Hope For a Better Tomorrow: Three shifts defining 2021 and beyond

Simon Kahn / December 2020

What a year.

I’ve spent more of my life online than ever before. At home, we celebrated birthdays, holidays, and everything in-between over video calls. I helped my three boys adjust to e-learning and gained a deeper (and immense) appreciation for teachers. I met new people in virtual coffee chats, ran brainstorming sessions with digital whiteboards, and learned to replace the sound of applause with the sight of an emoji (👏). Technical glitches and unexpected cameos from pets, parents, or partners revealed our humanity and the shared experience of lockdowns helped us feel connected.

The pandemic also created the circumstances for digital technology to offer real help–from delivering public health information, to surfacing essential services during lockdowns, to keeping communities educated and entertained. Yet, while technology offered a lifeline to many, it also put the digital divide–the gap between those who are able to reap the benefits of the Internet and those who are not–into sharp focus. Access has never been equal and the crisis has exacerbated existing disparities, with some of the most vulnerable members of our communities bearing a disproportionate amount of the burden.

We may be turning the corner on the pandemic with the arrival of a vaccine, but the consequences of this year will be felt for decades to come. As we look to the future, I will be keeping an eye on the following:

The Digital Migration

The pandemic fast-tracked digital transformation. Globally, at least 50% of increased usage of digital services have been from new users. As consumers migrated online, businesses of all sizes felt the pressure to adapt rapidly. We saw creativity blossom: industrial giants experimented with chatbots and rural farmers became live streaming sensations. But many businesses struggled. Many were unable to weather the disruption, leading to bankruptcies and displaced workers.

In APAC, we are beginning to see the shoots of recovery with the recent Single’s Day Shopping Festival (11.11) setting new records. As economic activity comes back to life, behavioral shifts initiated by lockdowns are here to stay. APAC is leading the way, moving from a “catch up” to “catch us” state”. With more time spent on the web, expectations for convenient, friction-free experiences have grown, including a rise in contactless payments and alternative (non-text) forms of input like voice and image search. Also, for many, “e-commerce” now stands for “entertainment-commerce” with games, social incentives, celebrity performers, and experiential technologies like AR and VR engaging consumers in a world that is part playground, part department store.

These trends are exciting, but to seize the opportunity, there is a prerequisite: digital skills. Only 33.7% of enterprises in this region have a website. SMBs cite the lack of digital skills and technologies as the top two challenges with digital transformation. Even amongst leading brands in APAC, only 2% are realizing the full potential of digital marketing. For everyone to share in the benefits of technology, they need the skills to participate. Google is investing in free tools like Grow with Google and we’ve partnered with local governments and like-minded organizations to set up train-and-place programs like Skills Ignition in Singapore and the Digital Talent Exploration program in Taiwan. Companies like Lazada and LinkedIn are also offering courses to help people acquire digital skills. I hope more organizations will join us in equipping people with the skills they need to thrive online.

Educating the Next Generation

The impact of the pandemic on the education sector and the development of the next generation is particularly concerning. Close to 1.5 billion learners (~91% of the student population) were affected globally, but not equally. High income students missed 14% of the school year, compared to 31% of low income students. In addition, only 6% of school-age children in low income countries have internet access at home with many relying on broadcast media for remote learning, which is less effective than online platforms.

Educators have done a phenomenal job shepherding their students online and adapting to the constraints of a virtual learning environment. However, there will be long-term implications from missed learning time. A recent paper estimates that a four month absence from school could result in a loss of 2.6% of lifetime earnings, which could translate to the equivalent of up to 61% of current GDP in low income countries. The consequences of this interruption reach far into the future, underscoring the urgency for public and private partnership to improve access to digital devices and Internet connectivity.

I’m proud of the work we’ve done in partnership with local governments to support 50 million students across APAC through resources like Teach from Anywhere and products like Google Classroom. In Japan, we’re equipping 4 million students in grades 1-9 with Chromebooks and access to Google for Education through the GIGA (Global and Innovation Gateway for All) School Package. Beyond immediate remedies, we are also thinking about the future of education through initiatives like The Anywhere School, working hand-in-hand with teachers, parents, and students to redesign a better education experience–online, in-person, or both.

Safeguarding our Planet

None of this matters if we don’t have a liveable planet. While emissions dropped by ~7% due to travel restrictions and reduced industrial activity, 2020 is still set to be the warmest in recorded history. And, the UN reports that the richest 1% of the global population is responsible for more emissions than the poorest 50%. Yet, low income communities are the most vulnerable to effects of climate change.
Up to 200 million people are expected to live in areas that could experience lethal heatwaves and they could lose up to 30% of working hours due to rising temperatures. This year, we’ve had a preview of climate change’s devastating impact–from the catastrophic bushfires in Australia that destroyed over 18 million hectares of land to the onslaught of typhoons in the Philippines that have affected nearly 1 million people.

Like the pandemic, climate change is a global problem that can only be solved with collective action. COVID-19 taught us some hard, but important lessons about trusting experts, focusing on prevention, and learning to cooperate–across borders and industries–to address existential risks. The window of opportunity to prevent a climate catastrophe is growing smaller and it is essential that organizations like Google play a role protecting our planet. This year, we eliminated our entire carbon legacy and aim to be totally carbon-free by 2030, but we can’t do it alone. Renewed national goals at last week’s Climate Ambition Summit are cause for optimism, and we need more companies to follow suit, working across private and public sectors to accelerate the path to a carbon-free future.

From the digital divide to climate change, the challenges that lie ahead are large and daunting. However, we also have an opportunity to fundamentally rethink assumptions about the way the world should operate. It is an opportunity we cannot let go to waste. Working across public, private, and non-profit sectors, we can drive tangible change for the next generation. In a year that has reminded us that we live on a common planet with common problems, we’ve seen humanity’s potential for compassion, creativity, and collaboration at full force and the power of digital to create a better world for tomorrow.

2020 in review: Top insights from across APAC