Disruption, or opportunity? Pandemic sparks a year of innovation

December 15, 2020 09:06
It took years for science to come up with a SARS vaccine, but a number of COVID-19 vaccines are now moving into the marketplace after less than 12 months. Photo: Reuters

The word “disruption” used to have a negative connotation. But in recent years, in the business community, the word has changed its meaning. Disruption is now a good thing. If a company wants to be seen as successful, innovative and modern, it’s expected to embrace disruption--or even create it.

After this past year, I don’t think any of us will think about “disruption” in the same way. We’ve just gone through the mother of all disruptions. It’s no longer an abstract concept, or something we have to create ourselves. In this time of the pandemic, disruption is our everyday reality.

Restrictions on international travel and cross-boundary movements, along with social distancing measures, have had devastating effects on economic activities--especially those that depended on traditional face-to-face interactions. Businesses have had to suddenly re-think their practices and strategies, to adapt as quickly as possible to a new normal. In culture, performances, exhibits and events have been pushed from theaters, concert halls and museums into virtual space.

The great disruption of COVID-19 is fast-tracking profound changes in our economy, our society, and in business. And while the first wave of pandemic brought difficulties and challenges, I believe that when we look back we will see it as a turning point that created positive developments, too

The most obvious example is in immunology. It took years for science to come up with a SARS vaccine, but a number of COVID-19 vaccines are now moving into the marketplace after less than 12 months. The ripple effects of this extraordinary intensive research and development effort will be felt in the coming years in the form of new drugs that could be used to treat other viruses, and even cancers.

In a similar way, the pandemic has fast-forwarded the tech development of the sector that I’m involved in, insurance. Insurance is, by nature, a conservative business, and before the pandemic many companies had been reluctant to jump into Insurtech. But when lockdowns and restrictions were imposed, the way that insurance companies relied on to conduct business--face to face with the clients--became impossible. Our industry suddenly found itself racing to embrace new technologies. Digital innovations that might have taken years to establish have been implemented in just a few months.

We are seeing an amazing range of creative responses and adaptation to the “new normal” from Hong Kong insurers. Some are leveraging digital and technological solutions which allow us to remotely on-board potential policyholders, while still meeting compliance requirements. Companies are using online resources to facilitate remote teamwork and learning, sales and customer service. As we step up our digital game, companies are investing in critical cloud infrastructure and security.

Hong Kong businesses are fortunate to be operating in one of the most forward-looking regulatory environments in Asia. In insurance, for instance, as soon as the seriousness of the pandemic became evident last March, the Hong Kong Insurance Authority began a phased roll-out of temporary facilitative measures that allowed us to coordinate these digital and tech solutions with existing regulatory frameworks.

The pandemic undoubtedly has encouraged this rapid expansion of digital and tech solutions not only in insurance, but across a wide range of business sectors from finance and banking to travel, entertainment, and the arts. Over the long run, we’re going to see some amazing transformations as tech innovations sparked by the COVID crisis spread to markets and consumers.

The new possibilities that tech is opening in insurance are truly exciting, especially in the area of micro-products. Say you are borrowing a friend’s car, or taking a vacation in a country that requires COVID-19 protection. You can simply go online and purchase a one time coverage that fits that situation. A customer with complicated health insurance concerns can create a tailor-made policy online, and then adjust it themselves over the years as needs change.

New technology is giving us the tools to allow customers to fine-tune services to their own specific needs. In Hong Kong, for instance, customers typically spread their insurance coverage for life, health and property across different insurers. Now they’ll be able to manage this more easily by using a single app.

These are a few examples, from just one industry. In fact, the digital and tech innovations pushed forward by this difficult year are widespread, and being felt across many areas from business and finance to healthcare.

I’m especially excited about the impact this last year will have in the arts. When live performances and events had to stop, arts organizations moved them online, in many cases as an emergency resort to avoid cancelling them altogether. Since then, curators, artists and performers have been discovering the creative possibilities of virtual cultural space. Arts digital technology is developing to improve the experience and access for the viewing public too. I expect online will continue to be an important new venue for art and performance even after we’re all able to return to concerts and museums.

This year has been challenging. And it has certainly been disruptive. And while I don’t want to minimize the negative effects of the pandemic’s enforced disruption, I’m confident that we will look back on this year as the beginning of a breakthrough era of innovation and creativity.

-- Contact us at [email protected]

Executive Council member and former legislator; Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress