The COVID-19 outbreak globally has triggered a surge in organizations, corporations and educational institutions offering distance solutions to reduce the risk of potential transmission. Schools are trying online learning solutions, companies engaging in work from home strategies or organizations shifting their meetings and travel. For both health and liability reasons we are seeing more virtual options being employed.
What once may have been considered either a perk or a potential cost-saving measure, distance work is now about to be tested on a massive scale across the world. I myself am sitting on my home patio, typing on my laptop and streaming music as I write this. Yet I remain connected to my office via email and chat applications, document sharing solutions, and my ever-present smart phone.
The ability of organizations to shift to virtual solutions is itself a reflection of the rapid spread of communications and information technology over the last several decades. Low or no-cost video conference solutions and VOIP calls, document sharing and cloud-based applications and a more robust and expanding communications infrastructure offers options that would have been more costly and difficult even a decade ago, and perhaps only available for a very limited subset of organizations 20 or 30 years ago. Even retail and food service industries have some insulation due to online ordering and delivery.
Manufacturing has already seen a reduction in necessary workforce through automation, and one of the promises of 5G networks is enough reduction in lag time to allow additional industrial operations from a distance. And while it got off to a rough start, distance learning has evolved to provide more reliable and interactive experiences that may not fully match direct interaction, but at least offer approximations.
While technology is not going to eliminate the need for workers in physical locations, it does facilitate alternatives. Communications and information technology advances have facilitated new dynamics in social and commercial interactions, created entire new lines of work, and provide opportunities for access to information and knowledge from across the globe in a cost effective and minimally disruptive manner.
The infrastructure that allows communications and collaboration at a distance, that facilitates automation and monitoring of critical systems, also provides the pathways for nefarious actors, whether state or non-state, intent of theft, disruption, espionage or destruction. Even the idea of the free-flow of ideas and information is increasingly suspect - in some cases over fears of manipulation and disinformation campaigns, in others over the spread of counter-narratives that undermine social cohesion or government control.
But the very benefits of these systems also create vulnerabilities. The infrastructure that allows communications and collaboration at a distance, that facilitates automation and monitoring of critical systems, also provides the pathways for nefarious actors, whether state or non-state, intent of theft, disruption, espionage or destruction. Even the idea of the free-flow of ideas and information is increasingly suspect - in some cases over fears of manipulation and disinformation campaigns, in others over the spread of counter-narratives that undermine social cohesion or government control.
There are growing calls in the international community for the right of states to “cyber sovereignty,” similar to the control states are accorded over land, sea and airspace. And attempts in international fora to define common standard and norms over the rights and uses of cyberspace are fraught with disputes core concepts of information flows and government responsibilities.
Concerns over espionage and non-traditional warfare through cyber means has also spilled over into the realm of hardware and physical infrastructure. The U.S. campaign against China’s Huawei is just one very public case among many.
Differences in the context of information, of the state’s relationship with its citizens and corporations, and views on personal information security and national physical security are making any consensus difficult if not impossible. And these differences are not just between the United States and China; the European Union and the United States do not see eye to eye on cyber issues. The economic incentives for further development of modern information and communications technologies, and their relation to automation, artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and distributed computing, for example, only add to the sense of competitiveness rather than cooperation over the future of technology development.
As we note in our Decade Forecast, the combination of economic, political, social and security issues is driving the world down a path of fragmenting technology and cyberspace, rather than toward more unification of ideas and systems. In the physical world, one could look at the old Soviet decision to build their rail system on a different gauge than that of Europe or Asia. This facilitated the movement of Soviet operations to their borders, but reduced the ability of others to use the same infrastructure to strike at the core of the Soviet Union.
As we look out over the next decade, we are seeing signs that this pattern may be repeated in the cyber domain. For businesses, this means a more complicated future operating environment - one that may have implications not merely for the movement of ideas, but they physical expansion of globalized business operations as well.