Could Big Data Have Saved Ancient Civilizations?

David Jonker

The burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria has come to symbolize the tragedy of irretrievably losing valuable cultural information and knowledge. The Egyptian center of scholarship was one of the largest and most important libraries of the ancient world, standing from its construction in the 3rd century BC until the Romans conquered Egypt in 30 BC.

In those days, much of the known world’s recorded knowledge was kept in the library. Today, our information is decentralized across huge regions, and thanks to digital technology, there is a lot more of it. So much more, in fact, that it’s been theorized that every last papyrus scroll in the vast Library of Alexandria could now fit onto an ordinary flash drive.

Ninety percent of the world’s data has been created in the last two years. According to the documentary The Human Face of Big Data (shown worldwide as part of SAP’s Our Digital Future film series), the typical person in the Western world is now exposed to as much data in one day as someone in the 15th century would have seen in their entire life.

For convenience, we call this phenomenon Big Data. We won’t always call it that. The term denotes something still new and exciting. Since the recent explosion of data generation, there hasn’t yet been time to scrape the surface of its potential to inform decisions.

There is such an abundance of data that we don’t yet know if it will actually hinder us more than help us. We could be suffering from debilitating information overload. Big Data and digital technology are moving us into totally uncharted territory. We’re just beginning to understand how we can use all that data to improve the world and human lives.

Rather than just feeling smug about its ability to help us live better, we have to also be wary of following a path of self-destruction. We can’t simply dismiss doomsday believers as “negative” or “gloomy” thinkers.

The Library of Alexandria was the ancient world’s attempt at Big Data, making full use of the technology of the day. You can be sure the great minds of the day were scrutinizing the library’s “data” to make intellectual connections, further human knowledge, and preserve and advance their civilization.

Little did they know at the time, their efforts were in vain; that the conquering Roman Empire would undo centuries of work invested into the library’s body of knowledge. Little did the Romans know, emperors’ squabbles and decadence would eventually lead to their downfall. Every ancient civilization collapsed for some reason or another (though never just one reason).

The world of today, however, is very different. We are in an age of independent states, rather than empires, and because of modern technology we are fast moving towards a global civilization. The fall of our global civilization would be a terminal disaster for the entire world.

The Human Face of Big Data spends some time discussing how we can get out of the problems we’ve made. Climate change, overpopulation, conflict over finite resources, invasive species, nuclear instability – it would be foolish to think any of these problems or threats will solve themselves or never occur.

As we tackle these problems with the help of Big Data, can we dare to dream that our global civilization will be the first that doesn’t unwittingly destroy itself? Can we ever be sure our actions won’t lead to our collapse? To begin answering these questions, let’s look back at a few ancient civilizations (chiefly by way of Jared Diamond’s excellent book Collapse), consider how they collapsed, and think about how Big Data might have saved them…

Greenland Norse Vikings

In AD 984, Vikings settled in Greenland, and by 1450 they had died out. They inadvertently caused soil erosion and deforestation, which meant they weren’t able to make the charcoal they needed to support themselves as an Iron Age society. Dwindling trade with neighboring mother country Norway didn’t help the Vikings either, nor did their hostile relationship with the Eskimos with whom they shared Greenland. Those Eskimos may have blocked Norse access to the outer fjords, which they depended on for seals.

What if the Vikings had the Big Data we have today? They might have built a vast sensor network feeding into a database system that measured how much deforestation they could safely carry out. They might have used insight from data to figure out how to share fjord access with the Eskimos harmoniously, while mapping an efficient trade route around the sea ice separating Norway and Greenland.

Easter Islanders

Out of hundreds of islands in the Pacific Ocean, none has suffered a case of deforestation as severe as that which destroyed the civilization on Easter Island in the 1600s. Jared Diamond has called it “the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by over-exploiting its own resources.” A combination of environmental factors led to the deforestation, but on such a small island, how could the Easter Islanders not have seen what they were doing? Diamond asked, “what did they say when they were cutting down the last palm tree?” In the future, people might be asking the same about us.

