Wednesday 21 November 2018

'Only the faster fish will win' - This World Economic Forum exec believes Ireland is not prepared for the tech revolution

Interview: Martina Larkin

Martina Larkin, World Economic Forum head of Europe and Eurasia, says when it comes to being prepared for tech developments, Ireland is lacking in affordability and knowledge-intensive jobs
Martina Larkin, World Economic Forum head of Europe and Eurasia, says when it comes to being prepared for tech developments, Ireland is lacking in affordability and knowledge-intensive jobs
Louise Kelly

Louise Kelly

As the European home to the likes of Apple and Google, Ireland's position in the global technological transformation seems secure, but Martina Larkin, the World Economic Forum's (WEF) head of Europe and Eurasia, says she isn't buying it.

The WEF is best known for hosting the annual Davos conference in Switzerland - where billionaires and political leaders retreat for a week to set the world to rights - but its programmes run year-round and span the globe.

Larkin's role is to connect and develop networks of leading European and Asian figures in politics, business, academia and non-governmental organisations to deliver social change.

According to Larkin, Ireland is not prepared for, and cannot afford, the 'fourth industrial revolution', a term coined by WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab for radical technological shifts under way.

Ireland ranked an impressive 24 out of 137 in the WEF's Global Competitiveness Report 2017, but it may not be enough to stay ahead of the rapid pace of change.

"The country does well across a number of pillars including strong institutions and high quality education, and research. But Brexit remains a concern, and there is not sufficient capacity to innovate. Ireland suffers from insufficient financial market development and lack of labour market efficiency," said Larkin, who clearly doesn't mince her words.

"In terms of preparation [for this revolution], Ireland lacks affordability and knowledge-intensive jobs.

"The national digital infrastructure is also a concern with low mobile network coverage across the country and relatively low business, government and individual usage."

Infrastructure is staying put, or at best developing slowly while the pace of technological advancements shows no sign of slowing, she points out.

In fairness, Ireland isn't alone.

"Every country is at a huge risk, you have to constantly prove yourself and move fast and move quicker, it's not the biggest or the strongest anymore, but rather the faster fish who will win."

Prior to her current role, Larkin headed WEF's Global Knowledge Networks, and ran the Global Academic Networks, the global community of universities, think-tanks and other research-based organisations.

Before building the Global Knowledge Networks, she oversaw the development of the Forum of Young Global Leaders, a community of exceptional young leaders under 40 from around the world.

In a relatively short time, Larkin said she has seen new technologies develop, including renewables, blockchain, drones and fusion, and they are all now reaching a critical inflection point that affects industries on the global stage.

"When all of these things come together there's a huge disruption affecting business models across all industries and this changes the way we consume and live in the future," she said.

"There is also a dramatic reduction of cost in terms of software and technology components. While this creates a lot of opportunities, it also creates a lot of risk."

Interestingly, she doesn't buy into the argument that change will steamroll all opposition, advocating smart regulatory interventions, "so that we are able to control it rather than be controlled by it".

"We must create a regulatory framework that allows us to be much more flexible so we can guide these developments as they scale as much as possible. To really make sure that the various industries work together, to have that framework in place in a holistic way.

"Ideally, we want to ensure that the benefits - which are enormous - are distributed fairly and across different regions and classes around the world. Having the benefits of this new tech shouldn't be about education and money," she said.

Scientists and agricultural experts are looking for ways to tackle the global climate change in terms of leveraging new technology to establish innovative ways to feed the future.

The business of agriculture is one of the main industries that Larkin maintains is set to experience a complete overhaul from the latest advancements, from genetic sequencing machines to robotic harvesting equipment.

"The capability agri will have in terms of crop gene editing, lab-grown meat, robotic seeding, precision harvesting - the list goes on - is outstanding.

"The technology will boost the industry to new levels of productivity and fundamentally change the food of the future."

The consumer retail industry is also well on its way through its digital transformation journey, with retailers forced to reassess the flexibility of their own payment acceptance methods, delivery options and bespoke offerings to stay in line with their customers' changing desires.

"It will be interesting to see how incredibly fast this industry will grow, and how online shopping will grow as a crucial part of that.

"From packaging to delivery, robots are 100 times more efficient, and drones can potentially deliver these products to the end user.

"The customisation of products using technology is also something we will be seeing more of across the board."

But it is perhaps the estimated $7trn (€6trn) spent on healthcare annually that allows for the most opportunity, according to Larkin.

"From the way that we use virtual care teams for day-to-day medical advice to the data monitoring and storage when it comes to your medical history and track record.

"And then there's the connectedness, the IoT of various devices and tools, the potential for use of drones for medical delivery of care in remote areas, and the impact 3D printing will have for personalised prosthetics and tissue engineering."

But for a truly global digital transformation, Larkin says there is much more than technology involved, it's a culture change that requires an overhaul of the mindset, requiring 'buy-in' from the board top down and implementation bottom up, and sideways.

"In terms of the future of jobs and the future of the workplace, there is a lot of discussion about what the exponential rise of technology means for employees. Will this mean jobs will become obsolete? What jobs will be created that do not exist yet? And aside from the job itself, how do we work, interact and grow?"

Inclusion initiatives will be imperative to ensure that industries grow without leaving people behind, according to Larkin.

"How do we educate and encourage them to keep the pace and be comfortable with this incredible change?"

Larkin is giving the opening address on the Insights Stage at Future Scope 2018 this morning, speaking on the topic of 'Global View of the Digital World and the Next Decade of Changes'.

Prior to joining the World Economic Forum, Larkin worked with Lazard, the New York-based investment bank, and Nestle Switzerland.

She is also on the board of IDEA Foundation and Digital Switzerland, and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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