Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Scale, distribution, and occupying Mars: COVID-19 is a catalyst

While our major industries and institutions are still using centralization and consolidation to achieve economies of scale, our most important technologies are increasingly tended in the opposite direction, toward decentralization and distribution. Innovators and entrepreneurs are beginning to see new opportunity areas emerge in this gap, and we expect that CEOs will begin to see that growth.

Why the coronavirus might not be exponentially spreading

An important lesson in 2020 is that every business must be digital. Another important lesson is that a shift from centralized to distributed business models will further expand the gap between businesses that can compete and win based on the stakeholder experience. In an experience-led economy, design-thinking principles aimed at delivering speed, mass personalization at scale, and intelligence will define the winning vs. losing businesses. 

The flow-by-design principles introduce business leaders to seven principles of flow, led by connection as the first principle. Today, there are new opportunities for growth using the principles of distribution. In this piece, we briefly note a few of these opportunity areas where the principle of distribution is foundational and where we expect to see growth over the coming years.

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The seven principles of distribution -- designing for optimal stakeholder experience by minimizing process friction, with emphasis on co-creation of value at the speed of need. 

Distribution and COVID-19

We have already predicted that, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 will be the year that changed the trajectory of e-commerce, telemedicine, and remote work. We will see greater pilot programs and accelerated adoption of autonomous delivery vehicles, digital payments, contactless payment technology, voice and video conferencing, voice-enabled mobile business applications, AI-powered CRM platforms, sensors and wearable health monitoring technology, internet of things (IoT) technologies aimed at automated and autonomous serviceability capabilities, drone delivery (medicine, food, and product home delivery via smart drones) and 3D printing additive manufacturing. 

Even in the very short term, we are seeing the influence of the pandemic, with a huge increase in both consumer and business sales for home office/distributed work technologies. Use of the Zoom video-conferencing application has skyrocketed from 10 million daily users to 200 million within a matter of weeks, and computer hardware, software, and accessories have all flown off the shelves:

"With consumers embracing big screens and dual monitor setups, the first two weeks of March saw 80,000 units sold at retail – double that of the same time-frame in 2019. Business-to-business notebook sales increased by almost 30% year-over-year for the last week in February and then saw an over 50% increase in the first two weeks of March. Monitor sales were flat at the beginning of February and then saw a 10% increase during the last week of the month and a 40% increase for the first two weeks of March." -- The NPD group, Its time for home productivity to shine, March 30, 2020.

In short, despite the immediate and very real health and economic crisis accompanying the virus, we expect a technological Cambrian explosion of sorts to be either accelerated or generated by it. As our Salesforce colleague and global innovation evangelist Brian Solis puts it: 

"We are looking at a future in which companies will indulge in digital Darwinism, using IoT, AI and machine learning to rapidly evolve in a way we've never seen before." -- What is the Internet of Things? WIRED explains.

The Distributed Web

The father of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, is not entirely happy with how his invention turned out, in particular with the way that companies have come to own and control personal data. Sir Berners-Lee is currently working on a project with MIT called SOLID which has the goal of creating a distributed web, with the decoupling of personal data and application at its heart. Solid is an exciting new project led by Prof. 

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, taking place at MIT. The project aims to radically change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy. Solid (derived from "social linked data") is a proposed set of conventions and tools for building decentralized social applications based on Linked Data principles. Solid is modular and extensible and it relies as much as possible on existing W3C standards and protocols. Solid offers true data ownership (users have the freedom to choose where their data resides and who is allowed to access it), modular design (applications are decoupled from the data they produce, users), and reuse of existing data created by other apps. 

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web.

Decoupling always creates new opportunities and has a major scaling impact. Around 1440 AD, Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press, which decoupled text (the data) from a book (the application) and made the mass reproduction and accessibility of knowledge possible for the first time. Nearly 400 years after that the invention of interchangeable parts, most notably in the construction of firearms, decoupled function from function, part from whole, and ushered in the world of industrial, mass production of just about everything.

So we should expect the decoupling of self (personal data) from application to foster a similar burst of creativity and innovation. This will manifest both in changes to existing solutions and the development of brand new ones. When we have a digital self as well as a physical one we will need to take care of it, groom it and enable it to reflect and represent us appropriately. We will want to ensure that our selves are coherent, that we are equally trustworthy online as well as "in-person," and that our goals in both worlds are consistent with each other. Whereas existing virtual worlds may enable us and even encourage us to escape our real selves, new solutions built for the distributed web paradigm will enable us to coordinate and maximize the potential of our selves and the worlds we build.

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The promise of SOLID and the distributed web with privacy and use of personal data, as envisioned by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. 

Sir Tim Berners-Lee and the SOLID team are by no means alone in this quest. OpenID, Maidsafe and Mastodon are among several other initiatives all with a similar focus on the distributed web, and of course, the entire blockchain ecosystem has decentralization and distribution at its core. Together they are building a foundation that truly redefines our concept of the web and the internet as a whole.