With Big Data, the civilization might have been able to identify and address problems caused by volcanic activity, latitude, rainfall patterns, and the lack of “continental dust from Asia” that protects the Pacific islands by restoring soil fertility.

Indus Valley Civilization

The largest of the early urban civilizations, the Indus once covered more than a million square kilometers and may have accounted for 10% of the world’s population. After a period of stability and great technological advancement, when the civilization’s rivers flooded adequately to support farming, climate change caused the floods to dry up, and the cities had to be abandoned.

We can’t imagine that happening in today’s developed cities, in an age where the likes of Buenos Aries have sensor networks monitoring and controlling the flow and pressure of their entire water supply. Even if natural climate change did make a region uninhabitable over time, we’d surely have the foresight to know it was coming.

If Big Data is to save our global civilization, achieving something our ancestors didn’t, it will depend on more than just data. If Big Data really does have the potential to solve civilization-ending problems, our fate will depend on humans acting on insights.

The most urgent problems facing today’s global civilization are of our own making. There are many things we still don’t understand, and many things we haven’t started or stopped doing to solve these problems. Big Data will be crucial in helping us change that. Unlike ancient civilizations, digital technology can ensure our future.

Get more insight on how cities are using data to build a better future in Smarter Cities: Future Metropolis and Societal Impact.

Comments

David Jonker

About David Jonker

David Jonker is Senior Director of SAP Leonardo and predictive analytic solutions at SAP. He drives go-to-market and co-innovation initiatives across the SAP solution portfolio for Big Data and predictive analytics.

Digitization Is Crucial To Achieve UN Global Goals

Daniel Schmid

Concern, hope, enthusiasm: This was the mixture of sentiments that I perceived during the World Economic Forum (WEF) Sustainable Development Impact Summit in New York City last month.

More than 700 leaders from more than 70 countries took part—including government, business, international organizations, research centers, and not-for profits. Panelists included Salesforce CEO Marc R. Benioff, Mars president Jean-Christophe Flatin, Roche vice-chairman André S. Hoffmann, and Royal Philips president and CEO Frans van Houten.

Concern

Former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner* Al Gore pointed out, in a panel discussion titled “Global Progress through Partnerships,” that the past two weeks saw two record-breaking climate-connected storms. Hurricane Harvey crossed the Gulf of Mexico, which was over four degrees warmer than normal, resulting in enormous amounts of rain. The rainfall totals in Houston were a once-every-25,000-years event. The monsoon in South Asia also brought 70 cm more rain than normal, with one-third of Bangladesh underwater.

Gore said, “We are departing the familiar bounds of history as we have known it since civilization began.” In contrast, other areas are experiencing devastating droughts: 80 percent of Portugal is in drought, and 70 large fires have burned in the western part of North America.

These conditions also create climate refugees. “Long before the civil war in Syria started, the worst drought in 900 years of record-keeping destroyed 60 percent of farms. One and a half million climate refugees entered the cities,” Gore pointed out, adding that this is a contributing factor to the war in Syria.

Hope

“But,” Gore added, “we are also meeting in a time of extraordinary and unprecedented hope.” The World Economic Forum was incremental in building the success of the Paris Agreement, and will continue to play a key role in implementing it. “Public private partnerships are the keys to putting in place the solutions we need.”

The day after the U.S. government announced it would leave the Paris Agreement, Gore said, political and business leaders, states, cities, etc., doubled down on their commitment, saying “We are still there!” SAP is one of the companies that is strongly committed to climate action: We plan to be carbon-neutral by 2025.

According to Gore, there are additional reasons for hope: Technology becomes better and cheaper all the time, a phenomenon known as the “cost-down curve.” Gadgets can now be run with wind or solar energy, and efficiency is better than ever. “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is also a sustainability revolution,” Gore said. Technology is key to meeting the sustainable development goals.

