Our webinar entitled, “How Digital Technology Will Change How We Work in a Post-COVID Future,” brought together a panel of experts to discuss the future of industry. In just 50 minutes, our moderator, SensorUp Founder and CTO Dr. Steve Liang, and our esteemed panelists shared their visions of the future. 

We recommend watching the full recording, but we’ve also extracted some of the key takeaways here, along with some choice sound bytes from the experts. Read below to learn how soon “everything will be connected,” and why video games may hold secrets that will inform the future of industry. 

The panelists

Dr. Nadine Alameh, CEO of Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) is responsible for creating and integrating the strategic direction and business plans of the Consortium in partnership with the OGC Board, members and staff.

Dean Prevost is President of Rogers for Business, joining the company in September 2017. He is responsible for delivering innovative solutions to support Business Customers, including Wireless, Wireline, IoT and Advanced Services, as well as Data Centre.

John Hill is the Vice President of Digital and Information Technology for Suncor Energy. John joined the company in March 2020, bringing over 29 years of experience in information and communications technology, and deep expertise in leading significant digital transformations.

Our moderator, SensorUp CTO Dr. Steve Liang is a global influencer on the Internet of Things, and he is the working group chair of several international standard working groups of the Open Geospatial Consortium and UN’s ITU-T.

1. The pandemic is accelerating the pace of change

To start the webinar, all of the panelists were asked: What innovative solutions do you see happening already that will affect our post-COVID future? All three gave different responses but were in alignment around one central theme—that the global pandemic is changing the rate of innovation. “I think what it has done has accelerated everything,” said Dr Alameh. She envisions a near future with contactless airport experiences, autonomous vehicles, drone deliveries and more, with IoT sensors driving the experience. 

“We’ve seen some surprising developments,” agrees Hill. “Why did it take a pandemic? We could have been doing things faster. It’s forced us to think differently. To me, it was the human innovation that impressed me most.” Hill admits that the sudden change in innovation indicates that leaders may have been holding back and “over-governing.” Later in the webinar he added, “We don’t need a pandemic to keep things going.”

Prevost was similarly surprised by the adaptability people are showing during the pandemic. “What caught me was the speed of people responding to change so quickly.” Before the pandemic, Rogers for Business was rolling out a new technology solution—fixed wireless access—that was called into action much sooner than their original release timeline. Rogers launched hundreds of fixed wireless access devices in hospital parking lots across Canada to enable pop-up COVID testing stations. It’s a solution that was fast-tracked to meet immediate demand but is also indicative of an emerging trend in communications technology (see #6 below). 

2. Remote work and a “hybrid model” will become the long-term status quo

The pandemic has brought a lot of obvious changes to the way we work and the rise of the home office. “We are living it,” says Prevost. “We will go back to work somewhat, but it will never look as office-centric as it once did.” He speculates that businesses could require as little as 50% of their existing real estate, even after conditions allow for the safe return to office life. 

With this particular panel of experts however, remote work can take on a deeper meaning, beyond the usual implications of having knowledge workers telecommuting from a home office. “Why do you need an air traffic control tower with access to so much data?” challenges Dr. Alameh. A job that was historically dependent on line of sight is already much more dependent on live data and sensor technology. 

Hill already lives in a world where autonomous control over vehicles and massive amounts of environmental and safety sensor data are the norm. Suncor presently has active projects in Northern Alberta, and in the Atlantic off the coast of Newfoundland, Scotland, and Norway. Adapting to the pandemic “was not a one-size-fits-all policy.” Suncor’s crews are continuing to adopt new technologies that record their locations, vital signs, or environment. How people perform with all of this new connectivity and the shift to remote work depends on a lot of factors, in particular, one’s off-work hours. 

“There are advantages and disadvantages to what I call the hybrid mode,” says Hill. “Knowing how to turn off your computer and tend to family needs is important.”

3. The remote model enables an even greater talent pool and skillset

“We shouldn’t have had to wait for this to explore ‘work from anywhere,’” says Prevost. “Canada is a very large country, with smart people everywhere. Remote work gives us access to  a much wider employee set with great skills. Being in the office isn’t going to matter as much. I see excitement there, and opportunity that didn’t exist before.” 

To harness the full extent of creativity though, we need to find new ways to collaborate, warns Dr. Alameh. “It can’t be all technology or virtual. It’s human beings, working together, people-to-people.” She goes on to hint that a lot can be learned from the way young people are collaborating in virtual environments (see #8 below).

4. Almost everything will have the ability to connect to the IoT

“You can stick a sensor on anything,” says Prevost, speaking as much of the present as the future. He adds that virtually anything can be monitored—from heat or cold, to elevation, location, toxins, and more. “Learn the patterns and you suddenly have a level of control and capability that you never thought was possible.” 

