives impetus and/or time for deep reflection. Companies need to re-consider their purpose and meaning. Everyday amazing innovation initiatives are announced where companies have rallied to use their resources and expertise to support communities, done it fast and out of their comfort zones. These actions have also strengthened these companies’ brand positioning and meaning to us.

So what struck me is what have the behemoths that have ruled the waves for the last 10 years and for whom this is boom time been doing? Amazon, Google, Apple, facebook, Microsoft to name a few ? How have they innovated and re-invented to rally behind this global threat?

Two things struck me;

1 – The tech giants seem to have either been paralysed or unable to innovate or collaborate.

Apparently Google and apple have been working hard on a health app which will make contacting tracing easy. The data will be anonymised, but concerns have been raised regarding the depth of information shared, how the data will be used? Is this an omnipresent surveillance that is hard to stomach for people who have already had so much of their freedom removed…. But really is that it??? That’s what thousands of the smartest brains have developed ? A big brother tool… which, perhaps I naively assume simply sends the data that your phone is already tracking to a centralised database. So this doesn’t appear to be a big innovation, it hasn’t happened fast and there is very little collaboration as each will be accessing their own operating systems. Does this mean these tech giants have become so big and powerful that they can’t innovate or collaborate?

Wait, Amazon has launched an AWS diagnostics initiative to accelerate COVID-19 research worth $20M but when you dig down some of it will be benefits in kind and a bit more vague. Meanwhile in France the courts have just ordered Amazon to limit its deliveries to essential goods only, amid claims it is failing to protect its workers from coronavirus. Hold the press, in an effort to entertain people whilst in lockdown Apple has made a handful of Apple TV+ shows free for anyone to stream, notably in the same month as they announce their biggest addition of new content. So just perhaps this is just marketing?

Where is the disruptive spirit that these giants were so respected for? Or is it because they don’t need to.. business is booming for them.

2 – Now is the time for decency, not try to delay the much heralded digital services levy

TechUK (technology company trade association) which represents tech companies including Google, apple, Facebook etc.. has just suggested that the UK government delay their introduction of the new digital services tax which aims to claw back some of the millions these tech giants have been evading for years. Lets be clear, right now Amazon in particular is soaring… So rather than suggest the UK government delay digital services tax to the only industry insulated and in some cases injected by the current chaos, why not actually acknowledge this and contribute to health care initiatives in every market in which they have a presence in terms of hard cash now; fund vaccine development not just server bandwidth. Against the backdrop of Tom Moore, a 99 year old war veteran who walked 100 lengths of his garden with his zimmerframe to raise a staggering £18 million for the NHS, the inaction of these juggernauts is bewildering.

These tech giants house huge wealth of knowledge in AI/AR/data insight and have traditionally been agile in re-thinking, re-inventing … so why the inertia? Which bring me back to crisis response… finding purpose. Alphabet’s (google’s owner) motto is ‘Do the right thing’ and Apple’s is ‘Think different’ …. Both of which are not currently embodied in their actions. They don’t appear to be very human in their response. Approaching challenges from a human perspective can yield some of the richest opportunities for change. They are missing their moment. Perhaps the tech leaders need to remember technology is just an enabler? Technology should be helping, not policing people… Drones could be delivering food and medical supplies, not chastising ramblers.

Now is a moment of great change, society is being forced to transform and technology is a toolkit. So technology leaders its time to be unleash the skills that got you there; be bold, optimistic, imaginative and drive the future …..empathetically

Or have they been caught like so many of us, like rabbits in the headlights; well tech leaders, you have had time to catch your breath, now its time to pay it forward.

Or perhaps this is the end of geek chic and people will rekindle their respect for in-depth expertise, scientific grounding and dedication to society? Perhaps this is the time where teachers, engineers, health care professionals and scientists will be heralded once more? These are the people who have been the most inventive so far....

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