The human mind is trained to visualise linear developments and finds it difficult to estimate exponential possibilities which emanate from technology. Such disruptions are always resisted by humans at first, but once accepted and fully deployed, they are capable of changing the way we live. Think about fire, the wheel and breaking the horse in ancient times to the aeroplane and the automobile in the early 20th century followed by the internet and smartphones in recent times. In particular these days, information technology is moving faster than ever, driven by developments in 3 basic areas; processing power, communication speed and storage capacity. IT is combining with improvements in specific industry technology in almost every sector to bring disruptive changes to the market. With technology growing exponentially and businesses developing linearly, a big gap opens up between current organisations and the capability which technology can offer. This gap is usually filled by innovative startups that disrupt the existing business models by offering value in terms of both enhanced usage of a product or service and/or reduced cost.
I have been observing the technology trends closer to home and would like to share some thoughts around anticipated disruptions in many sectors in Pakistan. Although, as a country, we have been slow in adapting to new technologies, but once started, the momentum creates its own pace and can impact our lives sooner than we imagine. I will discuss five of the most interesting trends, although there are many more on the horizon.
Solar and renewable energy
In the next 10-15 years, the electricity grid as we know will be almost extinct or at least much less pertinent to our lives. As a result of investments in solar and renewable technologies coupled with the global focus on improving battery life and user-friendliness, we will see the need for grid-connected power reduce substantially. Already if you are fortunate enough to have a solar system installed at your rooftop, your reliance on the grid is probably less than 50% of your energy demand. The next 50% will come much faster thanks to the expected technology improvements. This will require a major change in business models of large scale power producers and utilities. Some naysayers make the case of the western world where grids are still alive and note that Pakistan only has a small fraction of consumer load on solar. That may be true at present, but remember that technology will grow exponentially once it passes through its initial phase. The other great thing about technology is that it does not differentiate between the developed and developing world. How many of us still have landline telephone? It is the consumers who act fast to ensure they benefit from technology when it becomes affordable.
The trends in online education should be drawing fear in the hearts of the thousands of bricks and mortar education institutions in Pakistan. Underpinned by higher broadband speeds and WiFi capabilities, we are already witnessing tremendous growth in digital classrooms, online learning material, Ebooks and video content. Online education has not only replaced the physical classroom in some cases, but it is also challenging the entire education system as it exists today. Imagine that your child’s math or physics lecture is available anytime that she needs to access it from anywhere. What sort of learning is then required from schools and how will the current schools change their business model? This also has huge implications for governments and may offer a way out of the difficulties provincial governments face in managing public schools.
It is amazing to see the retail space being built these days. It is all the more puzzling since the trends are quite clear if you follow the evolution of the retail sector in the developed world. The retail space is losing ground to online shopping in a big way with large malls and stores being consistently forced to reduce the number of locations. In Pakistan, the trend of online shopping is visible in every household with trips to the malls often serving more as entertainment than for shopping. We have heard stories about stores at a certain mall in Lahore protesting successfully against high rents! In my opinion, this trend will pick up and will hurt the retail business model of malls and retail stores making it a challenge for them to remain relevant. The upside for the country as a whole is that we may see some downward adjustment to retail space valuations and rentals which have been out of line with Pakistani purchasing power for a while.
Since I am one of those old fashioned people who think the idiot box has done us much harm, this one is going to be a huge plus for our society as a whole. The growth of paid streaming services such as Netflix will take away the consumer from the advertising-based business model of our normal cable tv channels. I doubt if the low-quality content, of Pakistani news channels, in particular, will be missed once the consumer is able to control what she wishes to watch without being exposed to the bombardment of even poorer quality advertisements currently on display. I recall when a few years back, the previous government tried to introduce digital transmission in Pakistan, the cable TV operators made a big hue and cry against this. But the entry of Netflix which can potentially eliminate cable tv altogether has hardly been noticed by these operators. In addition to the cable channel business, this change will disrupt the advertising industry as they will have to switch to other vehicles, with social media potentially replacing mainstream advertising.
It is already clear that the traditional retail banking business model is on its way out. Pakistan already has a Fintech industry which is beginning to have a say. What is surprising though is the retail branch operation still being expanded by a number of banks. This does not make sense since the technology is already there to eliminate physical banking completely. Why would you invest in more branches when you know they will be redundant soon? Bank managements surely know this but perhaps there is a trick here which I am missing. In any case, Fintech and virtual banking are the future with physical banks playing a much-reduced role in our daily lives.
The above 5 are just a few of the technology disruptions which are well on their way in Pakistan. I have picked only a handful because of limited space but the story is the same in many other sectors. Healthcare, transport, courier services, publishing, restaurants and delivery and numerous others are on their way to being disrupted. What is required is an understanding by governments and companies who need to play their role as enablers and promoters of disruption in the interest of the consumer. Traditionally it is the concerned industry which has been more resistant to change and does not wish to move into unknown territory. It is only natural that your core reason for success also becomes your core reason for rigidity. In addition, our companies remain in survival and fire fighting mode most of the time and management does not have the vision to create self disrupting business models. Be that as it may, all of the above and many other similar disruptions will bring improved service and/or cost reductions for the consumer. This is good news for the Pakistani consumer and should help in improving the quality of life for average citizens.