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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.

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David Jonker

About David Jonker

David leads the global marketing team for the SAP BusinessObjects Predictive Analytics business, a machine learning platform for both analysts and data scientists. He manages the innovation lab creating data analytics showcases with customers, partners, and not-for-profit organizations.

Future Cities: Jobs And Social Capital

Brian Lee-Archer

If work isn’t the cornerstone of our society, then why is there so much focus on the jobs of the future and the impact of the digital economy?

Labor mobility is a characteristic of a modern thriving economy. Jobs might attract people to a community, but livability makes them stay. Bill Clinton’s famous slogan from the 1992 U.S. presidential election, “It’s the economy, stupid,” is a poignant reminder that sustainability within our communities is contingent on a level of economic activity.

Jobs and livability go hand-in-hand. Economic activity within a community underpins investment in social capital-related initiatives. Strong social capital is a stabilizer to the negative effects of economic cycles. Improving livability and economic activity can trigger a virtuous circle effect leading to sustainable communities.

On the other side of the coin, if economic activity slows and jobs disappear, investment in livability may decline and put community sustainability at risk. Communities often have limited capacity to influence the macroeconomic issues that determine labor markets and attract jobs.

However, they have a level of control over livability factors such as open space, public safety, and recreational activities.

In periods of economic slowdown, the focus on social capital-related initiatives contributes to resilience, thereby increasing capacity to influence economic activity.

The new economy is putting a spotlight on the concept of tradable and non-tradable jobs, as Enrico Moretti explains in his book, The New Geography of Jobs. A tradable job creates goods or services that can be exported to other regions—for example, knowledge or manufacturing jobs.

Non-tradable jobs are usually local jobs that support people in tradable jobs—for example, retail, health services, and education. According to Moretti, “A healthy traded sector benefits the local economy directly, as it generates well-paid jobs, and indirectly, as it creates additional jobs in the non-traded sector.”

At the macro level, attracting traditional tradable industries such as manufacturing is beyond the reach of many communities. While communities may offer incentives to attract investment, it comes with risk.

However, the new economy provides opportunities to attract or upskill to a new class of tradable jobs at a lower investment risk – the knowledge workers. Knowledge workers have higher average incomes, are mobile and well-educated, and have a life perspective beyond the community they live in. Knowledge workers create the potential to leverage existing social capital assets of the community to enable innovation, leading to new jobs with higher levels of job satisfaction.

Increasing the pool of knowledge workers within a community lifts demand for local services in the non-tradeable sector – the multiplier effect.

By virtue of their mobility, knowledge workers have the opportunity to exercise choice in where they live. Communities can leverage livability factors to retain newly upskilled workers and attract new knowledge workers.

A three-year study (2010-12) conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation of 26 communities across the United States, The Knight Soul of the Community, examined the factors that bond residents to their communities and the role of community attachment in an area’s economic growth and well-being.

This study revealed three dominant factors: aesthetics, openness, and social offerings.

Kick-starting a virtuous circle of growth in employment and livability is contingent upon a rich source of data and the capability to turn data into information for business insight.

Information informs community leaders in making targeted investment decisions addressing social capital factors proven to have a positive impact on tradable job prospects.

Community leaders face a unique challenge: The levers they have most control over are not necessarily the most direct in terms of creating jobs. However, the livability levers they do control can have a significant impact on creating the environmental conditions for innovation among knowledge workers.

The economic value created will empower communities to invest further in social capital initiatives.

For more on how technology drives social capital, see Smart Investments Create Smart Cities.

This article was originally published on InnovationAus.com.

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Brian Lee-Archer

About Brian Lee-Archer

Brian Lee-Archer is director of the SAP Institute for Digital Government Global (SIDG). Launched in 2015, SIDG is a global think tank that aims to create value for government by leveraging digital capability to meet the needs of citizens and consumers of government services. In collaboration with government agencies, universities and partner organizations, SIDG facilitates innovation through digital technology for deeper policy insight and improved service delivery.

