COVID Shows Technology Innovation is Essential

The pandemic wreaked havoc but it also revealed that investments in digital technologies helped keep many aspects going during lockdown and social distancing. In a Tech Barometer podcast segment, Professor Art Langer says technology will only become more important in the future.

By Jason Lopez

By Jason Lopez March 19, 2021

While the COVID-19 lockdown has wreaked havoc on life and work routines, it’s also been revealing. “It has shown the world that technology is even more important than a lot of people thought,” said Professor Art Langer, who teaches at Columbia University and is the Director of the Center for Technology Management.

“Coming out of COVID, what you're going to see is: ‘I told you so,’” said Langer in a Tech Barometer podcast interview.

In his book, Analysis and Design of Next-Generation Software Architectures: 5G, IoT, Blockchain, and Quantum Computing, which came out just before the pandemic, he warned that companies not investing in digital transformation risked failure. Many organizations which made significant technology investments prior to the coronavirus disruption have been unscathed, and those lagging behind have been inspired to catch up.

“You're going to see an incredible amount of increase in metabolic rate to get the infrastructure in place, because everybody's agreeing that this is the first of many disruptions, whether it's climate, whether it's another one of these pandemics.”

In this podcast Dr. Langer also talks about the expected transformations to be brought about by 5G, IoT, Blockchain, and Quantum Computing.

“We're just getting warmed up,” he said. “Technology's S-Curve is still at the low end of the S-curve.”


Reinventing IT for Hybrid and Multicloud Future

Transcript (unedited):

Art Langer: Let there be no doubt that this is a technology driven world as the result of what we've seen in COVID. 5G is a hundred times faster than 4G. Now let’s not even talk about companies still on 3G, they should start commiting suicide at this point. Without getting into the details of Quantum Computing, because if I teach you Quantum you will lose your mind like I have. Technology's S-Curve is still at the low end of the S-Curve. We're just getting warmed up.

Jason Lopez: That was the voice of Art Langer, Professor of Practice at Columbia University and Director of the Center for Technology Management. He’s conducted Business Innovation Masterclasses for Nutanix customers and partners. His book, “Analysis and Design of Next-Generation Software Architectures: 5G, IoT, Blockchain, and Quantum Computing” came out last year just before COVID hit. His basic thesis is this: the acceleration of digital isn’t a prediction, it’s happening, and leaving many companies behind. They’re not going to be able to hang on much longer if they don’t embrace new data technologies fast. I’m Jason Lopez and this is the Tech Barometer podcast. We turned to Art in 2021 and asked him about how COVID has affected digital adoption. Listening to him helps us realize the time to act is now or certainly be left behind.

You’ve been communicating this urgent message to companies that are behind in digital adoption for their businesses… to get caught up or to risk going out of business. So now that we've been in lockdown for almost a year and we've seen so many companies either going out of business or filing for Chapter 11, how has the lockdown affected digital adoption? Is it shaking things out or is it accelerating adoption.   What are the changes that you've seen?

