Before the coronavirus pandemic Asia-Pacific (APAC) countries were already at the forefront of digital transformations. Within APAC, Singapore (2), Hong Kong SAR (8) and South Korea (10) were already in the top ten countries globally as far digital competitiveness, according to the IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking in 2019. When Co-VID 19 struck the world out of nowhere earlier this year, many countries in APAC region reacted swiftly – a combination of implementing their national strategic plans but also readiness and adaptation to digital tools that were already popular prior to the coronavirus. Looking back, as much of the world begins to ease restrictions but maintain social distancing in our day-to-day, what were some of the innovations the APAC region adapted that much of the rest of the world has had to suddenly now try to utilise?
First off, even before Co-VID 19 the APAC region already had the highest penetration of smartphone usage in the world. In 2017, the APAC mobile wallet market was at $35 Billion USD. It is projected by 2024 to be over $140 Billion USD, according to a 2019 Global Market Insights, Inc. report; China and India alone are home to more than half of the global smartphone. Data from Expert Market highlights that the top ten countries with the highest contactless limits were dominated by APAC countries – Japan (1), China (2), Singapore (4), Australia (5), Hong Kong SAR (6), Malaysia (7), New Zealand (9) and Thailand (10).
Therefore, when the virus struck this year many in the region, who are already accustomed to contactless payments, were able to both further introduce it to the public and socially accept it. For instance, a study by Mastercard during February and March showed that, citing safety and cleanliness, 91 percent of people in APAC are using tap-and-go payments (globally that was lower at 79 percent); after the pandemic three out of four people said they would continue to use contactless. It wouldn’t be surprising if the region was the first to go 100 percent cashless.
Second, APAC has been an innovator when it comes to creating innovations in what people know to be historically face-to-face interactions. For instance, the hospitality industry, which historically is a real-life interaction was already finding innovative solutions and much of that was being done in the APAC region.
Last year in 2019, both Japan and China were trialling food delivery robots. In China the biggest food delivery company in the country, Meituan Dianping, was testing unmanned robots in ten offices and hotels in large Chinese cities such as Beijing while in Japan there was Tokyo-based ZMP who developed and tested a food delivery robot in apartment complexes and universities. Japan is a leader of industrial robot technology and production, and, in 2019, it produced more than half of the world’s industrial robots. It was also, in the same year, the second world’s robot adopter behind China. Generally, parts of APAC have been using technology, such as with enhanced voice ordering functions with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) to personalized services at a kiosk with facial recognition technology. Also, countries like Malaysia last year saw initiatives such as Growth Malaysia take off (which was spearheaded by Fave Malaysia), which planned to help around 100,000 food outlets adopt digital solutions in all aspects – from payments to financial services to marketing and data.
At present, with Co-VID 19, the importance of industries such as hospitality and ensure health and safety is priority. In the United States, for instance, it employs around 10 percent of the total US workforce and the global hotel market is worth over $500 billion USD. For example, robots have been used for various aspects such as in China – from robots that disinfect public places to robot chefs that make food. In Thailand, engineering students at Chulalongkorn University modified medical ninja robots to adapt to Co-VID 19 patients like take patients’ temperatures, helping frontline healthcare workers minimalise interactions with patients. In Singapore, before Co-VID 19, they invested in robotic police.
Of course, it is worth mentioning that Asia is the birthplace of Zoom, which during the pandemic with various global lockdowns has been a vital form of communication for both a professional and personal setting. Zoom Technologies, Inc, the $35 billion USD video conferencing empire was founded by Eric Yuan. It is hard to remember that nearly all aspects of business – from business development to internal catchups even redundancies – could be done via a virtual platform like Zoom. It has become so popular in 2020 that many say “Let’s go on Zoom” rather than “let’s go on videoconferencing” – a similar Google affect or Kleenex where the brand becomes the word synonymous with the actual word; it wouldn’t be a shock if Oxford Dictionary in the immediate future made Zoom an official word in its dictionary.
Finally, the wider infrastructure and ecosystem is adapted to embrace a digital society. This was due to investments and aspirations before Co-VID 19. For example, South Korea is the global leader in 5G technology leader, according to Omdia’s Market progress assessment from the end of last year; 90 percent of the country’s population is covered for 5G take-up and where companies such as SK Telecom cater to them.
Another example of the infrastructure and ecosystem are government services. Looking at Singapore, which earlier highlighted as one of the world’s second most digital competitive country in the world, has a sophisticated and advanced smart city environment. Known as a role model for being a leader in SMART technology, it has incorporated various aspects – from smart streets that have sensors that monitor environmental changes to self-driving cars and virtual reality (VR).
Despite Co-VID 19’s challenges, Asia-Pacific was already advancing and leading the world across innovative solutions to day-to-day living in a digital context. What many might have seen a bit strange – such as robots serving you food to an augmented reality experience – could in fact be the reality globally in a post-Co-VID world.
The following is an original opinion-ed by economic development expert and contributor Richie Santosdiaz with support from Editorial Director Mark Walker.