Consultant Director | Member UAE Superbrands Council | Carter Member tie Dubai | HBR advisory council
When considering technology, do we seriously think and debate improved manufacturing, robotic surgeries, vertical farming, sustainable manufacturing, and use? Or are we focused more on smartphones, smart devices, gaming, metaverse, and AI? Thanks to the stock markets, the global definition of technology has narrowed. There is no way that the importance of smartphones, devices, and social networks can be diluted, and this article in no way undermines the considerable contribution these have made to our society. However, global productivity figures indicate that, over the past several years, most of the world seems to be living in an era of technological stagnation. Everybody knows that technological innovation is reshaping the world faster than ever before. The proof is in our pockets, now containing a tiny device that can access vast amounts of data and information. Technological innovation is visible in our children, who spend all day staring at screens, and it’s embedded in our stock market, where Apple, Alphabet, Google, and Meta compete for the highest valuation of any company on this planet. Why do productivity experts have a different story to tell, then? In recent years, our lives have been improved in several ways – taking GPS, digital photos, OTT, and almost zero-cost communication. Is it because, the way GDP is currently calculated, it is good at catching value to businesses but not good at catching deals to individuals? For example, When GPS technology was adopted by delivery and logistics companies, productivity in that sector went up in geometric progression. But google maps are provided free to mobile users. So it’s reasonable to believe that household productivity has also gone up. But that’s not measured in productivity statistics in how it needs to be done. Digital technology has transformed a handful of industries in the media and entertainment space that, unfortunately, occupy a mindshare that is hugely out of proportion to the overall economic importance of these segments from a global productivity point of view. So, is the perception of being better connected via social media and OTT lulling us into believing that technology has improved our existence? The most relevant explanation could be that technology is changing how many of us play and relax more than it’s changing how we work and produce. We use computers and various devices in all jobs, which is a fundamental change. When electricity made it possible to create light with the flick of a switch instead of the strike of a match, the process of producing light was changed forever. When the electric elevator allowed buildings to extend vertically instead of horizontally, the very nature of land use was changed, and urban density was created. And so it was with motor vehicles replacing horses as the primary form of transportation. And air transportation makes the world a global village. Then, there were medical advances in the 18th and 19th centuries: sanitation, anesthetic, antibiotics, surgery, chemotherapy, and antidepressants. Nothing improves a person’s economic productivity better than remaining alive and healthy. However, let’s look to the present. The global economy is facing significant headwinds in the coming years, ranging from an aging workforce to excessive regulations and very high inequality. Technological innovations will have to overcome all these, besides steady GDP growth. The hugely positive part of technology is that a lot of work is being done in machine learning, gene editing, antibody design, driverless cars, material sciences, robotic surgery, artificial intelligence, and more. This kind of detailed, high-investment work takes time to turn into new products, usable medical treatments, and innovative startups. As an eternal optimist, I am sure we will see these technologies’ dramatic effects over the next 10-15 years.
The disruptive part of technology is that companies will use their superior productivity to destroy their competitors, revolutionize industries, and push the economy forward. See what Amazon has done to the retail sector. See what Uber has done to the taxi cab industry. What is holding back the global economy isn’t so much a shortage of technological advances but the inappropriate uses for which some are being put. Most global organizations believe they should be doing better if they have installed advanced technology. But, in effect, the hardest thing in most companies is not about building the technology stack but getting people to make strategic use of it and make better future road maps.
We have gotten used to a TV anchor saying, “technology stocks are down today,” and we all know which half a dozen stocks are being talked about. The honest answer to the query of whether technology is seriously improving productivity or just providing lifestyle experiences lies in the fact that there are many areas of our existence where technology is being used to research better ways to exist in the future, ways to create a better and more sustainable planet, to seriously improve human longevity and productivity, to provide education in innovative ways.
These areas, these organizations are not so much the focus of media attention. Most media attention is given to technology, defined as ‘changing fast.’