Art Langer: Two changes, you know, there are certainly all of the terrible aspects of COVID. It has shown the world that technology is even more important than a lot of people thought. And this reflects itself in the fact that the digital companies have clearly done better financially and performance-wise than those that didn't. And the reason they'd done better apart from a lot of things is that they were more digital ready. It was easier for them to switch and to continue their businesses. It was easier because their supply chains were already based on digital means. It is the retails, the food supplies, the other people that were very much not based on it that have struggled. We've learned that we have not spent enough money on infrastructure, and I could be very hard on people that would claim innocence. But what we've seen is a world based on just in time has gone to just in case the fact that hospitals were caught short of technological things that they needed, because they didn't really have inventory. Everybody's been running their companies on a lean and mean concept, not everybody. And when you look at the, um, I guess you could call it an S curve, but not really, but when you look at the performance, it's an amazing thing to look at. If you look at the performance of the digital companies, they run flat for a very long time and then all of a sudden they shoot up. And what they've done is they've reinvested, reinvested, reinvested, reinvested. And then the linear companies that have been growing linearly, they are the ones that are getting stuck and hit because it's not investing enough in this growth performance. And the most recent one to look at is Netflix, where you have this flat, flat, flat year after year, and then, boom. You see it with Apple you see it with Amazon? You see it with Airbnb. And what these companies have done is they have invested in the infrastructure of technology. And what we've seen now is those companies that were not believing in it when you have a crisis, like COVID when a supply chain gets disrupted, what the penalties are for that. So I think one of the good things coming out of this is that companies are now realizing that options to work from home. Even higher education has been hit. Schools have been hit because of poor infrastructure to be able to just cut over. But if you work for Salesforce if you work for Amazon, if you work for Apple, it's been a seamless, I mean, forgetting about the social issues and everything else. The reality is to switch over into alternate ways of doing business, have almost been seamless. And not only that they're doing better, which is an amazing thing. So coming out of COVID, what you're going to see is I told you so, and you're going to see an incredible amount of increase in metabolic rate to get the infrastructure in place, because everybody's agreeing that this is the first of many disruptions, whether it's climate, whether it's another one of these pandemics. And shame, shame, shame at so many of these organizations, including our government. All right, but I can pick off one after another and I'll pick on Audi. I happen to have an Audi, boy, you should try to get them on the phone during this pandemic. It's almost insulting. And yet, I can still click away and get anything delivered on Amazon. So that's the first lesson of it. So, I think that's the positive sense that there's no longer a question, but here's what you're also going to see in investments in technology. If you look at higher education, you either had an online course, you had a face-to-face program, you know what you're going to have now? Yes. Every program is going to have to be online face-to-face and hybrid. You're going to have to have three of everything. And if you don't do that, you know what, I'm going to go somewhere else. So the percentage of money spent on technology is going to go up enormously.

Jason Lopez: I want to butt in for just a second, but keep that thought, but I want to ask you this ... so it sounds like you're saying the reason for having to have three of everything is because companies are being forced to do this by the consumer, not necessarily because this was a digital strategy all along.

Art Langer: If there's anything that's showing itself in a global world, I'm the one that's in control, not you, all right. Now, this may not for example, in this country affect undergraduate yet, but certainly graduate education, by the way, which is where all the money is for higher education. And everybody's looking for choice. In fact, the choice is so complicated is that maybe this month I won't take the online version, I'll take the face to face version of that course. It's going to be at that level, which means the cost is going up. And that means just like you saw at a time when I want the costs to be lower. The only way to make that work is that I have to be more global and I have to be larger. All right. And, so, you are now seeing the beginnings of the reduction in the number of colleges and universities in the United States. It's already started and what you're going to see, depending on how the legal systems. And I think the government systems work, the amount of money it takes to catch up because you're so far behind on the S-curve is going to be enormous. And I'm predicting that this will be the century, if not the next couple of decades, of private equity. Everybody's going to need partners. And, of course, the other piece is you'll see a lot of M&A activity. But the bottom line is the one outcome of this. It's almost like what we saw in the PC market when IBM announced it was coming in, it was building a PC that legitimized the PC market. Let there be no doubt that this is a technology driven world as the result of what we've seen in COVID-19. And also what we've seen in our political systems, in the power of social media and the issues and the benefits and the negativity that are happening there. This is a technology-based world. It's going to continue to be so, and many, many, social legal and government systems are very, very far behind in dealing with the accuracy of this.

Jason Lopez: OK so here's just a what if, and I'm remembering what you said in your presentation about the S curve, let's say there's a brick and mortar company, a retailer, which has done a terrible job even in their physical spaces and they risk going under. But let's just say they had some whippersnapper behind the scenes whose team developed a good digital platform which the company hadn’t rolled out yet. Are you saying that this retailer could still be in the game simply because they sort of accidentally created the tools to compete digitally?

Art Langer: Yeah. I think there is another component. And one of the things I mentioned in my presentation is that there were two things about being digital. One of them were processes, which I do think is the easier part. You can always kind of fix those, but the one that's being more difficult is behavior. And this is now becoming a big issue because what's coming with IOT, the internet of things and 5g, is that this will further accelerate change and further demand that most companies, and this is what I'm calling in my newest book... digital companies are data centric. It's about the data it's being able to examine data and understand how that drives your business. Take higher education. We're still selling degrees as opposed to courses that can lead to different types of degrees, depending on what the consumer wants. Do you see that analogy here? And those that don't grasp onto that are going to be in real trouble. And as the S curve goes, if you miss the top of it, you really come down quickly.

