The new digital world and the Holodeck

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged businesses to evolve their digital selves in new ways. An important lesson from 2020 is that every business must be digital. But we face real challenges before we reach digital utopia. John Kao, a world-renowned innovation and leadership expert, shares his views on the future of work and leadership as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

John Kao, founder and chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation

The Economist called John Kao "Mr. Creativity" and a "serial innovator" and CNN the "innovation maven." He is a thought leader, practitioner, and activist, who has played a leading role in the fields of innovation and business creativity for over 30 years. His knowledge is eclectic and blends the perspectives of former Harvard Business School professor, serial entrepreneur, musician, master facilitator, former CEO, Harvard-trained psychiatrist, best-selling author, and Tony-nominated producer of film and stage. Yamaha Music Corporation named him their first "innovation artist." He is a trusted advisor to leaders of companies, startups, and nations that are on the hot seat to deliver meaningful innovation strategies and action agendas. 

I first met John Kao when we both spoke at a higher education technology summit. We then collaborated to advise a blockchain startup CEO on the importance of data ownership and privacy. Kao was also a brilliant guest on my weekly video podcast DisrupTV, which I co-host with Ray Wang, CEO and founder of Constellation Research

Kao is also an incredible innovation expert and storyteller, often working on projects to improve the state of society and education. The innovation manifesto by Kao is a must-read. 

I have written about how 2020 will be the year that redefined distance learning, telemedicine, remote work, ecommerce, and accelerated adoption of several new emerging technologies. It will also be the year that created an entirely new set of new business models based on aggressive digital transformation imperatives. I asked John Kao to share his thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic and future of leadership and innovation. 

Here are Kao's thoughts: 

We will look back on the black swan of COVID-19 as a milestone in our transition from the old digital world to a new one. It is forcing innovation in how we work, play, learn, care for ourselves and connect. 

Certainly, the virtual domain has been a factor at least since Alexander Graham Bell's words "Watson come here" projected human intention through cyberspace. The notion of virtual work has been around at least since 1972 when the term "telecommuting" was coined by NASA scientist Jack Nilles.

But the current pandemic has challenged us to evolve our digital selves in new ways. Examples: A Fortune 500 CEO recently organized a virtual town hall for 50,000 employees. Which begs the question of what is leadership in the virtual domain as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Salesforce Chatter, Zoom, and other business-oriented collaboration platforms become the new work culture we inhabit. Then there is education. A high school student told me recently that transitioning to all online/remote learning wasn't nearly as good as being in school because continually staring at a screen "felt like doing homework all day." E-health is booming as people clamor for advice about coronavirus via telemedicine channels, while the questions of who and what to trust remains greater than ever. We hope that our politicians will ponder the challenges and opportunities inherent in the virtual for political campaigns and election security. And we hang out in new ways now - virtual yoga and wellness classes, concerts (thank you Yo-yo Ma), dramatic performances, meditation sessions, and even sex.   Necessity, it would seem, is the mother of invention.


Star Trek and the Holodeck

All this is happening while the technology to support our lives continues to advance. Star Trek raised our expectations with the Holodeck, which presaged highly realistic, virtual environments that supported a wide range of activity. Now Microsoft has announced a hair-raising technology that is in a sense the opposite - an augmented reality system called Holoportation that allows people to embody themselves virtually in real, shared environments. Science fact is becoming stranger than science fiction.

But there are real challenges on the road to a digital utopia.

Personal identity and trust remain high on the to-do list. If I can "meet" you in a digital environment that is fully realistic with the exception of touch (and that problem is being worked on as well) how can I trust that you are you?  How will I know that what you say about yourself and your qualifications is true? There are related issues of security and "hack-proofing." In an era in which the conventional password has become almost useless, what kind of access do you allow into privileged digital environments? Will the internet continue to devolve into a network of walled gardens as a consequence? 

And then there is the human side of the equation. How much intimacy is possible, especially when the new tools become a rich-enough medium to address, if not entirely satisfy, the human need for nuance and connection? What happens to digital addiction when screens are the primary medium of exchange. What kinds of new mental health issues will emerge in the era of social distancing? 

On the upside, how can our new technologies foster collaborative creativity? How will they spur activism as those with skills can be matched with increasing precision to those with needs via AI activated market spaces and increasingly intelligent agents? How can new technologies offer more efficient and secure voting?  How will they increase the efficiency of learning and health care?

Meanwhile, we have more immediate matters to attend to. COVID-19 has placed each of us into a personal virtual laboratory that calls us to experiment with how we define our identity and tastes, how we stay connected and participate, and how we access the resources we need. The times are challenging us to raise our digital literacy to new and uncharted levels.  

Technology visionary Marshall McLuhan would probably not recognize the "global village" we inhabit today. But he would stand firm with his assertion that the "medium is the message." Today we have a lot to figure out because in McLuhan's words, "We shape our tools and afterward our tools shape us." Welcome to the new world.

This article was co-authored by John Kao, chairman of the Institute for Large Scale Innovation and a former Harvard Business School professor. You can contact him via email at john@largescaleinnovation.org.

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