Opinion: Staying ahead in a changing world

du boss Sultan Osman says we need to prepare to handle data and ask the right questions in a world that is transforming at a dizzying pace
By Osman Sultan
Thu 23 Nov 2017 11:08 PM

We are in the middle of a digital revolution. When I was a teenager, the key words were ‘mechanisation’, ‘mass production’, and ‘efficiency’. But now we live in a communications age; an era of mobile computers, the internet and the changes that social media have brought.

After the industrial and communications wave, we witnessed the beginning of an age of abundance as everything started to become digital. We now live in that abundance model. Everything is growing exponentially – and quickly.

For example, if you wanted to watch every video uploaded to the internet in just one second, it would take you five years. Now try to imagine the future growth of where this is heading. And this is the universe that our kids are living in, every second of every hour.

Connected everything

What we are seeing today is the beginning of the ‘smart wave’, where everything starts communicating through an Internet of Things (IoT). Data processing power is multiplying. The power of data and data analytics are transforming our lives in ways we might not suspect.

At the heart of this transformation is a move from unshared certainties to shared uncertainties, in every business and in every sector.

Thirty years ago, as a telecoms company, we did not need to talk to anyone. Telecoms had the power of a nation-state, and we did not need to talk to film, music, IT or device companies.

We had our business and our entire chain, and that was it.

The entire chain of assets has changed. The world’s taxi corporation owns no taxis. The world’s largest telco owns no network. The world’s largest media companies make no content. And the world’s largest entertainment provider makes no movies. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen this change of assets shape the world we live in.

Today, I sit around the table with people from other sectors and industries, and share uncertainties. But it’s not something that should frighten us. Although these ecosystems are becoming more complex and sophisticated, it is up to us to work together progressively, with the right intellectual discussions taking place to find new answers.

If you are in a corporation or you are an entrepreneur starting a business, you need to get used to the fact that tomorrow your business might change. Something might arrive and disrupt the sector you are working in. That happened to me. When I lived in Egypt, one day I walked into the office of a then-senior person at the telcoms company I worked at and he told me: “All of our revenues are going to disappear with this.” What he showed me was Skype.

Embracing the data deluge

Whatever industry we are in, someone may come up with a new business model. In our case, the internet completely disrupted our pricing structure. To be harsh, we were slow to adapt in a lot of ways.

Today, when we talk about Dubai, we already have applications to deal with transport and utilities companies, and allow an authority a smart way to interact with them. A city that does not have applications is not a smart city.

From the point of view of a company that has been selected as a partner in this model ambition, you will need a map of sensors on windows, doors, cars, lampposts to map the environment, for transportation, and for urban planning.

This is what we call digital planning – the masterplan. There will be CCTV, drones, digital departments. The data will be flowing. Once the data is ingested, aggregated and stored, it is time for the Internet of Everything. Whatever your business, you will have to deal with and transform this data.

Data will become information, and information will be transformed into wisdom that will lead to a better life for the people using it, as well as better planning for the providers of services, better city planning, and ambition that leaders can evolve and develop. This will help with planning for future jobs, setting the right policies, sustainability, and fuelling people’s habits.

We have to be optimistic.

New world, new questions

We’re told that our kids will not need to drive anywhere, and won’t commute the same way. We are told that 50 percent of jobs will be replaced by technology in 2030. Can we be sure that people will find new jobs? This has to be the conversation, if this brave new world will mean happiness and betterment in our lives.

We are entering a new world in which business life expectancy is going down, while human life expectancy is going up – 100 could well be the new 60. This will have social repercussions, because if someone is going to have a longer life expectancy and his job is replaced by a robot, we need to figure out the balance in this totally new equation.

Hopefully we will indeed get close to living to 100. But as for the jobs, I don’t have an answer. There needs to be a conversation about the regulation and politics of this issue. I think we can be smart enough to have the conversation to figure out the new mechanics. The world is changing, so let’s open our minds to embrace it, but also talk about it.

There is already talk of a future universal wage. But there also needs to be a sense of purpose for all people in a society; particularly all the stakeholders and the people in charge of that society. In the UAE, we have a Minister of Happiness and a Minister of Artificial Intelligence. This sends the message that we are embracing these new developments, but at the same time, keeping human beings at the heart of it all.

Thankfully, the UAE is ready for these changes. In the Global Readiness Index, the UAE comes in third place. If you look at the ambitions expressed by the government, Dubai Smart City and the Blockchain Council, for example, you see that this is a country with the ambition to be at the forefront of the digital revolution. The government is one of the most advanced in the world.

What we all need to do is move from answers to questions; in education, or in our boardrooms. We need to ensure we have the right questions.

This is an excerpt from Osman Sultan’s keynote speech at the Arabian Business Forum in November.

Osman Sultan, CEO of Du

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.