Part IV: Can we uninstall and reinstall 2020? This version has a virus.

About four weeks ago, we were put in lockdown. Four weeks of social distancing, washing our hands, and staying indoors. It has not been easy, but green shoots are starting to appear. The hospitals are still working, and there are intensive care places available. The spread of coronavirus is slowing down, and the curve appears to be flattening. At the same time, we are gradually finding our own pace of life: we are teaching ourselves new best practises, and there is a work-life balance once again. But at the same time, my enthusiasm for the sun, spring and Easter holidays seems to be levelling off. I am looking forward with interest to seeing how the group of 10 will get us out of isolation. There is a gradual increase of grumbling because people can no longer manage in their home. Yet there is also a feeling of joy at the front door. We are already looking forward to the moment we can get back to work and send our children back to school.

Paris, hopefully there will be another date soon. The fear of becoming sick or infected is no longer so strong with me. What’s more, sometimes I hope that, like many, I have become infected without noticing and that I now have the necessary antibodies. In that case, we will soon pass the test and be able to get outside. And I would like to get out, just like everyone else. It’s Easter break, normally we would go to Paris for my birthday. But not this time, it will be an Easter weekend in Hasselt. Nice, but not quite the way I had imagined it. All my hopes are now focused on summer. But how are we going to arrange the summer holidays? This is why we have “the 10”. They will decide about our holidays, about the reduction of the isolation, and the return to our (new) normal life. We will probably spend our summer in our own country, but hopefully in complete freedom. 

“DARQ is the new SMAC” was the title of my presentations last year concerning innovation and the future of technology. Distributed Ledger Technology (blockchain), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Extended Reality and Quantum Computing should be the top tech trends for 2020. But although we haven’t quite reached DARQ levels yet, the times are already “dark” enough in plenty of areas. Various components will be removed for a while, and we are reinstalling SMAC: Social, Mobile, Analytics and Cloud. Because the 2020 version has a virus. 

SMAC takes care of our convenience, lets us communicate with friends, helps us search and shop for things we want. But Facebook data breaches have also taught us how much data we leave behind and how it is massively misused by large companies and politicians. We are gradually becoming aware of the importance of data privacy, but on the other hand, Nest cameras and smart speakers are being bought en masse. This brings a huge challenge in terms of the balance between convenience and privacy. Perhaps this will be the new currency with which we will trade in the new normal. And maybe then we will all get a “Digital twin”. Actually, I’m convinced. I don’t yet know whether the first major application on a global scale should be the combination of our health status and our location data. 

 And yet it looks like it. We all want to get out, to be among others, to go to work as we did a few weeks ago. There seems to be a solution: take blood tests for antibodies that confirm immunity to corona, and use a contact tracing app that tells us if we are a threat to those around us. Yes you read that right: the Cronos App doesn’t offer a way out, but the Corona App does! It couldn’t be more SMAC if it tried.

Is the result of COVID-19 a shake up of not only our health, but our privacy as well?

Are we soon to give up our freedom and privacy in order to regain our freedom with regard to work and holidays? The so-called contact tracing apps warn us when we have been around someone who is infected. But do we really want to know? Or do infected people want to tell us? Can we roll the system back afterwards? There are systems out already that use mobile phones to record how people move from one postcode to another, how many walk around a park or shop, or how many people stop at a petrol station. This is all done on the basis of anonymised data from Google and the telecom operators.

The proposal is to link our Corona status (none/infected/immune) to our smartphone. We can then be quarantined if we’ve been close to an infected person. Our smartphone suddenly becomes an ankle strap that checks whether we are actually staying at home.

Why would we want this SMAC application that our digital twins already carry? 

  • To enable health authorities and government to work more accurately than is currently the case. 
  • To limit the spread of virus, by identifying who has been in contact with who, and to be much more accurate with the required quarantine measures. 
  • To inform people by advising them via smartphone to stay at home when they come into contact with an infected person. 
  • etc.

These are all applications we want, because they are necessary for us all to get out.

These apps have already been used successfully in Singapore, South Korea and China. But they cannot be described as the best householders of freedom and privacy. Can GDPR save us? How plausible is this solution for Belgium? Do our politicians have sufficient leadership? The huge spectrum of decisions will have to be taken at a rapid pace, but the population must also participate. When can we say we have reached the limit? We are looking at the group of 10 for answers, the group of 10 experts who must get us out of isolation.

We are doing well as a country. We are adhering to the lockdown and the measures involved. If you’d told me five weeks ago that I wouldn’t be able to go to Paris with my family over the Easter holidays, I would have laughed at you. Today, reality proves the opposite. And so the blood tests and the contact tracing app will also be introduced as a kind of Easter gift from our digital twin.

I did not think and certainly would not dare to predict this application would ever come about. I would also like to warn against the simplified view that technology is the solution here. Throwing apps, data models and robot messages on top of one another and thinking it will all be solved with less privacy and freedom is too simplistic a view. How long were we in contact, did we cuddle, did the contact take place inside or outside? All this information is relevant and important and cannot simply be read from the bluetooth smartphone data.

And yet, perhaps this disruption is what we’ve been waiting for. Perhaps this is “the crisis” and the real start of the new technological revolution – industry 4.0 – that has already been discussed so much. SMAC is then the starting point of a new era, but with the necessary ethical considerations and respect for our privacy. Common sense must also be used. Verbal human communication, interaction and empathetic motivation are much more effective than messages from robots and our digital twin’s location data. Anne Smits and our colleagues from Monkeyshot will elaborate on this in a new blog.

Back to the locals

I already see some interesting initiatives heralding an “inclusive society”. I see them by watching them in my own environment (zip code 3500 Hasselt ?) and not as PowerPoint presentations from Gartner in Barcelona.

The PXL and UHasselt have a Ma(s)ker-Space, an umbrella website where supply and demand for personal protective equipment is mapped for the Limburg care sector. The 23 3D printers from PXL and UHasselt are running day and night. Every day, employees and students are producing about 50 parts for protective face masks. On their website, Makerscollectief4Limburg, care centres can pass on their needs, and companies that can print can register, as can people who want to donate materials.

Local manufacturing and crowd: everyone is spoken for and the materials are being produced on their own land. As a result, for example, we are becoming less dependent on China for materials that are vital to life at the moment. This also benefits our sustainability and self-confidence.

But initiatives such as the buurderij (Dutch wordplay on buur (neighbour) and boerderij (farm)), where you can buy directly from your farmer in your own region, have tripled orders on average. No hoarding, empty racks or long lines at the entrance to the shop. You buy locally, it is a short chain that strengthens the local community. By dealing with food in this way, you can make progress in a sustainable way.

The call to support local and Belgian start-ups and scale-ups is getting louder, and rightly so. We have so much young talent and passion here, each individual, start-up or scale-up is desperate to take the next step and contribute to our sustainable progress.

The result of COVID-19 should be a new understanding of what we need to focus on more, what we have, and what we can do here. 

I am confident that, from this crisis, many people have learned there are also local opportunities that contribute to a beautiful and meaningful existence for us all.

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