The global pandemic forced millions inside and online, changing the way the world interacts and does business, and accelerating technology adoption. George Driver discovers how this year, New Zealand brought the future a little closer.
March 22, 2020: I am standing at the door of my tent in a deserted campground on a Northland beach, watching the waves crash in the sunset as the world shuts down.
The previous day my girlfriend and I parked up on a winding coastal road, finding a rare patch of radio signal as Jacinda Ardern addressed the nation and introduced the Covid-19 alert level system. The campground we were staying at announced it was closing early in anticipation.
We negotiated to stay one last night – alone in this tranquil cocoon, seemingly insulated from the tumult of the global pandemic. But we could still sense it, bearing down on us like a tidal wave.
This was how I spent my 31st birthday – the strangest of my life. The next day lockdown was announced.
Our six-week trip around the country was over. We had been searching for a new home, and a new life, after returning from living overseas in December. Now our opportunities were somewhat diminished.
In two days we drove 2000km back to my old hometown of Clyde, Central Otago, for the foreseeable future. From a cottage on the Clutha River I read each day as the media industry – my career – teetered and began to collapse. I had hoped to find a job at a regional newspaper, the kind of place where you can hear the printing press rumble next door and smell the fresh ink as you type. But as advertising evaporated it seemed like print might be another casualty of the pandemic.
Bauer closed, taking New Zealand’s best-known magazines down with it. The headlines called it an “apocalypse” for print. The rest of the country’s magazines were stranded without income, unable to be printed, unable to be delivered. My travel writing career ended with a group email from my editor. She said the company was “changing our strategy a bit” and I would not be paid for the work I had submitted and been commissioned to write.
But first Covid taketh, then it giveth.
Within a few months, the web of the world knitted together new opportunities and my career was wrenched into the 2020s. I found myself working for an Australian news company, in a project funded by the tech giant Google. I was soon in daily trans-Tasman video calls with my editor in New South Wales, working on my laptop in the Central Otago sun.
This led to a gig funded by Facebook, fact-checking conspiracy theories and misinformation which, like Covid-19, was spreading around the globe via a network of “likes” and “shares”.
Suddenly with the world indoors, living in a small town at the end of the earth didn’t seem so bad.
Scenes like this have repeated countless times around the globe. Millions forced to work from home and businesses forced to migrate online or disappear. From yoga classes to supermarkets, within weeks the world’s businesses were forced to go digital – or die. And new opportunities were literally created out of the cloud.
A report by international consultancy McKinsey, released in May, found companies had “vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks” as businesses moved online. A follow-up survey of nearly 900 executives around the world found companies had made a seven year leap in the rate of developing digital services. And it said these changes weren’t a blip, they were here to stay.
Here in New Zealand, a report by Westpac found companies have been boosting their spending on tech, despite an economic crisis, in order to adapt.
“With the digital genie now out of the bottle, firms are likely to be more open to new ways of operating, and this will drive spending on ICT products that encompass new digital technologies,” the report said.
At Vodafone, this upheaval meant the company discovered new and better ways of working out of necessity – and the acceleration of digital technologies has meant its business customers are looking for different solutions.
“Working remotely is now the norm, with video calling common practice, whereas a year ago it was predominantly the terrain of early adopters,” says Ross Parker, director of IT and digital at Vodafone. “We’re now seeing more businesses asking about free-range working solutions – and embracing mobile technologies so that their staff can work wherever they are.
“People in industries like property and agriculture are used to getting work done outside of a traditional business or home office environment – but after Covid changed the game, we’re now seeing large organisations equipping their teams and even call centre staff do the same. This pace of change is unprecedented in recent times, but it is exciting for tech companies like ours.”
The lockdown also accelerated the adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) within the business. As customer inquiries migrated online it provided the opportunity – and necessity – to make greater use of AI chatbots to help customers with basic queries and problems. And despite more customer service being essentially provided by a robot, customer satisfaction levels were unaffected.
The applications of AI are only just beginning to be understood and will vastly accelerate the rate of tech development over the coming decade, says Parker.
“It’s probably one of the most important things, to be able to capture data and actually learn from that very quickly. That’s what speeds up the product development cycle and that’s what AI can enable.
“We still need more time to learn about using it, but eventually we hope to predict when customers may have a problem and by using AI we may be able to address the issue before it even arises.”
When lockdown hit, New Zealand’s largest farming supplies store, Farmlands, had to shift its business online in an instant. The cooperative’s old and little-used online shopping platform had been taken down while it was updated and it was doing almost all of its business through its 82 stores around the country.
Deemed an essential service, it continued operating during level four, serving tens of thousands of farmers around the country, but under the restrictions customers couldn’t enter the stores. But it managed to launch a new online shopping platform in just two weeks and the online upgrade quickly paid off – for the customers and the retailer.
“When we launched the new site, in the first 10 days of sales it did 10 times what the previous site had done in 12 months,” chief executive Peter Reidie says.
“Covid been a huge catalyst for growth, because customers have also learned how to make online transactions and even though we are long out of lockdown our online sales are still way up.
“But now our competition has also raised the bar so we have to keep developing. We can’t stand still.”
The company is now looking at using AI to analyse customer habits online so it can tailor promotions and develop new products. They are now able to adopt new technology in a much quicker time frame.
“Despite all of the disruption, it’s meant our company is in a better place than it was a year ago.”
It’s not just businesses that have rapidly adopted new technology during the pandemic. At Whanganui DHB, Covid-19 has seen the rollout of video consultations for patients at a rate never envisioned.
