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 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.

Harnessing Digitization To Power Up Governance In ASEAN

Claus Andresen

As ASEAN celebrates 50 years of its establishment this year, one of its key achievements has been the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC)—a platform that enables the economic integration of its ten member states. It is already making an impact on the economy of the region, which would be far greater in the years to come.

The potential for ASEAN is huge: With 630 million people (more than half of whom are under 30) and a US$1.5 trillion consumer market, it is poised to be the shining star of foreign investors. Southeast Asia is the fourth-largest exporting region in the world, accounting for 7% of global exports. As a single economic entity, ASEAN would be the world’s seventh-largest economy. The region has seen economic growth average a healthy 4-5% per annum since its formation.

Member countries in ASEAN are fully cognizant of this huge potential, and their goals of accelerating the economic growth, social progress, and cultural development in the region through joint endeavors and promoting regional peace and stability underline that. The ASEAN goals are aligned with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals: to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda. From a development and governance point of view, it also includes goals such as sustainable cities and communities, and responsible production and consumption.

Key challenges before ASEAN

However, in a fast-changing and volatile world where digital transformation is impacting businesses, governments, and even individual lives, ASEAN faces some key challenges that will test the resilience of governments: the increasing pace of business and tech life cycles, the rise of the disruptive platforms and their impact on services, use of data analytics to engage citizens, the rise of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), and robotics and how they have upped the ante for governments, and the constant threats of cybersecurity.

The larger impact of these challenges faced by ASEAN nations today have implications for the economic conditions of their citizens, loss and automation of jobs, and the overall quality of life. These problems will only grow in complexity in the coming years.

Solving society’s problems through digitization

While digitization has been a disrupter, it also has the potential to solve some of ASEAN’s key problems.  It will touch upon businesses, people, and governments to bring growth, jobs, and service delivery.

For this to happen, governments in ASEAN should go for smart, connected, ubiquitous, and disruptive “intelligentization.” The World Bank recommends that digitization must be “a whole of government agenda” and cannot just be done in siloes.

Digitization can accelerate growth for countries as it enables organizations to reach new markets, improves service delivery for citizens, and strengthens institutions. For example, World Bank studies show that Vietnamese firms that are using e-commerce have high total factor productivity growth. Similarly, in the space of service delivery to citizens, digitization increases the capacity to resolve complaints quickly and creates transparency in e-government systems. Similarly, digitization strengthens institutions through population registers, payment platforms, and information delivery mechanisms.

To increase the pace of digitization, ASEAN governments will have to invest in making the Internet more affordable and sorting out the legal and regulatory issues to make digitization ubiquitous. Currently, Singapore and Thailand lead the region in terms of both broadband and mobile Internet speed. The good news is that countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines are also investing heavily in developing their national broadband networks and smart city projects.

The move towards smart nations and cities

The best way governments can deal with the challenge of digital transformation is to endeavour to convert the whole nation into a smart nation, composed of numerous smart cities.

While Singapore took the lead in this direction, all major countries in ASEAN are focusing on building their model smart cities. In its neighbourhood, countries like India, Japan, and Korea are pushing for smart cities in a big way. India has announced an ambitious project to build 100 smart cities.

Smart cities and smart nations are built on data, engagement, and collaboration, and by meshing up these three principles/approaches, governments can take a 360-degree approach to serve their citizens. For example, the Singapore government has created SingPass as a ubiquitous product with 3.3 million accounts. It helps in extending digital identity of users for 220 services across 80 agencies. Contrast this with Indonesia, the biggest economy in the block. It does not even have a common ID but it wants to harness technologies such as Big Data and AI in tax fraud detection. In the Jakarta Smart City, the Indonesian government is using community data for startups, which are building apps to solve problems such as garbage collection from municipal areas.

Harnessing digitization to build better citizen services in ASEAN

While connectivity remains a big issue for ASEAN countries and skills gaps still need to be tackled, Big Data, analytics, and AI will be the biggest game-changers for ASEAN economies. By bringing together both transactional processes and analytical intelligence – and combining all agency knowledge sources in one platform – organizations can turn data into actionable information. That will allow decisions based on facts and provides predictive insights. As issues arise, agencies can be more agile and responsive, incrementally adding connected solutions to address new problems – without disrupting operations.

For more on how technology is shaping the future of cities and their economies, see Future Cities: A Nexus Of Smart Utilities, Smart Transport, And Smart Tourism.

