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  • Writer's pictureKhawar Hameed

Architecting the Digital Future

Updated: May 5, 2021

The power of digital infrastructure in enabling and supporting societies during a time of crisis has been seen on a global scale and the current COVID-19 pandemic has perhaps led to a watershed moment where we will not return to previous practices or ways of working life. We may soon ask, “Why didn’t we do this before?

2020 will undoubtedly be remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic - for the extremely sad and heart-breaking loss of lives, the deep & far-reaching global socio-economic impact and the year when, for the first time in many people’s lives, normality changed. The lockdown enforced by Governments across the world to tackle the spread of the virus confined people to their homes, limited or prohibited freedom of movement & travel and consequently affected virtually all aspects of personal and work-related life. Crucially, it affected one of our most fundamental human needs – that of social contact, and the fundamental need for engaging with the activity of work to earn a livelihood.

‘Digital’ has played a critical role in fulfilling these needs through, for example, enabling telepresence – allowing people to remotely connect, communicate, access services and continue with their work during these difficult and challenging times.

Through telepresence, dialogue and relationships have been maintained or formed and the emotive essence of that dialogue has been strengthened through visual contact through screens that goes far beyond just the written or spoken word. Social distancing and isolation have been transformed into a sense of belonging, community, and shared social experiences through the digital ether where we have become virtual neighbours and friends. Telepresence has changed how we work. Work is no longer a place that we necessarily go to - it is what we do. New patterns that deviate from traditional temporal and spatial frames associated with work have been realised. Ones that allow flexibility of working according to qualitative time, not clock time and where spaces have morphed – where places of domestic residence have become places of work.

Flexible working, including telework is not new and indeed it has been established practice in many organisations for some time, but the current COVID-19 situation will spark a new deeper realisation regarding the power of digital and that the architecting and construction of work, in the broad traditional form & sense as we know it, is somewhat archaic.

Telepresence is a good example to illustrate the power of digital. It is something that many of us will have experienced in recent weeks and it demonstrates the potential of digital as a transformative and disruptive force that can permeate through all areas of life – in personal, social and commercial contexts and across ages, genders, cultures and location.

Thus, the power of digital infrastructure in enabling and supporting societies during a time of crisis has been seen on global scale and the current COVID-19 pandemic has perhaps led to a watershed moment where we will not return to previous practices or ways of working life. We may soon ask, “Why didn’t we do this before?”

The paradigm shift of decorporealisation of social & organisational systems and infrastructures provides an opportunity to architect the future and next-generation systems. What will the future look like and how will we construct this? We can, perhaps, start with the end in mind – a vision of a hyperconnected world, rich with digital innovations that meet the needs of future society. A future in which accessible low-friction digital systems and services that enhance quality of life and experiences are seamlessly and effectively delivered. A future in which engagement with work and leisure is based around individual qualitative spatial and temporal constructs and personalised needs. Whilst a vision of the future may be digital, it also needs to be human-centric – the true power of digital is the transformative value it yields for people.

Architecting and building that future requires harmonising creativity, culture and technology. It provides opportunities for cross-sector collaboration to create innovative product & service innovations and it cannot be based on siloed thinking. Digital is a multi-faceted positive force which results in macro-level impact including changing human behaviours, creating new ecosystems, place-shaping, disrupting industries and catalysing the development and deployment of next generation solutions in the spectrum of application areas. To generate that positive force, a unified innovation flow and fluent dialogue between sectors is required.

What we need is smart cross-sector collaboration that moves away from locked-in thinking and enables agile adaptation to market forces in the digital economy. This form of collaboration and the systemic & intelligent interweaving of contributing mindsets to yield digital congruence is crucial – it is not bricks and mortar that will build the future, but collective intellectual capital arising from creative mindsets and partnerships.

As organisations are responding and adapting to the current situation resulting from the virus, they will also be charting their future. This will be against the backdrop of global economic recovery, an increase in the pace and unpredictability of challenges and potential large-scale systemic changes in organisational thinking and practice. In order to meet these challenges in the new networked society, there will be a need to foster a culture of co-creation where creativity and innovation is the norm - one which equips organisations of the future with resilience, skills and the capability to respond to internal and external changes in the digital knowledge economy in an effective and agile manner. Capability and agility are important – as we architect and move into the future it is likely that new competitive markets and new opportunities that are accessible to new entrants in a low-friction manner will emerge.

The need for co-aligning the forces shaping the digital future is likely to occupy a higher place on the agenda as part of a necessary evolution on the digital continuum in the modern digital economy. The human-centric aspect of this is likely to emerge as the driving one – placing people at the heart of innovation.

In the future, when we look back to 2020, we will reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic, the devastation it caused and how we responded to this as one unified global society. We will reflect on how norms were altered, how we fulfilled our human needs through digital infrastructure and, how from the ashes of the experience and impact, a new phoenix arose marking the dawn of a new digital era.

Khawar Hameed

Khawar Hameed is Founder & Principal Consultant in Digital Innovation at Artisans of Innovation and Visiting Professor of Digital Innovation at Birmingham City University, UK.

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