When ICT service delivery manager Alex McLeod started working at the DHB two years ago many of the computers were still using Windows 2008. He brought the DHB into the 2020s, moving its IT system on to cloud-based software with the support of the Vodafone Business team. This set the platform to rapidly develop video consultations, called telehealth, during lockdown.
The DHB went from being something of a tech laggard to a leader and it is now helping other DHBs learn how to rapidly roll out the service and integrate it with cloud-based administration software.
“Staff think it’s great, patients think it’s awesome,” McLeod says. “It’s opened up another way to deliver healthcare without having to travel.”
Now doctors and specialists in Whanganui can see patients around the region without leaving the hospital and at-risk patients don’t need to come in for routine appointments.
“If we can improve the experience for the patient, that is really what it’s all about,” McLeod says.
It has also made healthcare more accessible for those who have difficulty coming into the hospital, and for those in rural areas. Older patients who would normally require a carer or a family member to take time out of their day to bring them to the hospital, or those who have to travel long distances, can now have their consultation at home.
For others, Covid-19 has highlighted the benefits of being an early adopter of new technology. Clyde School had already set up online learning prior to Covid-19 and the transition to remote learning during lockdown was relatively seamless. Not only did the system respond well, but the students did too.
“Online learning was well embedded and that offered a model that transferred well to remote learning,” says principal Doug White. “We’re now looking at the kids’ achievement and lockdown hasn’t significantly altered where they are at.”
Lockdown also helped teachers build new online networks, both nationally and internationally, to help them share good practices and resources for remote learning.
But even when schools like Clyde and DHBs like Whanganui create online systems to respond to the online demand, not all students or patients are able to embrace them in the same way. Covid-19 also exposed a stark digital divide in New Zealand.
A government report estimated 145,000 students didn’t have access to the internet and/or devices in April during lockdown. A 2019 survey found 15 DHBs cited patient access to devices as a barrier to using telehealth and 12 DHBs reported patients’ internet quality was a barrier to their ability to use online health platforms.
At the decile nine Clyde School, White says the main issue during lockdown was with some pupils in rural areas having trouble accessing high speed internet – Clyde will finally get fibre in April 2021. At Whanganui DHB, McLeod says it is looking at ways to get devices to patients who don’t have the means to access them.
“We’ve got a poorer demographic so we are mindful to make it equitable and we are looking at ways to bridge that gap,” McLeod says. “We’ve been reaching out to organisations that are doing an upgrade to see if they can donate some of their old devices and we can hand them out to people for telehealth.”
The DHB is also investigating sponsoring data so people can access the telehealth service even if they don’t have credit.
Earlier this year the government partnered with Vodafone and other telcos to sponsor data so people can access Plunket and other public health websites without using their own data. While the government programme doesn’t cover video calling yet, McLeod says the DHB is looking at paying for it themselves.
Vodafone is also looking at ways to make access to technology more equitable. In response to Covid-19 it donated 300 devices with loaded SIMcards to community partners across Aotearoa, and the Vodafone Foundation grants millions every year to local non-profit groups working to create more equitable outcomes for young people.
“We are working hard to help more disadvantaged rangitahi and New Zealanders to get digital services, because we certainly don’t want to see people left behind as digital connectivity becomes more important,” says Ross Parker.
But with the pace of technological change accelerating due to Covid-19, what will the coming decade bring?
Looking back to just 2010, I realise I was living in a completely different era. I didn’t own a laptop. I went to lectures at university (which weren’t online) with just a pen and paper. I was still using the phone I got when I was 14, an Alcatel 332 whose main selling point was its polyphonic ringtones. When I moved to the North Island in 2014, I drove up navigating using a paper map.
When I finally gave in the influence of technology on my life was rapid. I got my first smartphone five years ago, and it quickly became an inextricable part of my life. When I left it on the bus while travelling through Europe last year it was like losing a limb.
For good or ill, technology will become an even more pervasive part of our lives according to Andrew Chen is a research fellow at the University of Auckland’s Koi Tu: Centre for Informed Futures, a think-tank that attempts to anticipate the impacts of new technology.
“The access is already there in your smartphone, but over the next 10 years it will become even more in your face all of the time,” Andrew says. “It will be embedded in our houses, in the surfaces of our furniture and appliances and we will have devices that change how we interact with the online world, like VIR and smart glasses.”
Those who aren’t connected will be further left behind.
“Already for a lot of us it would be hard to actually live in our society without access to digital technology. We are seeing brick and mortar stores closing down and more shops and services are only available online. Over the next 10 years that’s going to happen more and more.”
This will pose numerous challenges – from equitable access and ensuring those who don’t want to be online or have the skills to do so can still participate in society, to cyber security and privacy as more of our lives go digital. And do I really want Facebook in my fridge and Google in my glasses? I’m reminded of the words of the great thinker Karl Pilkington: “a problem solved is a problem caused”.
But, like my work – funded by tech giants via an international media company and conducted from my deck in Clyde – these changes will also create opportunities we can’t yet envision. Ross Parker says there’s no going back and therefore we need to engage with the change and ensure new technology improves our lives, while trying to mitigate the negative effects.
“Technology can be incredibly positive for New Zealand if we embrace it,” Parker says. “So businesses and the government need to ensure our citizens are set up for success with the skills, tools and frameworks to thrive in the new digital normal.”
This summer, I’ll be heading back on the road, travelling the country once again. But now I’ll be able to take my career with me. From a tent on the beach, working in the cloud.