In A Time Of Crisis, Can Digital Technology Save Globalization?
Ever since I picked up a copy of Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree nearly 20 years ago, I’ve been convinced that globalization is here to stay. But the idea has been under fire recently, blamed for everything from job loss to income inequality to immigration — a backlash that has flared up before (think Brexit or other previous nationalist-type movements) but is now raging with the coronavirus and the fears that come with seeing supply chains seize up, public events canceled, and governments move to close borders and restrict travel.
Is this the end of globalization? And is technology to blame? Or is it the unintended consequences of policy and policymakers that often seem one or two steps behind the latest innovations or default to short-term thinking? (“Hey, we can figure it out after the next election.”)
Since I lead our digital transformation research team, my lens is a business and technical one, not a political one. So I have to ponder: If digital technology enabled globalization — or at least massively accelerated it — can it also save it?
Certainly, using digital technology has helped firms create global trading networks, new ways to work and play, and more data than we know what to do with. Digital technology also brings us together in new ways (think mobile apps, videoconferencing, and rich media), allows us to get insights never before possible (think the internet of things, visualization, and AI-powered predictive analytics), and is enabling massive disruption across the demand and supply chains of multiple industries (think of the rise of platforms like Uber or global online marketplaces such as Amazon or Alibaba). This all, of course, provides broad benefits to many but often at the cost of others, like the steel workers who lose their jobs to a cheaper competitor overseas.
So digital is a contributor, but not the only cause, of globalization. Digital can reduce friction in global trade by scaling online B2B commerce or even transforming shipping with blockchain. But it also needs oversight and a solid strategy (policy) to roll out effectively — just like globalization.
As Peter Goodman remarked in a recent piece in The New York Times, where he looked at the backlash to globalization, “ . . . the moral of this story, say economists, is not that globalization is inherently dangerous: It is that market forces left unsupervised pose perils.”
How Collaboration, Open Data, And (More) Transparency Are Part Of The Solution
Just because you can launch a new app or wire up the next data feed doesn’t mean you should. We already suffer from information overload in our everyday work, while some consumers also suffer from digital addiction, which in a time of crisis becomes a big problem if we can’t sort the signals from the noise.
We also have digital platforms that aren’t exactly transparent in how they operate and don’t always serve all participants equally (do you really think Facebook’s first priority is users — or advertisers?), even though digital platforms do indeed make it much easier to reach and engage with colleagues or customers or trading partners.
This duality has always been the nature of technology. It just becomes more visible in election cycles or when there is a data breach or a global crisis like the coronavirus. Yet as we adapt our routines, and ponder what is next, it’s clear that digital technology can be part of the solution in obvious ways, such as allowing us to work virtually thanks to tools like Microsoft Teams or Zoom, and behind the scenes, by enabling new ways of testing patients, analyzing and sharing data, and even helping to source needed materials or information.
But global efforts require planful collaboration and shared goals, just like large-scale enterprise tech initiatives. They also need clear communication driven by accurate, actionable data. Once officials in China shared the genetic code of the coronavirus, scientists around the globe could start working on a vaccine and treatment plans. That’s the power of globalization at work.
With uncertainly around the spread of COVID-19 in various regions, and spotty reporting in others, getting a simple, visual view of global cases and trends is also paramount. Beyond government websites such as this one from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control of the European Union, it’s been heartening to see a range of other parties step up to provide free, digital dashboards and maps powered by open source data, such as those from Johns Hopkins, the University of Virginia, and the University of Washington.
And as digital channels like marketplaces continue to open up new global markets for many sellers and provide more options for buyers, in a time of crisis, they also provide alternatives if your local shop is closed or out of stock. For businesses looking to find second sources for direct materials, emergency supplies, or even specialty skills, the odds are there is a seller in one of the hundreds of industry-specific marketplaces we track — many of which are based in emerging markets.
So even if globalization may deserve a reboot (along with healthy discussions about the viability of walled gardens and how to regulate the more open tech platforms, perhaps as “attention utilities”), there is no putting the globalization genie back in the bottle — especially as digital advances continue to shrink the distance between all of us.