Covid-19 will pave the way for more innovation: Deep tech experts

Companies must innovate to prevent a post Covid-19 digital divide, said panellists at the virtual discussion.
Companies must innovate to prevent a post Covid-19 digital divide, said panellists at the virtual discussion.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Covid-19's disruptions have required organisations to find new ways to adapt and will pave way for more innovation, said an expert panel discussing the pandemic's impact on deep tech industries on Wednesday (Dec 9).

Panellists during the virtual discussion, held during the Deep Tech Summit that was part of the Singapore FinTech Festival and Singapore Week of Innovation and Technology (SFF x Switch 2020), said companies must innovate to prevent a post-Covid-19 digital divide, and must train staff to reduce the threats of pandemic-related cyber-security risks.

Titled Deep Tech For A Post-Covid-19 World, the discussion featured chief executive officer of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) Frederick Chew, general manager at Microsoft Renee Lo, and the World Economic Forum's head of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning Kay Firth-Butterfield. It was organised by Government-owned venture firm and deep tech developer SGInnovate.

Deep technologies refer to scientific breakthroughs or significant advancements which, when applied, have far-reaching implications across sectors and can potentially change lives for the better. Some examples of deep technologies include AI, which is the simulation of human intelligence in machines, and the Internet of Things, which involves embedding physical objects with sensors, software and other technologies to enable, among other things, automation and remote control.

In an opening address before the discussion, CEO of SGInnovate Lim Jui called Covid-19 the "Chief Innovation Officer of the year" on account of how it has changed the way companies around the world, including those in deep tech, conduct business. Pivoting towards remote work and using tools like video-conferencing to keep going was one common instance.

He said: "(Covid-19 has been) accelerating science and technology, (and) innovation, that would normally have taken years into a matter of months."

Echoing this, Ms Firth-Butterfield said that in the past, SFF x Switch would be held physically in large venues, but the event is largely held virtually this year due to the pandemic, signalling how Covid-19 has necessitated innovation and allowed for more global conversations to be held with lesser difficulty through video-conferencing platforms like Zoom.

"We miss that opportunity of just bumping into people and having good conversations, but we are enabled to have conversations that are actually critically important about how the world progresses, through these (online) media," she said.

Mr Chew said that digitalisation has been a key strategy implemented by Singapore and its Government to make sure that the country manages to emerge stronger from the coronavirus crisis.

Ms Lo said that Microsoft has observed that digitalisation and innovation is taking place now at an accelerated pace.

In September, a survey done by the tech giant and market research firm IDC Asia-Pacific revealed that nearly three-quarters of Singapore's organisations are accelerating their pace of digitalisation due to the pandemic.

However, Covid-19's disruptions have hit companies differently, and cautioned about the mixed ability of firms to respond to these disruptions, she added. Larger companies with deeper pockets are better placed to stem the effects of the pandemic, but smaller firms may not be in such a position.

"So we're in this divide, where some were innovating into the future, and some were just trying to keep the lights on," she said.

The solution to this is to innovate into the future suggested Ms Lo, who noted that even firms in industries considered to be worst off, like hospitality and airlines, have a renewed interest in creating new experiences for their customers.

Mr Chew agreed, adding that he has also observed that companies in consumer-facing industries like eateries and retail organisations are pivoting digitally and trying new business models.

Earlier on Wednesday, in a virtual speech during SFF x Switch, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern also spoke on this and underscored the importance of ensuring every single person is equipped to participate and benefit from the digital economy.

"Our digital future must prioritise the well-being of all people, and be truly inclusive. It will be important to ensure that every single person in business has what they need (to) participate in, contribute to, and benefit from the digital economy," she said.

The panellists were also asked about how the pandemic has affected cyber security, to which Ms Lo pointed out that there have been attempts to hack high-profile pharmaceutical companies around the world.

While tech providers like Microsoft can work on the technology to bolster online defences with tools like multi-factor authentication and encryption, what is more important is to make sure people are continually trained to have good cyber hygiene and to be aware of dangers that lurk online, she said.

Experts consistently agree that the weakest link in cyber security are the end-users, and Ms Lo said that hackers have been using tactics to trick people into handing over passwords or even Covid-19 data by posing as job recruiting messages or other phishing tactics

"From a cyber security perspective, we can provide as much as we can, but we also need the digital citizens to be very savvy," she said.

Additional reporting by Choo Yun Ting