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Claus Andresen

About Claus Andresen

Claus Andresen is President and Managing Director for SAP Southeast Asia (SEA). He is responsible for business strategy, operations, profit and loss, and sustainable growth for SAP across SEA, building on SAP’s success in its 28-year establishment in the region. Claus leads high-performing teams across Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and other emerging markets in SEA.

Muru Walks A Pathway To The Future

Rick Price

When you think about office supplies, you probably think about things like the reams of paper it takes to get business done. But to Indigenous communities in Australia, that paper is a pathway to equality and a brighter future through an Indigenous-owned company called Muru Office Supplies.

Muru means pathway

Muru CEO Mitchell Ross explains that in the language of his people, Muru means “pathway”: “I’m an Indigenous man myself, and going into business… there was a huge drive for me to give back to other Indigenous people, so part of our vision as an organization is to create a pathway for the next generation of Indigenous people.” Ross explains that Muru gives part of its profits back to Indigenous community programs and has strong Indigenous employment goals.

Challenging history, new opportunities

This is a moment of opportunity for businesses like Muru. Challenged by a history that has often left First Australians behind, the Australian government a year ago created an Indigenous Procurement Policy. In its first year, the government awarded A$284.2 million in contracts to 493 Indigenous businesses. At the same time, many large Australian businesses are finding both purpose and profit in partnering with and buying from Indigenous suppliers. This policy is potentially even more powerful when combined with innovative, cloud-based procurement technology. The opportunity is ripe for smaller, Indigenous businesses like Muru to partner with other suppliers and also to get on the radar of larger buyers.

The power of the business network

Muru has found an expert partner in Complete Office Supplies or COS, Australia’s largest family-owned office products supplier, which has 41 years of experience. At SAP Ariba Live in Sydney in August, COS’s Sarah Trueman explained: “Over the years, we’ve helped Indigenous-owned small businesses, whether distributing their product or helping with logistics and services.” And a partnership with COS can help small Indigenous companies compete with larger organizations: “We support Muru Office Supplies with logistics, with supply chain, customer service, and IT, to make sure that they have the same service level as a company the size of COS.”

Iron…and paper

This effort is putting Muru in a position to work with Fortescue, the world’s fourth-largest iron ore producer. Chelsea Gray, Fortescue’s procurement systems and services manager explains: “Ending Aboriginal disparity has always been a core part of Fortescue.” Beginning in 2011, Fortescue’s Billion Opportunities program has awarded nearly A$2 billion in contracts to over 100 Aboriginal-owned businesses and joint ventures, including Muru.

COS has been a vendor of Fortescue for many years and saw an opportunity to build Muru’s capability by forming the joint venture Muru Office Supplies (MOS). MOS was successful in an open tender to provide Fortescue’s stationery requirements a few years back. COS’s Sarah Trueman says “the joint venture with Muru has been very successful and has resulted in MOS winning further business.”

The digital pathway

Muru, COS, and Fortescue are linked through technology that automates the procurement process and keeps business moving on the pathway between the three companies. Ross says that helps Muru fulfill its purpose in several ways: “It really comes down to streamlining processes for our customers and our buyers, so it reduces the administration costs, particularly in the high-transaction environment that we’re in. It reduces the human error rate because of the integration and automation that’s involved; it’s extremely helpful.” That helps Muru stay competitive, build its credibility, and grow so it can help more people.

SAP Ariba president Alex Atzberger notes: “Across procurement, we see people trying to tackle issues that impact the global supply chain such as slavery, poverty, and diversity. But they are struggling because they lack visibility and data on their suppliers. We can help deliver the intelligence and transparency they need to manage these challenges and effect change.”

The value of purpose

Including Indigenous businesses in procurement benefits companies around the globe. Atzberger points out: “Procurement is in a unique position to address these issues and, beyond saving money and creating efficiencies, improve lives.” Ariba vice president, products and innovation, Padmini Ranganathan points out: “Companies have seen value, cost efficiencies, and have enhanced their brand reputation.” Trueman agrees, saying it brings COS and its employees: “a sense of pride that we are helping Indigenous communities and giving back. As Muru talks about providing education to small children in these communities it’s really touching, it really makes you want to do more.”

Muru’s Ross adds: “As an Indigenous person, it’s easy to think about doing business with a purpose. It’s who we are as a people, so for other organizations and other buyers and suppliers out there, think about the bigger picture and about the world you want to live in, and come up with a purpose that you’re happy to strive towards.”

Interested in the ways procurement can help you make a difference? Click here for more stories like this one.

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Rick Price

About Rick Price

Rick Price is an Emmy Award-winning journalist who now works at SAP, where he tells stories of customers’ digital transformation.

