• Those corporations that buy in to the idea of transparency, sustainability and ethics, will widen their income statement to include profit, loss and a new, third column: impact. The financial implications of our social and environmental actions.
  • The commercial advantages of having the lifetime journey of an asset at your fingertips has been crystalized during the pandemic - blockchain is one of the tools to make this possible.

“Essential” means something necessary, indispensable or unavoidable. And yet when COVID struck, governments scrambled to define what an essential service was.

In determining what is essential in our societies, businesses need to ensure that they, themselves, are essential.

The COVID-19 pandemic has released a surge of hyper evolution. The year had a fast start with increased focus on climate change. Now, we have a global health crisis and a desperate economic recession: three tsunami waves that are crashing onto our shores. This bombardment has turned the mercury upside down for tech start-ups and digital transformation.

Humankind has lost some swagger of late. We’re more vulnerable to airborne viruses than we hoped. Our planet is struggling more than we feared. And the economic fabric of society is stretched further than we thought.

—Leanne Kemp, Founder and CEO, Everledger

The growing consciousness of the fragility in our systems – and our species – is calling out for a different, more responsible approach.

Before, the future was up for grabs. Tech pioneers imagined a different way of living and working. They sold an optimistic vision of the 2020s and set about trying to make it happen. Companies like Uber were disruptive: “This is how life could be,” they said. Customers bought into this race, choosing solutions for a faster, better, more secure future.

But now that we’ve reached this new decade, mass demand is increasingly dictated by crisis, rather than aspiration. The future has come to get us, and it’s up to technology to help meet the moment.

Tech zebras - not unicorns

Compared to the financial crash of 2008, there won’t be the same audible click when the lights come back on. Instead, we’ll have a flickering dimmer switch, signalling when we’re in and out of different stages of recovery. People, businesses and countries will each need to learn quickly how to cope with the uncertainty – and how to net the rewards of resilience.

The dial has shifted from choice to urgency. We all need to get future fit, fast. Rather than a new herd of unicorns, the world needs essential solutions that can tackle the problems of today. That’s the best way to embrace a new normal.

Our new normal has to be about building a new future, what the World Economic Forum has called “The Great Reset”.

It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. Instead of relying on tech unicorns, I want to see the tech zebras change the world. They are much more relevant for us today (and often harder to spot). They are the rare-but-real innovations, hidden amongst the herd, the companies that have recognized the need to adopt a new normal, a new dimension of societal (and business) values, through collaborative action.

The time is ripe for us to build a new economy based on transparency and fairness, new regulations towards a more sustainable energy sector, new incentives for companies to create products and technologies that support people, instead of exploring their data and fomenting polarization.

Profit, loss and impact

Of course, realizing the need for change is much easier than actually getting it done. Those tech companies – and the corporates that partner with dynamic startups – have already mastered the how to be ready to take advantage. They will be the essential services in the post-COVID-19 world.

As a scale-up founder myself, this need to be essential has weighed on my mind during the lockdown. Those of us in the “transparency industry” have proclaimed the usefulness of provenance for many years, but it’s only now with COVID-19 that the essential nature of provenance has come into clear view for the wider public.

Like others, we set a vision for how the future would play out, positioning our services as indispensable for when the context changed. Now, that future has come.

And for those that operate this change, a new dividend will come into play – the circular dividend. Those corporations that create their products around the idea of transparency, sustainability and ethics, will widen their income statement: profit, loss and a new, third column: impact. The financial implications of our social and environmental actions.

Supply chains, value chains, risk chains

The pandemic sent a wave of panic through global supply chains. Almost overnight, the taps turned off. Stockpiles were found to be insufficient. Products and services that were never previously deemed top priority – or of strategic national importance – were making headline news.

But what was really lacking? It wasn’t just the physical toilet rolls, face masks or pasta. It was the digital information about where to find them. Who could provide them fastest? Were they the right quality? How could we make supply chains smarter in the future?

The commercial advantages of having the lifetime journey of an asset at your fingertips
Image: Exhibit from “Is your supply chain risk blind – or risk resilient?”, May 2020, McKinsey & Company, www.mckinsey.com. Copyright (c) 2020 McKinsey & Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

The commercial advantages of having the lifetime journey of an asset at your fingertips crystalized during the pandemic. Provenance data suddenly became an asset in its own right. Moving forward, industries can no longer afford to be laid-back about where resources come from.

One-dimensional supply chains turned out to be brittle. By creating a digital twin of assets, industries can fortify their pipelines into value chains that elevate transparency into a competitive edge. In fact, the pandemic has taken provenance to the next critical level, turning supply chains into risk chains, whereby governments and businesses need to know in real-time where assets have come from and where they are now.

In recent months, the conversation has changed. Before, it was up to tech companies to make the case to clients: this tool can make your business faster, more transparent, greener and so on. Now, the lines between supplier and customer – and even competitors – are blurring, as businesses work closer together to face down the challenges.

Perhaps it takes three concurrent crises to lift a veil on what’s essential.