Rural Resurgence

One of the more unexpected implications of the flow-based principles is that we should expect to see new growth in small towns and other rural communities. We recognize that this goes against all the demographic data available.  According to the 2018 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects produced by the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), the urban population of the world has grown rapidly, from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018, accounting for 55% of the world's population, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050.

While we certainly concede that the urbanization trend will continue, especially in those parts of the world that are still mostly or significantly rural (e.g. Africa at 57% and Asia at 50% rural), we think that the most urbanized regions (e.g. Northern America at 82% and Europe at 74% urban) are likely to experience a rural resurgence.

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Steve Case and the 'Rise of the Rest' venture capital investment tour.

This resurgence will be driven by the technologies we have listed above and by other technological and social considerations including:

  • Scaling broadband access and affordability - The Increasing reach and speed of "broadband" internet connections. Lack of reliable coverage has long plagued rural communities across the USA, but there are encouraging signs of forthcoming progress Including the rollout of 5G, the latest generation of wireless communications technologies and the in-progress deployment of the Starlink satellite constellation (again a distributed model of many, small satellites, across a wider region of low earth orbit than traditional satellite solutions)
  • Cost of living and access friction - The cost and friction of living in urban communities, most notably the cost and scarcity of real estate, and the duration, cost and inconvenience of many daily commutes. The lack of space and time are major contributors to a sense of living in the "rat race". While many notable authors have rightly argued for cities as crucibles of innovation, the continued development and emergence of technologies that enable us to create, contribute and collaborate remotely and avoid the costs of physical population density will provide compelling alternative platforms for growth.
  • Improved wellness for both planet and individuals - Increased awareness of ecological factors such as the need for sustainable energy, regenerative agriculture, and a circular, or cradle to cradle, the economy of production and consumption. Combined with concepts of holistic wellness and holistic education, there seems to be a growing belief that we are disconnected from nature in ways that are harmful not only to nature but also to ourselves and that the city is the epitome of that disconnect.
  • Remote work adoption - The development of technologies that are not only distributed but that support autonomy, in particular  the advent of distributed, additive manufacturing (3D printers and other smart, connected machines) that enable smaller, more rural or remote communities to build and maintain the things they need locally, as well as a near-future combination of telemedicine and autonomous/drone medicine delivery (and future distributed compounding?)
  • Venture Capital expanded access to talent  -The continued rise of micro-financing in various forms (e.g. Grameen America, Steward) as well as investors like Steve Case and his "Rise of the Rest" initiative aiming to reach more of the country's entrepreneurs than those on either coast

In short, despite the demographic data, we believe that small towns across the country are set for a new, more vital episode in their histories, powered by technologies that support distribution, connection and autonomous all at once and that enable people to pursue more sustainable, closer to nature lifestyles.

Occupy Mars (and elsewhere)

Back in 1989 Rodney Brooks and Anita Flynn published Fast, cheap, and out of control: A robot invasion of the solar system, in which they argued that, instead of committing to hugely expensive, single point of failure missions (e.g. one lunar or mars rover), space exploration should be carried out by a whole swarm of cheap robots, each with a relatively higher likelihood of failure but collectively with a higher probability of success. We are still some ways from being able to act on this proposal - although it has been suggested that the decision by NASA to deploy two rovers to Mars in 2003, namely Spirit and Opportunity, rather than one was influenced by it -- but space exploration as a whole has become less centralized thanks to the fairly recent pioneering efforts of private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.

Space exploration and exploitation (e.g, asteroid or lunar mining) is still a fledgling industry. Apart from the established aerospace, defense, and satellite contractors, nearly all the "pure space" companies are small and privately owned. A recent, hectic bubble of interest in Virgin Galactic stock was quickly popped, but there continues to be great excitement, especially as SpaceX looks set to be the first private company to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station within the next few months (currently scheduled for late May 2020).

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Imagining Tesla roadster reaching Mars. In 2018, Tesla Motors and SpaceX successfully tested a powerful rocket, using it to launch a Tesla Roaster into space. More than a year later, a Romanian artist named Andrei Lacatusu used digital renderings to create what a Tesla-inhabited red planet might look like.

USA Today

The point of this is that COVID-19 makes the prospect of us humans being a single planetary species seem less and less likely or desirable. A global pandemic posing an existential threat to our survival no longer looks quite so far fetched as it did a few months ago. Ensuring a distributed, multi-planetary future for us seems to be Elon Musk's driving force behind SpaceX, and if he continues to demonstrate success with his upcoming missions we are confident that the space industry as a whole will be poised to grow dramatically over the next few years. 

Summary

We know from our research that flow-based solutions are more responsive than traditional ones. So we can use the principles of flow to design holistic solutions both to mitigate future crises as well as to create a more resilient, regenerative world. The virus will be a catalyst for a more distributed, more connected world with greater individual autonomy. This will play out over many existing and new industries and opportunity areas but will require leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs to redefine cherished concepts like scale. When value and success flow across entire ecosystems rather than being accumulated by individual entities, new ecologies of scale are created, offering a new world, or worlds, of opportunities for all.

This article was co-authored by Henry King, a business innovation and transformation strategy leader at Salesforce