Does technology change society, or does society disrupt technology?

As Palladium noted in its article, How social engineering drives technology: “Every device not only has a manual but a social context. It is then social rather than material facts that drive or hinder the development and adoption of technology.”

This framing can be helpful when looking at the potential impact of the coronavirus.

Anil Achyuta, investment director at TDK Ventures, the corporate venturing unit for Japan-based chipmaker TDK, said in Global Corporate Venturing’s IT webinar yesterday: “Fundamentals of society being questioned [with Covid-19’s impact]. Digital transformation at centre.”

He referred to point-of-care diagnostics and imaging in healthcare, which are now surging in investors and patient interest, having failed to show great returns.

Francis Ho, senior vice-president and co-head of South Korea-based conglomerate Samsung’s Catalyst Fund, noted in the same webinar, which was moderated by Kaloyan Andonov from GCV, that digital health, telemedicine and sensors had been around for decades then taken off with the crisis.

He said: “Biology and tech [are] converging.”

Ho added semiconductors had made a similar transition in the 1980s, from intuition-led innovation and slow development to what biology was doing currently, which is why so many tech companies are setting up biologics units and investing through corporate venturing vehicles (often inspired by the decade-long commitment to healthcare by Alphabet’s GV unit).

From the intuition sourcing of drug candidates, to expensive and slow clinical trials and inefficient and unreliable manufacturing, pharmaceuticals is ripe for a maturation cycle.

As the third webinar speaker, Alfredo Ramos Plasencia, managing director at CPI Enterprises, the venture unit of UK-based technology research group Centre for Process Innovation, gave the example of how Amazon disrupted retailers by focusing on warehouses and logistics as a value-add, as part of its commitment to reducing costs to customers and increasing speed of delivery, as an example to a healthcare industry being disrupted by tech players.

“Pharma processes are same now as they were 16 years ago [when I was working as a biologist in Germany]. Microbiologists go through data and excel by hand. How to automate and add insights? Manufacturing should be [a process] of value-add, especially if it will match to diagnostics and fit with individuals. Outcome-based payments, not volume of drugs, would change the business model.”

Coronoavirus has focused attention on how tech can facilitate the healthcare industry, but the other main trend is sustainability, through climate change on energy, or protein production to feed people and animals.

Societies will decide the kinds of impacts they are prepared to experience, and technology and business will respond even if the initial use cases are in niches, such as artificial intelligence in robots checking warehouse shelves, before branching out to more complex areas such as foggy roads.