Dynamics of New Normal
Asoke K Laha, President & CEO of Interra Information Technologies
My subject for this column is about the “new normal” and how that is different from the earlier normal conditions that existed, the impact it will have on the social, economic and political behavior of people. How that will affect the technology, business and the list is endless.
Have you ever seen earlier than three months anyone entering a meeting hall or a cinema theater wearing a mask? Perhaps one would have seen mask wearers, mostly foreign tourists, roaming in the streets of India. Rarely the Indians used the mask to protect them. Rather, those who had a pretty face always flaunted them. I feel in the new normal situation, a mask is going to be mandatory and people would avoid contacts of those who are not wearing that. It may not end there. Extensive research is being done to evolve foolproof personal protective equipment ranging from rollovers that cover every body part. Sooner or later, there will be major breakthroughs in that segment. Many new products will be launched and people start using them as a normal human conduct. Amongst them, there would be some designer products as well.
Could this lead to a good business? Let me start from a trivial incident. Some artists in Bihar, mostly Madhubani painters, who have found difficulty in eking out a living on account of the pandemic, are selling masks with colorful paintings at a cost of Rs 50 for a piece. The mask, they say, is three layered which can filter the virus or bacteria, and can be safely worn by anybody and can be reused. I have to believe what they are claiming. But what that struck me is their quick adaptation to suit the market requirements. Wearing masks can give one protection against several other viruses, bacteria, fungus etc. Should that be the new normal?
If so, it is time, India changes the gear in our textile products. We have to focus on healthcare products that will have an international market. Such things should come from the informal sector, not from big factories. That way, it can provide employment to many migrant laborers and they can continue with their profession on their own and the marketing can be done by their cooperatives, to prevent them being exploited by the middlemen. That is perhaps an opportunity being provided by the pandemic, which never existed earlier.
From the trivial, let me go to the big picture. I want to dwell on the segment that I am engaged in –the IT sector. I feel this sector would undergo a massive change on account of the Covid-19. The system of work from home existed in IT enterprises even before the pandemic. But during the Covid days, it had become the order rather than an exception. That is still continuing in one way or the other. I feel that is going to be the order hitherto. Very soon, I believe that several enactments might come for protection of data, encryption laws etc, which will help many other segments to resort to work from home culture. Many government employees, who do not have the field work,may get green signals for working from home, which can help in decongest cities and towns, regulate traffic and control pollution. Online education, according to reports, will be the common feature from now onwards replacing the classroom education.
Admittedly, it will have a flip side. That is mostly in the real estate sector. I foresee most of the skyscrapers which house big offices, may have to convert their premises into hotels or accommodation or hospitals since work from home culture can severely affect their demand. Consequent impact on employment generation, demand for industrial inputs like steel, cement, etc can be foreseen.
Will that happen on its own? I feel a lot of technology related research will be directed towards evolving devices that can connect a maximum number of people as if they were meeting in person in their offices or houses. I can foresee technologies being developed to reform the election process. People may not have to go to the polling booths to cast votes. They can cast their votes sitting at home or wherever they are. It could be a giant version of the present day zoom or similar technologies, which can be used cutting across geographies. I have a feeling that the coming elections in the US in November may be a game changer. If the Covid-19 continues unabated and hotspots remain as it is now, a newer voting system has to be put in place, having regard to the fact that postponement of the elections is near impossible in the US. There is the technology and the question is how soon the scope and range of the technology should be widened to cover more people and at the same time strengthening the cyber security systems so that the possibility of hacking is completely eliminated. A related issue is how that can be implemented in fragile democracies in Africa, where every election process is contested on the ground that they are rigged. That I feel should be left to technocrats to come out with solutions that can help eliminate malpractices of this nature in order to make democracies more vibrant and accountable. In the same way, such technologies are going to drastically change segments like entertainment, sports, auctions in market places and a whole lot of activities. Operas and sports events will be held online. The trend has started already with FIFA Football. Gradually that will be the order for tennis, cricket, baseball and what have you. The matches will be beamed through the digital media and people can see them sitting at home. The pertinent question is such arrangements existed even before the advent of Covid-19 and what is new in it? The difference is that the playground used to be full and players used to be cheered and booed. Now they will not have any such comforts except the presence of coaches and referees. Each player has to be identified by their digital images and their prowess has to be judged by the clarity and quality of the transmission. Will that affect the morale of the players is the question being asked by many since cheering gives them a lot of oxygen to perform. Could that also enable them to have mass fan followers like what Maradona had in his hay days and Virat Kohli is enjoying now.
Will people visit theaters and cinema halls the way they used to do earlier? I have a nagging feeling that the post Covid scenario will redefine the entertainment industry. The new apps including the now banned Chinese Apps have created new players in the entertainment industry. We are aware of the catchy scenes shot in the videos going viral and reaching out to millions of people. Such videos and skits performed by unknown artists, particularly those away from the tinsel towns are making headways across the world. They are also earning income based on hits or other metrics. Some of the artists have huge viewership, more than the people who dominate the film world. You can see such shows in all languages with subtitles so that the language barrier is broken. Now the trillion dollar question is whether such a trivial genre of entertainment would replace the high budget films? But one thing is clear. People visiting cinema halls will be considerably reduced in the coming days since there is a general tendency among people to avoid crowded places. That mindset, I feel, will be enduring and may continue even after the Covid-19 scare is bottomed out.
Will that ignite the sale of companies like Netflix etc, since people would like to see movies at their convenience? I feel that is a possibility. What happened to zoom could also happen to such direct to home companies. Zoom was available for quite some time and was used by big companies which have operations across geographies like Amazon, Apple, Google etc to train and reach out to their staff spread across the world. People never thought of using such technologies for holding meetings, seminars and workshops etc. Now, a new word has entered the lexicon –webinar- and rather taken the world by storm going by the number of such interfaces being done across the world. Now birthdays are held through webinars so also marriages and other social functions. I believe that the concept is going to stay till the time it is going to be replaced by some other technologically superior interactive mode.
What are the segments that will be worst hit in the process? I have a lurking fear that travel and tourism will have to bear the brunt at least for some time since people will be reluctant to travel since the general perception is that the Covid-19 spread mostly through travel. That will have a telling effect on airlines, the hospitality sector, hotel industry, tourism and all those segments which are dependent on these sectors. Of course, many jobs in the formal and informal sectors will be at stake. What is the way out? I do not have any suggestion in this regard except that it is not for each country to sort out such problems. It is a global problem which demands global solutions. Let us keep our parochial interests apart and work for humanity. That also I believe is the new normal.