Human Skills for the Digital Future

Dan Wellers and Kai Goerlich

Technology Evolves.
So Must We.


Technology replacing human effort is as old as the first stone axe, and so is the disruption it creates.
Thanks to deep learning and other advances in AI, machine learning is catching up to the human mind faster than expected.
How do we maintain our value in a world in which AI can perform many high-value tasks?


Uniquely Human Abilities

AI is excellent at automating routine knowledge work and generating new insights from existing data — but humans know what they don’t know.

We’re driven to explore, try new and risky things, and make a difference.
 
 
 
We deduce the existence of information we don’t yet know about.
 
 
 
We imagine radical new business models, products, and opportunities.
 
 
 
We have creativity, imagination, humor, ethics, persistence, and critical thinking.


There’s Nothing Soft About “Soft Skills”

To stay ahead of AI in an increasingly automated world, we need to start cultivating our most human abilities on a societal level. There’s nothing soft about these skills, and we can’t afford to leave them to chance.

We must revamp how and what we teach to nurture the critical skills of passion, curiosity, imagination, creativity, critical thinking, and persistence. In the era of AI, no one will be able to thrive without these abilities, and most people will need help acquiring and improving them.

Anything artificial intelligence does has to fit into a human-centered value system that takes our unique abilities into account. While we help AI get more powerful, we need to get better at being human.


Download the executive brief Human Skills for the Digital Future.


Read the full article The Human Factor in an AI Future.


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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.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu

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How Manufacturers Can Kick-Start The Internet Of Things In 2018

Tanja Rueckert

Part 1 of the “Manufacturing Value from IoT” series

IoT is one of the most dynamic and exciting markets I am involved with at SAP. The possibilities are endless, and that is perhaps where the challenges start. I’ll be sharing a series of blogs based on research into knowledge and use of IoT in manufacturing.

Most manufacturing leaders think that the IoT is the next big thing, alongside analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. They see these technologies dramatically impacting their businesses and business in general over the next five years. Researchers see big things ahead as well; they forecast that IoT products and investments will total hundreds of billions – or even trillions – of dollars in coming decades.

They’re all wrong.

The IoT is THE Big Thing right now – if you know where to look.

Nearly a third (31%) of production processes and equipment and non-production processes and equipment (30%) already incorporate smart device/embedded intelligence. Similar percentages of manufacturers have a company strategy implemented or in place to apply IoT technologies to their processes (34%) or to embed IoT technologies into products (32%).

opportunities to leverage IoTSource:Catch Up with IoT Leaders,” SAP, 2017.

The best process opportunities to leverage the IoT include document management (e.g. real-time updates of process information); shipping and warehousing (e.g. tracking incoming and outgoing goods); and assembly and packaging (e.g. production monitoring). More could be done, but figuring out where and how to implement the IoT is an obstacle for many leaders. Some 44 percent of companies have trouble identifying IoT opportunities and benefits for either internal processes or IoT-enabled products.

Why so much difficulty in figuring out where to use the IoT in processes?

  • No two industries use the IoT in the same way. An energy company might leverage asset-management data to reduce costs; an e-commerce manufacturer might focus on metrics for customer fulfillment; a fabricator’s use of IoT technologies may be driven by a need to meet exacting product variances.
  • Even in the same industry, individual firms will apply and profit from the IoT in unique ways. In some plants and processes, management is intent on getting the most out of fully depreciated equipment. Unfortunately, older equipment usually lacks state-of-the-art controls and sensors. The IoT may be in place somewhere within those facilities, but it’s unlikely to touch legacy processes until new machinery arrive. 

Where could your company leverage the IoT today? Think strategically, operationally, and financially to prioritize opportunities:

  • Can senior leadership and plant management use real-time process data to improve daily decision-making and operations planning? Do they have the skills and tools (e.g., business analytics) to leverage IoT data?
  • Which troublesome processes in the plant or front office erode profits? With real-time data pushed out by the IoT, which could be improved?
  • Of the processes that could be improved, which include equipment that can – in the near-term – accommodate embedded intelligence, and then communicate with plant and enterprise networks?

Answer those questions, and you’ve got an instant list of how and where to profit from the IoT – today.

Stay tuned for more information on how IoT is developing and to learn what it takes to be a manufacturing IoT innovator. In the meantime, download the report “Catch Up with IoT Leaders.”

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Tanja Rueckert

About Tanja Rueckert

Tanja Rueckert is President of the Internet of Things and Digital Supply Chain Business Unit at SAP.