This was also consensus in the panel discussion “The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Technology-Driven, Human-Centred”: Panelists emphasized the opportunities technology brings, from artificial intelligence (AI) to improve working conditions to mobile phones in India that enable everyone to play a part in the economy (e.g. have a bank account)—even those who were formerly excluded. For girls in Africa, learning IT and coding skills bring hope for a better life.

My take? It is up to us to ensure that the opportunities technology offers outweigh the risks. To help drive awareness around the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and showcase examples of how IT can help contribute to them, SAP has published an interactive web book and iPad app as well as a free online course on openSAP: “Sustainability through Digital Transformation.”

Enthusiasm

The theme of most of the speeches and discussions I witnessed at the summit was “There is no planet B,” but also “Together we can make it,” meaning that government, public, and private-sector organizations need to cooperate to tackle the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With partnerships and cooperation, they have the power to create positive economic, social, and environmental value through technology, solutions, and skills.

World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab described the summit’s intention: “What is needed is a true agenda for global public-private cooperation, with the objective not to defend individual interests, but to keep the destiny of humankind as a whole in mind.”

As a result of the summit, several major new initiatives that will advance public-private cooperation on the global goals were announced or launched, including:

These initiatives show the will to cooperate and the readiness to act of leaders from all over the world—let us all have a part in tackling the biggest challenges of the planet!

*The Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 was awarded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and former US Vice President Al Gore for their efforts to obtain and disseminate information about the climate challenge. In Gore’s case, the award was grounded in his tireless campaign to put the climate crisis on the political agenda.

This story originally appeared on the SAP Community.

Comments

Daniel Schmid

About Daniel Schmid

Daniel Schmid was appointed Chief Sustainability Officer at SAP in 2014. Since 2008 he has been engaged in transforming SAP into a role model of a sustainable organization, establishing mid and long term sustainability targets. Linking non-financial and financial performance are key achievements of Daniel and his team.

Defeating Poverty In Ghana, One Shoe At A Time

Michael Kure

Walk a mile in George Kwame Baah’s shoes and you might get an inkling of his remarkable journey. In 11 years, Baah transitioned from a poverty-stricken life in his native Ghana to working as a full-time engineer in the United States, where he is founder and chief product designer of his own footwear e-commerce business, Kwame Baah.

Buying a pair of shoes was too expensive for Baah’s family when he was a child—so he innovated, making his own shoes out of recycled tires.

This experience led him to launch his namesake e-commerce business years later, selling contemporary-designed Ghanaian sandals and shoes across the United States.

Designed to alleviate poverty

Baah designs the footwear at the company’s headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, but the footwear products are handcrafted by his employees back in Ghana—mainly Baah’s mother, siblings, and some neighbors. Handcrafting these signature shoes enables all to support themselves.

“Kwame Baah shoes are designed to alleviate poverty,” Baah said.

It is the driving force behind Kwame Baah. And the company does so by providing a living wage for its workers in Baah’s Ghanaian hometown.

That’s a big reason why George’s passion to see his business succeed is as strong as his altruism.

Supporting his business, family, and fellow townspeople

George was inspired to launch Kwame Baah in part by his native culture, which values support and neighbors who need financial help. Baah accepts and owns this responsibility unconditionally.

Baah came to the U.S. in 2000 to study engineering, which led to a full-time job. Yet he still chose to enter an already crowded global industry dominated by powerhouse competition such as Nike and Adidas.

That can be challenging. Consumers are generally hesitant to try something new and unbranded. Nevertheless, Kwame Baah has been able to stand out among the competition, thanks to its uniquely stylish design, superior craftsmanship, and materials from Ghana.

Studies show that millennials are more inclined to purchase products from companies doing good for society, and that’s exactly the competitive advantage that George is selling.

“Most of our clients are people looking for something new, something stylish. You get a shoe that is well made and very stylish…that you can’t find on any [other] market,” Baah said. “And then you have a great story behind it—that’s our competitive edge.”

