Last week I had the luxury of absorbing myself in discussions on the next waves of technology innovation. As we dive further into deep tech here at CCGroup, the CogX and London Tech Week conferences provided the perfect environments for me and Chloe Pope to explore what’s on the horizon. But many of the discussions prompted me think about where organisations involved in the development of cutting-edge technologies must focus their communications efforts. Our mission here at CCGroup is “to help tech companies influence our world for the better” so we were keen to see quite how technology innovation is playing its part.
Unsurprisingly, “the current crisis”, the COVID-19 pandemic, was a major feature in every conversation, usually falling into one of three categories; dealing with the crisis, recovering from the crisis, or learning from the crisis – sometimes all three. Whilst this crisis is undeniably a terrible event in our lifetimes, conversations unwittingly revealed some flaws in how we think about and communicate innovation. The sessions we attended are merely a snapshot of everything that was discussed, but here’s our take on what we saw and heard.
- “The crisis has driven innovation like we’ve never seen before.” The idea here is that the lockdown conditions many of us have faced have forced us to reinvent the way we do things, with a dramatically positive effect on technology innovation. I just don’t believe this is true. There’s no doubt that we’ve had to change the way we work and live, from extended periods of working at home and isolation from our families, to changes in how we acquire essential goods and services. Much of the attention on “innovation” has focused on the criticality of communications, notably the increase in video conferencing use and consumption of streaming content. But there have only really been a few feature tweaks here (“introducing…gallery views!” and Quibi’s launch), and no wholesale adoption of much-touted virtual reality or immersive technologies that might have helped us all feel little more connected. The underlying telecoms infrastructures that supports video conferencing and connectivity have also been scrutinised, but on the whole, have stood up to everything thrown at them, requiring very few emergency upgrades to sustain them.
The truth is, as painful as the lockdown has been in human terms, its few months have been a mere blip of time in typical technology development cycles. Trying to claim that the crisis has driven innovation just doesn’t hold water. And let’s remember, everything we’re using during lockdown was available before – we maybe just weren’t so conscious of it, and didn’t use it on the same scale. (I will accept that some organisations have been quick to review business models and practices have shifted to accommodate new civil rules and restrictions, e.g. supermarkets ring-fencing shopping hours for key workers, and innovating deliveries. But this is more in the realm of business/corporate innovation than tech innovation.)
- “The crisis acts as a springboard that will drive innovation.” It might, but some of the signs aren’t particularly positive. One area as noted above, immersive content experiences, had a lot of airtime at CogX on the Createch stage. Virtual Reality (VR), and its Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) cousins, are still massively complex technologies with some serious technical hurdles to be mastered before they can become mass market and affordable, as we know from our work with InterDigital. Yet the CogX VR and MR focus was for the most part on gaming and entertainment applications – consumer markets where price points are still off the chart for most.
There were some isolated examples of true VR innovation: there was a great example from Virtually Healthy (who create “VR exercise programmes for fitness, rehabilitation & therapy”) and a couple of app producers whose platforms are used for “edu-tainment” – augmenting tourist experiences in museums and galleries etc., but essentially this market has been stuck in its own hype bubble for three or four years now. I fear that without some serious new impetus, its tech development is plateauing. What we would hope, of course, is that the current crisis will provide that impetus, and new-found ways of working and interacting will drive the market for development. But there’s no way to gauge that now, and we will have to wait and see if the gauntlet is taken up and carried.
- “Tech innovation is alive and well!” Is it? Well, yes, I think it probably is, but maybe not in the ways we’d like to see.
First, in the red corner, if technology progress is so good, why is the current crisis being proclaimed as such a valuable springboard? Where was the innovation before the crisis? An article in Sifted this week by Maija Palmer revealed how “a quarter of companies are not planning to invest in innovation projects at all this year”, due to the uncertainty surrounding the crisis. Yesterday also saw the launch of Sony’s PS5, and apart from some “wow!” moments around graphics, didn’t really draw a great deal of excitement. On Twitter, IBC365’s James Pearce said “…not getting excited about the #PS5 announcement. The only games console launch to excite me in years was the Switch. All the rest..are just more of the same.”
But second, in the blue corner, I also joined a panel session at London Tech Week on Wednesday with four venture capital firms who more or less agreed (much to the moderator’s frustration!) that valuations and investments are more or less stable and as they were before. This is good news: money is still flowing toward active innovation (even if some of the terms are being tweaked for uncertainty). This was further borne out by a CogX session Chloe attended where it was remarked that tech entrepreneurs are the most effective at driving change and innovation, not politicians/state enterprise. A solid investment strategy should build portfolios that balance safer bets with higher risk/higher reward “moon shot” investments, for example those in quantum computing, to encourage innovation that can drive economic growth and societal advantages.
Supporting this, there were some fascinating insights into some genuinely cutting-edge technologies that are really pushing the boundaries “for good.” These included Virtually Healthy, above, and work by University of Sheffield’s Speech & Hearing Group on scaling voice technologies for those with speech difficulties, e.g. cerebral palsy and dementia, where “standards” like Alexa often fail because they rely on “perfect speech.” The tech can also be used in speech recognition to detect tiny changes in voice patterns which reveal other illnesses (Parkinson’s disease, for instance), sometimes decades before other biological markers.
Other presentations provided more stimulus for thought about deep tech innovation, from neuromorphic computing for robotics and high speed vision applications, through discussion of public/private collaboration and funding for space exploration (put data centres in low earth orbit – they’re cheaper to run with solar, don’t need A/C and are better for the environment!), to spatial computing and the metaverse.
So where does this leave us? The turgid discussions on VR remind us that despite all the technology, human interaction and emotion are still visceral experiences which cannot always be replaced by technology (Benedict Evans produced this excellent blog post this week on our expectations for online events that explains it better than I can.) And it reminded me that innovation cannot and should not happen in a bubble. To truly drive innovation, it must be linked to real-world need and applications that can make a difference to our lives, from less-apparent benefits like data centres in space to very personal things like vision systems for dementia carers.
And then, its value must be properly communicated. Certainly in some of the health tech examples, the technology is inherently complex and needs carefully crafted messages to make sure it’s properly understood. In the space exploration session, panellists agreed that most of the population don’t understand the value that tens of years and billions of dollars of investment have given to our daily lives – weather forecasts, global communications links, navigation, TV etc., and that it’s next wave will bring support for things like disaster relief, and internet connectivity for shipping. It’s not just “landing on the moon.”
As I’ve always believed, technology should not be developed for technology’s own sake: it must have a purpose, and we must constantly reassess what’s important to us as humans. Ethics plays a role here, and a good analogy was that of drug vs. software development: if you develop a new drug and trial it on people and something bad happens, you have medical boards to account to. But if you create some new software, and people come to harm from it, where does the responsibility for regulation lie? Current discussions around racial and gender bias, facial recognition and so on are particularly apposite.
I can’t wait to see where the next wave of innovation will take us and what impact it will have on our lives. Let’s hope that those in the labs and development centres can ensure their messages are properly heard and understood.