Removing Bias From Digitization Brings Economic Opportunity For All

Shelly Dutton

Conventional wisdom tells us that all of us encounter change. Some people fully embrace it as a new beginning and use it to create something positive or even life-changing. Others fight it along the way. And a vast majority accept the change – but only on their terms.

No matter where you fall, it is increasingly difficult to ignore how various faction of our global society views change.

Populist movements are emerging all over the world, fueled by populations that are not economically uplifted by the opportunities of the digital economy. And one look at news headlines over the last decade justifies such sentiments. For example, many companies are focused on simplifying and shortening supply chains. Automation is making production location and outsourcing decisions no longer dependent on labor costs. The possibilities of 3D printing could potentially decrease the need to ship goods across long distances.

In a recent interview with Handelsblatt Global, Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP, acknowledged that more must be done to show how everyone – of any level of education, industry, and demographic – can fit in a world of globalization and digitization.

“Governments can no longer ignore them,” he observed. “Countries need to consider how to usher a large chunk of the workforce into a modern economy.”

Even though businesses are investing in technology to automate tasks that were formerly carried out by workers, McDermott believes that some jobs can never be improved by a machine or robot. However, political and business leaders still need to do more to alleviate fears of job loss and an unemployable future.

“Clearly, we are going need new forms of training and education, and companies can play an important role in that process,” McDermott shared.

Employees have a right to understand how technology will power a progression present work situation to a future of opportunity, promise, and prosperity. Businesses have an obligation to impart knowledge and guidance to their employees and a clear, sustainable, and achievable road map of their digital strategy. Ultimately, leadership teams need to side with their workforce and do everything in their power to help ensure their success.

Once the executive team and its employees of all levels and responsibilities are engaged in the business’ digital direction, the future is full of immense potential. McDermott uses his own workforce as an example of the possibilities, “We have 22,000 brilliant developers, the greatest in the world. We just needed to unleash their potential and set them on the topics that matter most. We don’t need to buy any small startup to reach our goals.”

For the entire interview with Bill McDermott, read the Handelsblatt Global article, “Computers Don’t Have a Bias.”

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The Future of Cybersecurity: Trust as Competitive Advantage

Justin Somaini and Dan Wellers

 

The cost of data breaches will reach US$2.1 trillion globally by 2019—nearly four times the cost in 2015.

Cyberattacks could cost up to $90 trillion in net global economic benefits by 2030 if cybersecurity doesn’t keep pace with growing threat levels.

Cyber insurance premiums could increase tenfold to $20 billion annually by 2025.

Cyberattacks are one of the top 10 global risks of highest concern for the next decade.


Companies are collaborating with a wider network of partners, embracing distributed systems, and meeting new demands for 24/7 operations.

But the bad guys are sharing intelligence, harnessing emerging technologies, and working round the clock as well—and companies are giving them plenty of weaknesses to exploit.

  • 33% of companies today are prepared to prevent a worst-case attack.
  • 25% treat cyber risk as a significant corporate risk.
  • 80% fail to assess their customers and suppliers for cyber risk.

The ROI of Zero Trust

Perimeter security will not be enough. As interconnectivity increases so will the adoption of zero-trust networks, which place controls around data assets and increases visibility into how they are used across the digital ecosystem.


A Layered Approach

Companies that embrace trust as a competitive advantage will build robust security on three core tenets:

  • Prevention: Evolving defensive strategies from security policies and educational approaches to access controls
  • Detection: Deploying effective systems for the timely detection and notification of intrusions
  • Reaction: Implementing incident response plans similar to those for other disaster recovery scenarios

They’ll build security into their digital ecosystems at three levels:

  1. Secure products. Security in all applications to protect data and transactions
  2. Secure operations. Hardened systems, patch management, security monitoring, end-to-end incident handling, and a comprehensive cloud-operations security framework
  3. Secure companies. A security-aware workforce, end-to-end physical security, and a thorough business continuity framework

Against Digital Armageddon

Experts warn that the worst-case scenario is a state of perpetual cybercrime and cyber warfare, vulnerable critical infrastructure, and trillions of dollars in losses. A collaborative approach will be critical to combatting this persistent global threat with implications not just for corporate and personal data but also strategy, supply chains, products, and physical operations.