Jason Lopez: Let’s talk about your book, Analysis and Design of Next-Generation Software Architectures: 5G, IoT, Blockchain, and Quantum Computing. You basically take us from those buzzwords     and infuse them with reality… what's coming down the road. So, what is coming down the road?

Art Langer: Well, once again, we're going to see a big miss in companies that are sort of out to lunch on this thing. What does 5g really do, cause that's the initiator. Well fact 5g is a hundred times faster than 4g. Now let's not even talk about companies that are still on 3g. They should start committing suicide at this point. I wouldn't want to be under 3g right now, but 5g is rolling out. Now it's actually been halted a bit because of coronavirus. You're going to see it in football, stadiums and theaters, obviously in urban areas. Now, what does that mean that it's a hundred times faster. Simply put the throughput between what's on your phone and what you're downloading from devices is going to be a hundred times faster. Now, what does that mean? It simply means that the smartphone's getting smarter. It means that because it's IO is so much quicker, I can put more applications on it. And more importantly, I can have data going back and forth faster. Now, what does that do? It all of a sudden makes IOT devices much more attractive because now I'm going to need that to download all these things. I mean, when you go into a stadium a year or two ago, you would have one link to what was going on. Now you're going to have 17 things going on at the same time on your iPhone. This also means that inevitably that the iPhone or the Samsung or a smartphone, whatever you want to call it, is to little by little start replacing the PC altogether because nobody likes the damn thing. It's a pain in the neck and it's an expensive and it's going to be voice-driven. Nobody wants to key in and send emails to the wrong place. So if you're looking forward, that's where the world is becoming. The entry level device will be a phone, a smartphone. That's how good they're going to get with 5g. Obviously you have a rollout in suburban areas and jungles, but it's going to happen.

Jason Lopez: So with this explosion in performance, what does the world look like?

Art Langer: Massive proliferation of IOT devices, everywhere, collecting everything you could possibly think of. Now, I'm not just talking about formatted data here. I'm talking about how many cars go by every 10 minutes. I'm talking about pictures, I'm talking about three dimensionality. I'm talking about music. So now I'm going to have all of this data. How much? Beyond your belief. Now the question is, what the hell do I do with it? And two, how do I protect it? Because now we got another problem with cyber, right? Because now you got all this damn data flying around the place. And if I'm one of the criminals out there, man, I'm going to have a good time unless you do something. So now comes the architectural realities, which now become a real it challenge. We know computer scientists know this and software developers know this, and CIO should know this, that the current architecture that's out there was never built for security. The analogy I'll give you is it's the Maginot Line. It keeps you from getting in, but once you pierce it, you're in. So, the idea behind it is if I can keep you out, I don't need to do anything inside. That's what our architecture looks like. We have all of this stuff where I got to keep you out. But once you get in, oh boy, you're like a sitting duck. So that's what happened with the, imagine a line. Well, in the second world war, the Germans were smart enough to say, wait a minute, I'll go through Belgium. I'll go through the Ardenne. And that was the end of the war. In fact, it went real quick for the French. They based everything on this idea of having this a wall to keep you out. Well, this is what's happened in cybersecurity. We can't keep them out. They get in and everybody sits there and worries about once they get in, how do I get them out? Well, that's not building technology for security. How many of these systems have been sitting around for 40, 50 years? So, it all has to be replaced because you cannot protect it. And if you're going to have this proliferation of data and you don't do something, you got a problem. Now what's the solution? We think is some type of blockchain because blockchain is an architecture. Now think about that. How long did it take to get ERP systems integrated that took 20 years and cost a fortune. This is ERP on drugs, man. And while you're doing this, you have to connect legacy applications. So that's the first part. You know how much money this is going to cost? Now, you know why private equity is going to be needed or mergers and acquisitions, because let me tell you something, Amazon already has it. And by the way, they're throwing billions of dollars into this stuff. And you're sitting there like Macy's and what are you going to do? You're dead, man. All right. Unless you get some help from somewhere or a lot of money. Now, from a digital point of view, now you're going to have so much data. So think about this. I'm at Columbia university. And I go to research something historically, I probably get 14,000 hits. You know what? I'll get now 14 million hits. Well now what are you going to do? We're now beyond the human minds capability of being able to ascertaining it. So, you're going to have all this aggregation of data. And now you're going to need machine learning on top of the AI. And by the way, the current word on the street, and I am a member of our data sciences Institute is a, there is now a drop-off in AI because nobody understands what the hell to do. So, I'm taking the lead in educating executives. They haven't a clue how to build a strategy. So, it's going to be a data-driven world on, somehow the computer is going to have to figure out what you really want, but histories will be rewritten. And you see what's going on around the country right now with the data, there's multiple determinations of facts. Now, one last thing, which is extremely important about what's happening. The problem with blockchain as we know is latency. So, how do we solve that? Well, we all agree.

