Google’s head of digital transformation for Asia-Pacific, Japan and China speaks of challenges associated with digitalisation in Asia, and the relationship between people and technology in a post-COVID world
In the first part of this interview, Darren Thayre, who leads Google’s digital transformation initiatives across the Asia-Pacific, spoke about what the ‘new normal’ could mean for people and organisations from a tech perspective. The pandemic is resulting in the acceleration of digitalisation among businesses, but some are still looking only to tweak rather than transform. And that has implications on their future.
In the second part of the conversation with Unravel’s Siddharth Poddar and Shivaji Bagchi, Mr Thayre provides his views on some of the constraints on the journey to digitalisation in developing Asian economies, and how these can be managed. He also provides his perspective on the public health vis-à-vis data privacy debate, and talks about the issue of our trust in technology.
Unravel: In your work across Asia, do you see the lack of quality infrastructure being an impediment to companies looking to digitalise? And if so, are there ways for companies to get around that?
Darren Thayre: I don’t think there is any one answer. However, across the board, I would say if countries don’t invest in their infrastructure, and if they don’t make their tech stable enough for people to be able to use digital services, to take advantage of 4G or 5G in a reliable and cost effective way, then they’re really making a decision that they want an economy to be driven by largely offline commerce and offline revenue. Which is fine, because that’s a choice, and it might be the correct choice.
But generally, what I’m seeing in Asia—because they perhaps started on their infrastructure and digital journeys a little later than the West—is that most countries are faced with an urgent need to kickstart or maybe leapfrog towards certain technologies. That said, we are seeing places going straight to 4G or 5G, so they maybe possibly be ahead in some cases. The trend is definitely towards people using mobile devices – so if countries can’t provide access to connectivity, and to mobile devices at compelling price points, that is going to hinder how people use technology and what they can do with it.
Moreover, what this also means is that companies providing digital services will find it harder to provide those services in these markets; they may even skip those markets entirely and focus on others in which they can deliver. That I think is a shame for consumers.
While it is a challenge, I think in many Asian countries we’re on this journey. We’re at different beats in terms of where we are in that journey for sure, but all countries here realise they need to move towards a digital economy. For companies, it is important to determine what works best in the different markets they are in. In markets with relatively poor digital infrastructure, they could launch ‘lite’ versions of apps that don’t require so much memory or bandwidth. The customer experience has to be kept in mind so that what is put out there works properly. Companies need to adapt to these local settings and conditions they are in.
Unravel: Moving the conversation to a bigger question around society. Governments’ encouragement of contact tracing apps in the fight against COVID-19 has thrown open the question of public health versus data privacy. Do you think the right balance can be found?
Mr Thayre: I wish there was one definitive answer. We are in such a unique time that extreme situations perhaps call for extreme measures on the part of governments. I hope the use of tracing apps is a sort of an extreme use case and an exception rather than the norm. I do think that ultimately companies and most governments want to use this data to minimise the number of cases, so there are good reasons behind using these apps.
There’s been a lot of talk around tracing and security of data. My belief is that it’s less about whether the technology is okay, and more around how governments will use this data. I think that is a different problem.
What is important is how it is done. Rather than avoiding contact tracing because we are worried about data, we should find the right way to do it. I’d say there are some parallels with what our CEO Sundar Pichai said when talking about AI, that not doing it isn’t really an option. We can’t not use data, and we can’t not use AI – that would be taking a step backward. Instead, what is needed is a good set of guidelines and rules applicable to data and new ways of using data. Who would have thought that we will be talking of contact tracing apps as a use case? But here we are. So I guess it is about finding the right level of governance and regulation and I think these things should be regulated by central bodies. I definitely don’t think self-regulation is the answer, and I work for Google.
There is some amazing stuff that can do good for society. It’s a balancing act and we sometimes won’t get it right, and sometimes we’ll need to dial things back. But the answer, in my view, is not in terms of limiting the use of data, but in governments investing in learning about data and investing in proactive regulation, governance and guidelines.
Unravel: Post-COVID, do you expect trust in technology to increase?
Mr Thayre: I think trust definitely hasn’t gotten worse. I’m more grateful than frustrated around technology. There’s been a lot of talk around tracing and security of data. In this regard, my belief is that it’s less about whether the technology is okay, and more around how governments will use this data. I think that is a different problem.
The trend is definitely towards people using mobile devices – so if countries can't provide access to connectivity, and to mobile devices at compelling price points, that is going to hinder how people use technology and what they can do with it.
Technology companies need to be fiercely advocating to the customer, and make sure what we are building and how we’re delivering it is really doing the right thing for the customer. We need to be constantly challenging ourselves on that. As a firm, Google is very open to being told when we can do better. Customers are generally vocal when we could do better. That’s a good thing and comes through in terms of how we behave, how we deliver products, how we scale, how we treat our customers and our employees. It’s a constant learning curve. Success isn’t a given and I think it can go very, very quickly even though you have years and years of being very trustworthy.
And so, we need to treat it as a gift, something that’s very sacred and never be complacent around this. I think trust is there to a large degree, but we should continue to strive to protect that.