Download the executive brief The Future of Cybersecurity: Trust as Competitive Advantage.


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How Digital Transformation Is Rewriting Business Models

Ginger Shimp

Everybody knows someone who has a stack of 3½-inch floppies in a desk drawer “just in case we may need them someday.” While that might be amusing, the truth is that relatively few people are confident that they’re making satisfactory progress on their digital journey. The boundaries between the digital and physical worlds continue to blur — with profound implications for the way we do business. Virtually every industry and every enterprise feels the effects of this ongoing digital transformation, whether from its own initiative or due to pressure from competitors.

What is digital transformation? It’s the wholesale reimagining and reinvention of how businesses operate, enabled by today’s advanced technology. Businesses have always changed with the times, but the confluence of technologies such as mobile, cloud, social, and Big Data analytics has accelerated the pace at which today’s businesses are evolving — and the degree to which they transform the way they innovate, operate, and serve customers.

The process of digital transformation began decades ago. Think back to how word processing fundamentally changed the way we write, or how email transformed the way we communicate. However, the scale of transformation currently underway is drastically more significant, with dramatically higher stakes. For some businesses, digital transformation is a disruptive force that leaves them playing catch-up. For others, it opens to door to unparalleled opportunities.

Upending traditional business models

To understand how the businesses that embrace digital transformation can ultimately benefit, it helps to look at the changes in business models currently in process.

Some of the more prominent examples include:

  • A focus on outcome-based models — Open the door to business value to customers as determined by the outcome or impact on the customer’s business.
  • Expansion into new industries and markets — Extend the business’ reach virtually anywhere — beyond strictly defined customer demographics, physical locations, and traditional market segments.
  • Pervasive digitization of products and services — Accelerate the way products and services are conceived, designed, and delivered with no barriers between customers and the businesses that serve them.
  • Ecosystem competition — Create a more compelling value proposition in new markets through connections with other companies to enhance the value available to the customer.
  • Access a shared economy — Realize more value from underutilized sources by extending access to other business entities and customers — with the ability to access the resources of others.
  • Realize value from digital platforms — Monetize the inherent, previously untapped value of customer relationships to improve customer experiences, collaborate more effectively with partners, and drive ongoing innovation in products and services,

In other words, the time-tested assumptions about how to identify customers, develop and market products and services, and manage organizations may no longer apply. Every aspect of business operations — from forecasting demand to sourcing materials to recruiting and training staff to balancing the books — is subject to this wave of reinvention.

The question is not if, but when

These new models aren’t predictions of what could happen. They’re already realities for innovative, fast-moving companies across the globe. In this environment, playing the role of late adopter can put a business at a serious disadvantage. Ready or not, digital transformation is coming — and it’s coming fast.

Is your company ready for this sea of change in business models? At SAP, we’ve helped thousands of organizations embrace digital transformation — and turn the threat of disruption into new opportunities for innovation and growth. We’d relish the opportunity to do the same for you. Our Digital Readiness Assessment can help you see where you are in the journey and map out the next steps you’ll need to take.

Up next I’ll discuss the impact of digital transformation on processes and work. Until then, you can read more on how digital transformation is impacting your industry.

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Ginger Shimp

About Ginger Shimp

With more than 20 years’ experience in marketing, Ginger Shimp has been with SAP since 2004. She has won numerous awards and honors at SAP, including being designated “Top Talent” for two consecutive years. Not only is she a Professional Certified Marketer with the American Marketing Association, but she's also earned her Connoisseur's Certificate in California Reds from the Chicago Wine School. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of San Francisco, and an MBA in marketing and managerial economics from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University. Personally, Ginger is the proud mother of a precocious son and happy wife of one of YouTube's 10 EDU Gurus, Ed Shimp.