In 2021, we’ll see the real winners and losers from the pandemic digital shakedown

from 18/01/2021

A predictive view into 2021 from Glenn Fitzgerald, Chief Data Officer, Products Business Europe at Fujitsu


Glenn joined ICL in 1979 as an apprentice and has worked for the company, now Fujitsu, throughout a varied career, during which he has gained expertise in a wide range of IT fields, including manufacturing and production test, hardware, software and firmware design, infrastructure implementation, project management, and business and ITC architecture.


In his current role, Glenn is responsible for ensuring that the technologies utilized within Fujitsu are an optimum balance of capability and function, delivering industry leading coherent solutions that balance a supporting vision for customers’ varied businesses with the “art of the possible” at any point in time; technical feasibility, cost, timescales, risk and flexibility.


To say a lot changed in 2020 would possibly be a contender for the understatement of the year award. But it’s important to note that many things that changed set the scene for further disruption in 2021.


Let’s start by running through the main points – things that changed in 2020.


  • Online shopping and banking went fully mainstream. Of course, for digital savants who started digital shopping in the late 1990s, this is not new – but the global pandemic did serve to force many people to change their habits – and start doing their banking and ordering groceries and other goods online. In countries impacted lockdowns, up to 70% of customers who previously bought in shops moved online – and many will keep the habit. This led to online retailers needing to seriously raise their game in 2020 – because mass adoption is the great leveler. The adage that you are only one click away from the competition has never been more of a threat or an incentive.


  • The transformation of Public Services and Education has finally been kickstarted. in many countries, the pandemic has been the wake-up call for the digitalization of local government. When people cannot go to a council office to order or receive a service, then digital becomes prevalent. We still have a long way to go, but at least it’s been a start. Likewise, many educational institutions were forced to take their first steps toward digitalization. In many cases, these have not progressed any further than starting to use video conferencing and tablets – and there is still a long way to go before online education addresses the issues around copyright, where debates have raged for years.


  • Restaurants, among the hardest-hit of all sectors by the Coronavirus, have needed to innovate multiple times – for example, introducing mobile phone-based ordering to avoid the need for printed menus handed from customer to customer for digital ordering and delivery.


The winners in 2020 were firms that could strengthen or leverage their IT infrastructure. We saw sweeping advances in technologies from logistics firms optimizing their deliveries to local village doctors offering video-based consultation. In many cases, the pandemic was precisely the shock to the old system needed to inspire something new.


However, along with the winners, there are also the losers – and in 2021, this will become increasingly clear:


  • Members of society without access to digital devices will lose out. Some of the most vulnerable sections of society, such as the elderly, and the poor, are the losers when digital becomes the primary delivery channel for services. Anyone who does not have access to a computer or smartphone of their own or doesn’t know how to use it will be at a widening disadvantage in 2021. This will lead to a more divided society, with the losers being the people stuck in an analog world.


  • White-collar workers performing repeatable role-bound tasks will find their jobs are more at risk from digitalization. For the first time, it will be white-collar workers who are most impacted by an industrial revolution – and this will create a pool of people who are hardly re-employable. In roles like insurance risk assessment, call centers, and service centers, automation is accelerating – driven by artificial intelligence and machine learning. To put it bluntly, this is replacing the humans who perform these roles today. The outlook for these people is quite grim: many white-collar workers will find it hard to accept retraining. It’s simply not possible to retrain and pivot to a new job in the digital economy in just a few months. It takes years to gain the experience to justify a highly paid role. People affected by digitalization will become the digitally deserted.


  • There will be no return to the old way of mass working in offices. If you used to work in an office and have been working from home for the last nine months or so – it’s time to accept that this isn’t a temporary move. More and more companies – including Fujitsu – have taken a look at their office space requirements through a different lens. This means that all knowledge workers will need to focus on finding a quiet, undisturbed working space with the appropriate bandwidth to support the flawless use of videoconferencing and other online collaboration tools. Now that you’re no longer guaranteed a desk in the office, it’s time to make more permanent plans for work from home – because perching on the edge of your bed, on the couch, or working from the kitchen table isn’t sustainable.


  • Internet speeds will play an increasing role in determining house prices, especially in rural areas. It used to be the availability of public transport that helped define the winners and losers in the suburbs in terms of real estate prices. As deurbanization spreads, so the new influencer over house prices will be bandwidth. Rural communities that are investing in increasing bandwidth will see a corresponding increase in real estate value.


  • City centers will undergo another revolution. A 20%-plus drop in office space occupancy is just the start. We saw mass migration to the suburbs in 2020, as people living in cities realized they could not take advantage of the benefits of city life. Why live in a cramped high-rise when there is no longer a need to be within easy reach of the office? Consequently, many city centers may become emptier – at least until more office space is converted to living space.


  • The shift from capital expense to operational expense will accelerate. Why buy or commit to a multi-year lease for expensive, central office space when you can simply rent desks or space on demand, according to your varying needs? The same applies to technology. Companies are shifting how they use technology – from the old model of buying on a three- to five-year lifecycle to more consumable, pay-as-you-go cost models. That way, you are far better equipped to deal with any significant increases or decreases in demand. This is particularly noticeable in the on-premises data center, where cloud adoption has accelerated.


  • Privacy concerns and federalism may slow down progress. This is primarily a growing threat in Germany, which pays much more attention to privacy than any other nation. This is in real danger of impeding digital progress. On the topic of privacy, we must still standardize data privacy laws between European countries. Only then can GAIA-X, the European digital service, become a viable alternative to the US hyperscalers.


In conclusion, the winners of 2020 have already defined what success will look like in 2021. Organizations that are dealing with data and technology as a whole have gained a massive competitive advantage. As technology becomes business-critical, a fragmented approach towards infrastructure, services and applications will increasingly become a burden. The winners in 2021 will be those firms who take a solution-centric, function-centric approach across teams and knowledge bases. Winners will be those firms who work with partners like Fujitsu to bring together all of these various strands to create a meaningful big picture. 2021 will be all about realizing the value of your data and mobilizing all your technology assets.