If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has been brought into focus, it’s that we depend on digital connectivity now.

Without the internet and digital workplace collaboration tools, we would not have been able to work from home or keep businesses running, although at reduced capacities. With the new normal, social distancing and lockdowns, virtual interactions became the only way to keep in touch and work. Digital transformation has no doubt saved businesses since the pandemic, while also empowering them to streamline operations with the efficiencies that technology brings.

As we come out of the lockdown, the digital economy has continued to grow and become inextricably linked to the growth of industries across the board.

In 2016, respondents to an Econsultancy survey said that creating compelling content for digital experiences (16%), data-driven marketing that focuses on the individual (12%) and optimising the customer experience would be the top three opportunities for their organisation in the coming year. Five years on, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the implementation of these opportunities as more people were forced to engage online, rather than in person. 

Therefore, the digital economy has grown significantly, driven by technological innovation, broadening the reach of smartphone and personal devices, advanced broadband networks, to the culture of the Internet of Things, improved Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Artificial Intelligence, in particular, is only growing and accelerating, making it pivotal to the future of the digital economy. While we may be at the precipice of this meteoric rise of AI and future technologies, it may not always feel that way. But if we examine how the digital economy has transformed industries, we start to gain a better perspective on the future Envision. Here are just three industries that have been affected.  

Online retail trends

Online retail is not new, but it’s now seeing a rapid expansion. A report last summer revealed that 45 per cent of consumers are shopping online for groceries more now than they were before, despite being sceptical of doing so before the pandemic. Amazon’s profit increased by 220 per cent in the first three months of the year as the pandemic drove shoppers online. While the online retail giant posted $8.1 billion in profit, many traditional brick-and-mortar stores had to close their doors, with some never reopening as they completely lacked the digital infrastructure to even compete.

Practically all brick-and-mortar stores that remained had to augment their in-person offerings with a ramped-up online service. Although there was already an increasing shift towards online shopping, the pandemic precipitated investments towards digital businesses.

The new digital economy has also enabled retailers to gather data on their customers, tailoring their services and making their services easier to find through targeted advertising. This data in the new digital economy enables smoother logistics, while the customer data helps monitor changing demands and customer needs. Emerging from this is also a harmonisation between consumer necessity and data mining. It’s not a coincidence when, for example, a consumer looks for something they need on Amazon, and then sees an advertisement for it on a different website soon after. Artificial Intelligence has been key to this kind of targeted advertising.

While there was often a “you first” feeling about businesses implementing some of the new technology – for fear of alienating their customers – the pandemic saw a mass movement that the public was compelled to accept across the board. For example, diners at restaurants now need to scan QR Codes to access digital menus. In times of the pandemic, this was a necessity, but it is a digital-first move that is unlikely to be rolled back.

Healthcare

The digital economy is rapidly growing in the healthcare sector. A recent survey in the United States shows that only seven percent of healthcare and pharmaceutical companies said they’ve gone digital, but the potential for growth and expansion in this sector is huge, and it’s already expanding fast. From wearable medical trackers and app-based appointment bookings to telemedicine and enabling remote diagnosis.

Some 84 per cent of industry leaders are saying they strongly believe that artificial intelligence will transform the medical business. AI-powered tools in the healthcare market are estimated to be a $34 billion market in the next few years. Accordingly, the number of start-ups has increased 14-fold since 2000.

Similarly, the majority of healthcare companies are saying that predictive analytics will save them 25 per cent each year. It’s good news for patients, as well as a burgeoning business for companies facilitating the new advances in this field.  

Transport and logistics

It’s easy to see that on-demand digital transportation services such as Uber and Careem have transformed the market. Today, there is a need for these types of solutions beyond commuter services.

The digital economy has led to “smart logistics” making a huge impact. From tracking of vehicles in cities to cargo ships across continents to advanced vehicle telemetry that helps maximise fuel efficiency.

The potential for AI and Machine Learning can further transform this sector due to the high amount of data in the supply chain. Paired with AI and machine learning, we will be able to handle this data optimally and control factors that impact our operations.  

One of the areas for impact is in the fast-tracking of deliveries. In many modern warehouses, autonomous forklifts are now being used, and robotic sorting facilities are being tested. And for the wider supply chain, autonomous trucks are also being piloted. Add to that the need to reduce laborious tasks for workforces and reduction in costs, the future will have an autonomous, predictable, and increasingly sustainable supply chain. While we may not have jobs for equipment operators and handlers in warehouses, or even truck drivers in the future, people will have the opportunity to shape how they can use AI to do jobs that are less manual, and more impactful.

Across industries, technology like AI, machine learning, autonomous operations and the Internet of Things will continue to be critical. We increasingly live and operate in a digital economy that is shaping the next evolution, or Industry 4.0. By embracing these technologies, more people can take on high-level roles, companies can widen their reach, and industries can achieve unprecedented growth.