More shoes sold means more people helped

Providing a living wage requires selling a lot of shoes, just as generating awareness and growing sales requires a proven business solution to scale growth. Baah chose the end-to-end an e-commerce solution designed for small and midsize businesses to help his company think ahead in terms of future growth.

“Being able to expand and have all these analytical tools and data at my fingertips [is] what drew me to the technology,” Baah said.

Baah has made the most use of his new technology’s data analytics tool. Data collected from social media tracking helps George make more informed decisions on how to reach his audience and generate further awareness in the marketplace.

Baah expects his new business solution to help his company grow, scale, and operate more efficiently. Every penny of additional profit puts more money into the pockets of the artisans.

Another benefit has been the exposure.

“This digital approach will bring more publicity to the company because retailers we work with see that as a sign of credibility,” Baah said. In fact, since signing on, Kwame Baah footwear has been picked up and sold by the brand, Free People, an exclusive, trendy brand very popular among young people.

George’s story is truly an inspiration to all small business owners: a quality product with universal appeal and an even better purpose. Kwame Baah is a leader in meaningful business success.

Click here to learn more about how SAP Anywhere can help grow your small business.

 

Comments

Michael Kure

About Michael Kure

Michael Kure is the lead copywriter on the Small and Midsize Businesses team and comes to SAP with 15 years of marketing communications, copywriting, and editorial experience.

The Future Will Be Co-Created

Dan Wellers and Timo Elliott

 

Just 3% of companies have completed enterprise digital transformation projects.
92% of those companies have significantly improved or transformed customer engagement.
81% of business executives say platforms will reshape industries into interconnected ecosystems.
More than half of large enterprises (80% of the Global 500) will join industry platforms by 2018.

Link to Sources


Redefining Customer Experience

Many business leaders think of the customer journey or experience as the interaction an individual or business has with their firm.

But the business value of the future will exist in the much broader, end-to-end experiences of a customer—the experience of travel, for example, or healthcare management or mobility. Individual companies alone, even with their existing supplier networks, lack the capacity to transform these comprehensive experiences.


A Network Effect

Rather than go it alone, companies will develop deep collaborative relationships across industries—even with their customers—to create powerful ecosystems that multiply the breadth and depth of the products, services, and experiences they can deliver. Digital native companies like Baidu and Uber have embraced ecosystem thinking from their early days. But forward-looking legacy companies are beginning to take the approach.

Solutions could include:

  • Packaging provider Weig has integrated partners into production with customers co-inventing custom materials.
  • China’s Ping An insurance company is aggressively expanding beyond its sector with a digital platform to help customers manage their healthcare experience.
  • British roadside assistance provider RAC is delivering a predictive breakdown service for drivers by acquiring and partnering with high-tech companies.

What Color Is Your Ecosystem?

Abandoning long-held notions of business value creation in favor of an ecosystem approach requires new tactics and strategies. Companies can:

1.  Dispassionately map the end-to-end customer experience, including those pieces outside company control.

2.  Employ future planning tactics, such as scenario planning, to examine how that experience might evolve.

3.  Identify organizations in that experience ecosystem with whom you might co-innovate.

4.  Embrace technologies that foster secure collaboration and joint innovation around delivery of experiences, such as cloud computing, APIs, and micro-services.

5.  Hire, train for, and reward creativity, innovation, and customer-centricity.


Evolve or Be Commoditized

Some companies will remain in their traditional industry boxes, churning out products and services in isolation. But they will be commodity players reaping commensurate returns. Companies that want to remain competitive will seek out their new ecosystem or get left out in the cold.


Download the executive brief The Future Will be Co-Created.


Read the full article The Future Belongs to Industry-Busting Ecosystems.

Turn insight into action, make better decisions, and transform your business.  Learn how.

