17 September 2020

Digital after Covid-19: what are the environmental and social opportunities?

Digital technology has proven essential during the Covid-19 health crisis. Gilles Babinet, Digital Champion and advisor on digital issues at Institut Montaigne, discusses his role in the recovery and beyond.

 

Will there be a before and after Covid-19 in terms of digital?  

 

Gilles Babinet Yes there’s no doubt. Some sectors such as the airline industry aren’t predicting a return to pre-crisis levels for a few years, mainly due to the collapse of business travel. With the rise in remote working, commercial property could also experience lasting depreciation. New habits and practices have been adopted during the crisis and business digital transformation has accelerated considerably. Investors are not mistaken in the way they’re valuing the companies involved, as it has deeply affected the entire social and economic fabric of society. At the same time, promising technologies such as AI have not been sufficiently exploited during the crisis - no doubt because, until recently, epidemiology, hospital systems and patient follow-up were not priority areas of research unlike automotive or e-commerce.

 

 

5G is a hot topic, both in terms of the environment and public health. What’s your view on it? 

 

G.B. – Personally, I believe that the future will demonstrate the importance of connectivity in our transition to a greener world. I just regret that there is not enough research on this subject, so there is a plethora of insufficiently substantiated claims about it. For example, trucks in Europe have a capacity rate 14% higher than in 2000. It is difficult to dispute that this is not the work of ICT, which optimises the performance of the logistics sector. 5G, by offering reliable connectivity, will make it possible to rethink industrial and agricultural models as well as entire energy systems, provided that the public authorities make strong commitments.

Along with economist Eric Chaney, I am campaigning for a carbon dividend, a tax on all CO2 emissions (including imported emissions) that would be paid in full to households in the form of a cheque. Concretely, on a defined basis of €50 per tonne, this would amount to paying €500 per person and €1,500 per household. This way, an eco-friendly virtuous household would gain, while a household that consumes a lot of CO2 would miss out. This tool should encourage the entire production system to innovate in order to reduce emissions linked to their activities. For example, in the construction and public works sector, we would probably stop using generic cement, in favour of less energy-consuming materials.

 

How will ICT support societal changes? 

 

G.B. – 5G and new information and communication technologies (NICTs) will be a decisive factor in transitioning to a greener and more connected world and have a direct impact on our lifestyles. Take the example of Bali or some Greek islands: you will see a new category of workers, generally from Generation Z – consultants, coders, marketing experts, etc. – who work in nomadic mode permanently. Closer to us, I know of a large consulting firm that is in the process of shutting down the majority of its central offices to create much smaller and large numbers of sites near people’s homes. This is only possible with state-of-the-art connectivity.

Beyond these examples, you can take pretty much any public policy topic – education, health, employment, etc. – and you will see how digital is already supporting all the major transitions in our society. The Estonian example shows this. The Baltic country has become a benchmark for digital and dematerialised democracy. And the results prove it: its education system, which is based on the widespread use of technological tools, is ranked first in the PISA (International Program for the Monitoring of Student Assessment) ranking of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Strong political measures encourage positive innovation, in favour of a more inclusive society!