If there’s one thing the past year has shown, it’s that very little in life is certain. What is certain, according to technology evangelist and author Theo Priestley, is our continued reliance on technology and the digital worlds which we inhabit.
DIGIT spoke to Priestley, co-author of The Future Starts Now: Expert Insights into the Future of Business, Technology and Society, ahead of the book’s release.
The book offers a “comprehensive history of tomorrow”, he says, exploring developments in a range of fields including artificial intelligence, data privacy, education and the future of work.
The latter of these subjects, Priestley says, is an area of particular excitement given recent events. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic prompted rapid, wide-scale changes to the way we work, live and communicate and shed a light on our relationship with technology.
Critically, Priestley believes, the pandemic has shown that working cultures can evolve rapidly and that businesses can implement changes at speed and at scale. Moving out of the pandemic, it is crucial we learn from and build upon these lessons.
A Guiding Hand
“To a certain extent, the pandemic has exposed how fragile and broken a lot of systems in our society are and highlighted just how much time we’ve wasted attempted to implement change,” he says.
“The pandemic flipped so much on its head. Before, a business implementing a digital transformation strategy, for example, would have sat down and given itself three years to implement changes – the situation changed in March last year though from three years to just three weeks, or else you’re going to sink fast.”
The coronavirus pandemic forced businesses the world over to re-think how they operate, how their staff work and even contemplate their place in society.
The pandemic also prompted the largest shift to a remote working environment in history, and it is likely to the be greatest shift in our lifetimes. From this, new tools and solutions have emerged while those already at our disposal were presented with an opportunity to show their worth.
Some floundered, some failed, some excelled. As did companies, public organisations, educational institutions and governments.
“We’ve adopted so many new tools since the beginning of the pandemic but the reality is that many of them have been around for a while. We’ve had Skype, Slack and other similar products at our disposal. We’re just using them better because we’ve had to,” he says.
Looking ahead and moving out of the pandemic and back toward some semblance of normality, Priestley believes the relationship between technology, businesses and individual citizens will be presented with critical hurdles.
The pandemic should be looked back at as a transitionary period, a moment where our relationship with technology and with work both changed. Reverting to previous modes of function would, in his eyes, be a significant step backwards.
“Moving out of the pandemic, this could be a very exciting chapter for business and the future of work. Once it comes to an end, I want to see people still operating the way they have for the past several months and bringing about change at the same pace, with the same purpose and with the same impetus,” he says.
“We could fall back into the old ways of doing things. Back into the grind of things and taking three years to make changes and wasting so much time,” Priestley adds.
A recent study from McKinsey shows that hybrid remote work will likely persist in a post-pandemic world, with 20 to 25 percent of employees in “computer-based office work” working from home three-to-five days a week.
That is four to five times the pre-pandemic levels for remote working or hybrid remote working.
Changes witnessed in working culture will likely be a lasting positive legacy of the coronavirus pandemic, Priestley believes.
A Perfect Fit
It isn’t lost on Priestley that a book exploring the future of technology is set for release during a such a crucial period. The pandemic has had an impact on the book, he notes.
The past year has exposed many issues discussed in the book, including concerns surrounding data privacy, increased automation, the use of robotics and their impact on jobs.
He is keen to impress that the book shouldn’t be taken as a gospel guide, so to speak, but hopes that it may offer glimpses at what businesses and society should be thinking about in years to come.
“I think it’s important that we not necessarily look for answers with some of the topics we explore here, but more for hints at what we need to think about if we are to progress as a society, as a species even,” he says.
“The book is all about the future of business, technology and society. So, if you’re interested in the challenges that we face as a society and the topics that we need to think about coming out of the pandemic, this is the book you want to read.”