Comments

Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

About Timo Elliott

Timo Elliott is an Innovation Evangelist for SAP and a passionate advocate of innovation, digital business, analytics, and artificial intelligence. He was the eighth employee of BusinessObjects and for the last 25 years he has worked closely with SAP customers around the world on new technology directions and their impact on real-world organizations. His articles have appeared in articles such as Harvard Business Review, Forbes, ZDNet, The Guardian, and Digitalist Magazine. He has worked in the UK, Hong Kong, New Zealand, and Silicon Valley, and currently lives in Paris, France. He has a degree in Econometrics and a patent in mobile analytics. 

Tags:

Blockchain: Much Ado About Nothing? How Very Wrong!

Juergen Roehricht

Let me start with a quote from McKinsey, that in my view hits the nail right on the head:

“No matter what the context, there’s a strong possibility that blockchain will affect your business. The very big question is when.”

Now, in the industries that I cover in my role as general manager and innovation lead for travel and transportation/cargo, engineering, construction and operations, professional services, and media, I engage with many different digital leaders on a regular basis. We are having visionary conversations about the impact of digital technologies and digital transformation on business models and business processes and the way companies address them. Many topics are at different stages of the hype cycle, but the one that definitely stands out is blockchain as a new enabling technology in the enterprise space.

Just a few weeks ago, a customer said to me: “My board is all about blockchain, but I don’t get what the excitement is about – isn’t this just about Bitcoin and a cryptocurrency?”

I can totally understand his confusion. I’ve been talking to many blockchain experts who know that it will have a big impact on many industries and the related business communities. But even they are uncertain about the where, how, and when, and about the strategy on how to deal with it. The reason is that we often look at it from a technology point of view. This is a common mistake, as the starting point should be the business problem and the business issue or process that you want to solve or create.

In my many interactions with Torsten Zube, vice president and blockchain lead at the SAP Innovation Center Network (ICN) in Potsdam, Germany, he has made it very clear that it’s mandatory to “start by identifying the real business problem and then … figure out how blockchain can add value.” This is the right approach.

What we really need to do is provide guidance for our customers to enable them to bring this into the context of their business in order to understand and define valuable use cases for blockchain. We need to use design thinking or other creative strategies to identify the relevant fields for a particular company. We must work with our customers and review their processes and business models to determine which key blockchain aspects, such as provenance and trust, are crucial elements in their industry. This way, we can identify use cases in which blockchain will benefit their business and make their company more successful.

My highly regarded colleague Ulrich Scholl, who is responsible for externalizing the latest industry innovations, especially blockchain, in our SAP Industries organization, recently said: “These kinds of use cases are often not evident, as blockchain capabilities sometimes provide minor but crucial elements when used in combination with other enabling technologies such as IoT and machine learning.” In one recent and very interesting customer case from the autonomous province of South Tyrol, Italy, blockchain was one of various cloud platform services required to make this scenario happen.

How to identify “blockchainable” processes and business topics (value drivers)

To understand the true value and impact of blockchain, we need to keep in mind that a verified transaction can involve any kind of digital asset such as cryptocurrency, contracts, and records (for instance, assets can be tangible equipment or digital media). While blockchain can be used for many different scenarios, some don’t need blockchain technology because they could be handled by a simple ledger, managed and owned by the company, or have such a large volume of data that a distributed ledger cannot support it. Blockchain would not the right solution for these scenarios.

Here are some common factors that can help identify potential blockchain use cases:

  • Multiparty collaboration: Are many different parties, and not just one, involved in the process or scenario, but one party dominates everything? For example, a company with many parties in the ecosystem that are all connected to it but not in a network or more decentralized structure.
  • Process optimization: Will blockchain massively improve a process that today is performed manually, involves multiple parties, needs to be digitized, and is very cumbersome to manage or be part of?
  • Transparency and auditability: Is it important to offer each party transparency (e.g., on the origin, delivery, geolocation, and hand-overs) and auditable steps? (e.g., How can I be sure that the wine in my bottle really is from Bordeaux?)
  • Risk and fraud minimization: Does it help (or is there a need) to minimize risk and fraud for each party, or at least for most of them in the chain? (e.g., A company might want to know if its goods have suffered any shocks in transit or whether the predefined route was not followed.)

