Almost 2 years have passed, and the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. While the pandemic has unleashed unprecedent disruption and negative effects around the world, it has also spurred digitisation across almost every sector. This article examines some areas where the effects of digitisation are apparent, implications and some considerations for application.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we lived in a world that revolved around direct physical interaction. Business meetings, conferences and conventions would typically take place in person, with cross-border travel a common occurrence. Weekend shopping trips to browse merchandise and witness the touch and feel of products were what we were accustomed to and almost took for granted . Dining-in at restaurants was an experience that people sought after to enjoy the food and its accompanying ambience / atmosphere. You could say that was our “ blueprint “ for life.
Technology then was built around this blueprint , this assumption , to facilitate our usual way of doing things.
II. THE NEW BLUEPRINT
When COVID-19 struck, physical interaction was curtailed and our blueprint was thrown off balance. Movement restrictions (eg. nationwide lockdowns, movement control orders, circuit-breakers, etc) made it impossible for most business to run on the blueprint. People were afraid to leave their homes. Companies could no longer fully deploy their workforce in their office spaces, with staff having to tele-commute and work from home. Visitor numbers were restricted at numerous establishments due to safe distancing measures.
We needed to change – to adapt and transform ourselves to suit the circumstances. The blueprint had to change. Instead of building technology around the blueprint, the blueprint had to be built around the technology.
Companies learned to function remotely from a physical perspective, whilst remaining intimately connected through technological means. Interactions between colleagues that used to take place face to face were now migrated onto instant messaging platforms online; physical computer servers made way for cloud computing. Whereas companies previously found ways to integrate technology to their operating models, they now found ways to build their operating models around technology. The success of working from home has indeed been successful enough that major companies like Facebook, Citibank and Microsoft plan to carry on with such arrangements post pandemic.
Business meetings started being built around available resources. The impossibility of having physical meetings meant that video-conference meetings became the default. Zoom became a household name and indispensable part of business operations. In fact, Zoom has become so highly adopted that its revenue increased by 317 percent to US$2.6 billion in 2020.
Retailers looked to e-commerce to stay afloat. Brick-and-mortar retail giant Robinsons closed all its physical outlets in Singapore and instead have reinvented themselves as an online department store. A purely “digital” store has the benefit of allowing businesses to do away with the restrictions (and overheads) brought about by a physical retail storefront and allows the retailer to cast a potentially limitless net – something that e-commerce giants Amazon and Alibaba realised long ago. In fact, the success of e-commerce is so stark, that Singapore is pushing to be an e-commerce hub.
Food establishments turned to online ordering and delivery platforms to ensure that the movement restrictions do not cripple them for good. Hawkers who used to see physical cash as king also started pivoting towards digital (contactless) payments to avoid physical touch with consumers and complement the contactless delivery methods. Restaurants are finding ways to reduce physical contact during dine-in experiences, and looking to QR code menus and in-house mobile phone applications to replace printed menus and waiter-based ordering.
These are just a few examples of how digitisation is shaping our future. Digital means and methods certainly bring about benefits and create endless possibilities; and must be embraced and adopted to facilitate growth.
III. RISKS, CHALLENGES AND THE EMERGENCE OF DATA SECURITY ISSUES
However, even as we forge ahead in a digitised world, we must also be ready for the risks, challenges and problems that come along.
Digitisation results in data being stored and accessed through online means, and brings about cyber security and data protection issues. There are increasing instances of cyber attacks and data breaches across the world. In 2018, Singapore was hit by a major cyber attack that resulted in the personal particulars of about 1.5million medical patients being illegal access and copied. In May 2021, Colonial Pipeline halted its oil pipeline operations due to a cyber attack that arose from a single compromised password. In June 2021, the world’s largest meat processing company paid around US$11million in ransom to put an end to a major cyber attack that caused it operations in Australia, Canada and USA to shut down. Consequently, companies must take measures to safeguard their systems and data and should consider whether there are sufficient systems in place to prevent data breaches; whether login credentials are properly secured; and whether data collection complies with local regulations and requirements.
IV. DEALING WITH THE ISSUES THROUGH CONTRACT
The engagement of third party vendors (eg. delivery companies, payment portals, suppliers, etc) that supply the infrastructure supporting digitalisation efforts needs to be looked into carefully. The commercial terms and contractual scope of the relationship should as far as possible be clearly defined. There must be clarity on the extent of data that needs to be shared between the parties. The scope of responsibility and/or liability borne by each party for product deliveries must be clear. Where cross-border transactions are involved, parties must properly consider how and where they wish to tackle any disputes that may arise.
V. HARNESSING IP AND LEGAL SOLUTIONS
Competitive advantages that companies have built through digitisation must be adequately protected and safe-guarded where possible.
Technological advancements as solutions developed at much cost and effort should be identified, captured and owned where possible through the patent regime to allow for protection and possible future exploitation for return on investment . Interesting examples include inventions to optimise virtual workspaces (see PCT Publication No. WO/2019/008321) and video conferencing technology (see local example Singapore Patent Application No. 10202004249Q).
Brands and sub-brands being deployed particularly in e-commerce and in digital platforms should be registered as trade marks and if there are marks used in the brick and mortar world, these should be expanded. For example, a restaurant that once relied on trade mark protection for food and beverage services now needs to think of how to protect its mobile phone application software and the loyalty programme it created as part of its digitalisation efforts; unique hashtags and call-to-actions arising from changes in marketing strategies and campaigns to leverage on digital reach are possibly protected as trade marks if distinctive and associated with the source of such goods or services.
The companies intellectual property ownership and IP holding structure must be properly thought through and structured so as to facilitate growth and expansion . This impacts how licensing as a possible extension of business can be adopted and ensures that proper enforcement can be taken if such new innovations, brands and services are copied without due recognition and regard to the true IP owner.
Contractual arrangements, such as non-disclosure agreements and data protection consents, must be properly managed in order to protect information and data, more so where data protection legislation needs to be navigated . Consider your website policies and agreements.
Where merchandise is concerned, e-commerce platforms should consider and effect adequate “complaint and take-down” procedures to deal with and protect themselves from potential intellectual property infringement issues. Terms and conditions for mobile phone applications must be adequately crafted and the consumers given adequate notice.
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly spurred digitisation and fast-tracked the harnessing of technology and innovation on many fronts. With these come new issues, risks as well as opportunities as illustrated above.
Given the blueprint reset, it is as imperative to review what changes must necessarily follow to ensure businesses and IP owners do not find themselves lagging and of greater risk , exposed in ways not contemplated before. Reviewing measures and adopting some simple steps to keep up with the changes must be as important as the call to digitize.
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