As mentioned above, Suncor already has members of their workforce wearing sensors and sharing data. “Think of it as your online digital Fitbit,” says Hill. As a VP of Digital, Hill is aware of the privacy concerns this creates—a going concern for all industrial teams.

5.  Security, ethics and privacy will become key functions of industry

Hill warns that with all this innovation comes new opportunity for nefarious behavior, meaning that security concerns will keep pace with the rate of innovation “Using (sensor data) appropriately, with privacy concerns, will be interesting. As an IT and digital leader, we hire legal and ethical experts as well. Privacy of that data is critical for us.” 

The switch to remote work and the protection of the kind of data that Hill is talking about became a new product line for Rogers for Business. “You think about home as something for your family, but now home is a place you work from,” says Prevost. “We built a secure solution for a home office network environment.” He uses the example of his own home, with several family members streaming videos or playing video games. “It puts my calls with my clients as a higher priority over them getting onto Fortnite. None of the family can be part of the traffic that is part of my work environment.” 

“It’s really a hot topic,” agrees Dr. Alameh about the need for ethical use of IoT data. “We need to start taking it seriously. We all agree we are inundated with information. We need to stick with interoperability principles. We need to stick to standards and take them seriously from the beginning, and yes I am biased.” 

6. 5G will eliminate the need for costly infrastructure hubs

The arrival of 5G networks represents more than simply a next generation of download speeds or reliability. It reduces the dependency on wired networks for longer-term, large scale applications. “The wireless world, until recently, was to connect people,” says Prevost. “In the land of 5G, we can bring the power, capability, bandwidth, low latency and security into the wireless world. The opportunities for that are mind blowing.” 

Whereas one might previously have had to worry about whether their network could handle a video signal, or whether an autonomous vehicle could suddenly lose its connectivity, “5G erases that distinction and worry,” says Prevost. All of that speed and capability opens the door for even more data collection. “Every sensor now can be connected to anything.” 

”Gone are the days of the traditional data center,” agrees Hill. 

7. Predictive analytics will drive the next industrial revolution 

“Getting vast amounts of data is the easy part,” says Hill. “Context and understanding that data is the hard part. What are you actually gaining from that info?” AI, machine learning, and predictive analytics will help teach us what we don’t know, and automation will improve safety and productivity.

Dr. Alameh uses the example of how predictive analytics can help with disaster preparedness, giving decision makers “all of the information, even in real time. I can evacuate earlier, move people, put up popup shelters… Think about how far you can take predictive analytics to actually save more lives and prevent disasters. That’s how I see this coming together, but it’s not going to happen without ethical use, interoperability standards, and partnerships. We have to work together because of the bigger picture.” 

8. Are video games the bar to which industry should aspire?

While remote work has its advantages in the form of flexibility, it lacks the full human connection of in-person interactions. “I’m dying for a good application where I can simulate whiteboarding with someone in person,” says Dr. Alameh. Watching her own children playing video games has led her to believe that the video game industry can teach the rest of us a thing or two about connectivity and collaboration. She uses the example of how students at MIT recreated the entire institute in the virtual world of Minecraft. It’s worth taking a closer look at video gaming technology “so we can collaborate virtually a little more naturally.” 

“Video games have a very high bar,” agrees Dr. Liang. “They are very collaborative. Think about playing video games or even watching Twitch. There’s opportunity there.”

Final thoughts

To close the webinar, all three panelists were asked for their rapid-fire thoughts on the future of work. “I’ve been at this a long time, 30 years in telecom,” says Prevost. “Now everything has AI with predictive capabilities and machine learning. And now with 5G, I just think there’s a whole new opportunity to run things safer and more predictably, but also more personally and less intensively. It opens up a whole new line about the way we work and consume. I can’t tell you how excited I am.” 

“The pandemic woke us up from a stagnant, over-governed state,” says Hill. “But to me, it’s about mental health, balance, and data collection. Drive simplification, and make sure you’re protecting what’s important to you, as an individual and as an organization.” 

“We are still in the storm,” says Dr. Alameh. “Let’s focus on the actual problems we are trying to solve. Going back to the human component and the divide. We need to bridge that divide between us and use the lessons we learn via technology, otherwise we are just widening that divide even further.” 

Then our CTO and webinar moderator summed up the entire 50 minutes as succinctly as only he could. “Everything will be popup and flexible,” says Dr. Liang. “Security is important and be mindful of the divisive. Video gaming is the bar.” 

Watch the full webinar recording now

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