Connecting blockchain with the Internet of Things

This is where blockchain’s value can be increased and automated. Just think about a blockchain that is not just maintained or simply added by a human, but automatically acquires different signals from sensors, such as geolocation, temperature, shock, usage hours, alerts, etc. One that knows when a payment or any kind of money transfer has been made, a delivery has been received or arrived at its destination, or a digital asset has been downloaded from the Internet. The relevant automated actions or signals are then recorded in the distributed ledger/blockchain.

Of course, given the massive amount of data that is created by those sensors, automated signals, and data streams, it is imperative that only the very few pieces of data coming from a signal that are relevant for a specific business process or transaction be stored in a blockchain. By recording non-relevant data in a blockchain, we would soon hit data size and performance issues.

Ideas to ignite thinking in specific industries

  • The digital, “blockchained” physical asset (asset lifecycle management): No matter whether you build, use, or maintain an asset, such as a machine, a piece of equipment, a turbine, or a whole aircraft, a blockchain transaction (genesis block) can be created when the asset is created. The blockchain will contain all the contracts and information for the asset as a whole and its parts. In this scenario, an entry is made in the blockchain every time an asset is: sold; maintained by the producer or owner’s maintenance team; audited by a third-party auditor; has malfunctioning parts; sends or receives information from sensors; meets specific thresholds; has spare parts built in; requires a change to the purpose or the capability of the assets due to age or usage duration; receives (or doesn’t receive) payments; etc.
  • The delivery chain, bill of lading: In today’s world, shipping freight from A to B involves lots of manual steps. For example, a carrier receives a booking from a shipper or forwarder, confirms it, and, before the document cut-off time, receives the shipping instructions describing the content and how the master bill of lading should be created. The carrier creates the original bill of lading and hands it over to the ordering party (the current owner of the cargo). Today, that original paper-based bill of lading is required for the freight (the container) to be picked up at the destination (the port of discharge). Imagine if we could do this as a blockchain transaction and by forwarding a PDF by email. There would be one transaction at the beginning, when the shipping carrier creates the bill of lading. Then there would be look-ups, e.g., by the import and release processing clerk of the shipper at the port of discharge and the new owner of the cargo at the destination. Then another transaction could document that the container had been handed over.

The future

I personally believe in the massive transformative power of blockchain, even though we are just at the very beginning. This transformation will be achieved by looking at larger networks with many participants that all have a nearly equal part in a process. Today, many blockchain ideas still have a more centralistic approach, in which one company has a more prominent role than the (many) others and often is “managing” this blockchain/distributed ledger-supported process/approach.

But think about the delivery scenario today, where goods are shipped from one door or company to another door or company, across many parties in the delivery chain: from the shipper/producer via the third-party logistics service provider and/or freight forwarder; to the companies doing the actual transport, like vessels, trucks, aircraft, trains, cars, ferries, and so on; to the final destination/receiver. And all of this happens across many countries, many borders, many handovers, customs, etc., and involves a lot of paperwork, across all constituents.

“Blockchaining” this will be truly transformational. But it will need all constituents in the process or network to participate, even if they have different interests, and to agree on basic principles and an approach.

As Torsten Zube put it, I am not a “blockchain extremist” nor a denier that believes this is just a hype, but a realist open to embracing a new technology in order to change our processes for our collective benefit.

Turn insight into action, make better decisions, and transform your business. Learn how.

Comments

Juergen Roehricht

About Juergen Roehricht

Juergen Roehricht is General Manager of Services Industries and Innovation Lead of the Middle and Eastern Europe region for SAP. The industries he covers include travel and transportation; professional services; media; and engineering, construction and operations. Besides managing the business in those segments, Juergen is focused on supporting innovation and digital transformation strategies of SAP customers. With more than 20 years of experience in IT, he stays up to date on the leading edge of innovation, pioneering and bringing new technologies to market and providing thought leadership. He has published several articles and books, including Collaborative Business and The Multi-Channel Company.