Jason Lopez: Well how much of a problem could that be? With chips getting faster, IOs getting faster, what do you mean by latency?

Art Langer: It's not fast enough. So, basically a blockchain is a ledger based system. You know, like an accountant? See the problem with central databases -- and it's the end of central databases-- the problem with central databases, they violated generally accepted accounting principles. You could just go in there and change the data. Now you can't do that in a ledger based system, you have to have an adjusting entry. And it's like, IBM, token ring used to be. It's got to go around and update all of the chain. Well, it's too slow, particularly in financials. So, what we're now hitting is the processors are too slow. So now what are you going to do? Well, we all agree it's the end of silicon. Now you've got multiple camps. Someone says it's something else. We're not sure what that is. And the other says it's well, it's all about quantum. Now without getting into the details of quantum computing -- because if I teach you quantum, you will lose your mind like I have -- but basically it says that in any dynamic moment I'm going to create hash keys. So your ID, when you go in is always going to be a dynamic token and it's going to happen on super computers that will have such incredible size keys, that people who are trying to come in and figure it out. It's almost going to be impossible, but this requires processors. Now you see what's happening at Apple right now, they're trying to come up with new chips because they know that they're not going to be able to do this by creating, you know, the, the great walls of China, if people are going to get in. And this is a lot of disagreement in the industry and in the science. If it goes quantum, it could mean that I could store data in this stapler. I mean, that's what quantum says. So that at any moment in time, the choices are so unpredictable that you can't predict the outcomes. I mean, that's what quantum is about. So that's what they're trying to get to that every time I assign a key, you don't know where I'm going. It's sort of like when the president comes to New York city or to California, you don't know what streets he's going to come down. So the unpredictability is what creates the protection. Wow. Look what I just fed you. And if you don't have that, theoretically, you're not going to be able to compete in this new world, which is going to have exponential collection of data. And by the way, if you look at the Amazon and the digital companies, they're not based on products that based on data, they run their K on, on, on the probabilities of what consumers are going to do, what they can do, what the data tells them and allow their consumers to put together platforms. Just like I just told you what higher education I wanted, determine the courses I want to take. And I'll tell you, it gets better than that. Maybe one of the courses I want to take is at Harvard, not Columbia. So there's going to be a need for supply chains of sharing.

Jason Lopez: Kind of like buying music, we tend to buy the track we like, not the whole album.

Art Langer: This is the burger King model. Have it your way. But with one difference, it's not only the way I want the hamburger. It's also when I want it.

Jason Lopez: Let me ask you just a wrap up question here. What's your elevator pitch, central idea, about all of this?

Art Langer: It ain't going away and it's going to accelerate and it's going to outlive them. So if there's any idea that you think this is something that's going to pass, no way. We're just getting warmed up. Technology's S curve is still at the low end of the S-curve. The inventions to come are beyond what you can imagine.

Jason Lopez: Art Langer is Professor of Practice at Columbia University and Director of the Center for Technology Management. His book, “Analysis and Design of Next-Generation Software Architectures: 5G, IoT, Blockchain, and Quantum Computing” lays down a framework for thinking about and planning for the coming wave of tech innovation. If you liked this interview, you’ll like our other podcast with Art, “Grab Hold of Growth on the S-Curve or Fall Behind” ...basically a take-down of IT planning. Thanks for listening to the Tech Barometer podcast. Tech Barometer is a production of The Forecast. You can find us at

Jason Lopez is executive producer of Tech Barometer, the podcast outlet for The Forecast. He’s the founder of Connected Social Media. Previously, he was executive producer at PodTech and a reporter at NPR.

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