Asia is the most-exciting and fast-moving region in the world for tech and innovation right now. That’s particularly true when it comes to e-commerce, fintech, transport, healthcare and artificial intelligence (AI).
Tech giants and startups of all sizes are targeting Asian markets as they aim to cash in on the tech boom. This is driven in part by the appetite of Asian consumers for new products and services that improve their lives.
Companies, governments and even early adopters are aware of the relatively slow development that occurs in the West, and how that contrasts with tech-eager Asia. Companies have spotted the opportunity to leap straight into the future, by skipping years of gradual evolution.
Switched-on governments, keen to support and partner with innovative companies, are are not just looking to catch up. They have their sights set on leading the way. With progressive regulation that encourages innovators rather than hindering them, there is a very real opportunity to solve some of Asia’s problems while also dramatically improving the lives of its citizens.
- Air pollution and renewable energy
Air pollution is the greatest environmental risk to health today, and the fourth-biggest contributor to early deaths worldwide. According to the State of Global Air report, air pollution-related disease kills more people each year than either car crashes or malaria.
Asia, which accounts for 75% of all the coal burned in the world, is far and away the worst culprit. More than 90% of cities failing to meet the WHO’s guidelines.
Although Asia lags the rest of the word when it comes to renewable energy, there is great potential due to the abundance of year-round sun for solar power, and long coastlines that are ideal for wind farms.
Whether it is solar or wind power, tidal energy, geothermal or hydroelectric plants, many Asian countries have the potential to develop clean energy. To speed up adoption, governments must enact policies that make fossil fuels more expensive while ensuring that production, storage, and distribution of clean energy is cost-efficient and attractive.
2. Reimagining transport
Tech is driving a transport revolution. Asia is leading the way.
The massive ridesharing boom in Asia is a neat example of how tech has changed the way people move around cities. The ease of calling a car from a smartphone and paying through an app rather than a wallet explains why it’s popular with passengers. Ridesharing companies are looking at ways to integrate public and private transport into their apps. That way, travellers can plan entire trips seamlessly using multiple modes of transport from micro mobility options such as electric scooters, through to city transit systems like the subway.
Electric vehicles (EVs) will become more prevalent as a way to reduce air pollution and move away from fossil fuels. Countries such as China and Japan have already installed hundreds of thousands of public EV chargers. This number will increase as other parts of Asia develop their own EV infrastructures.
Singapore is testing autonomous vehicles and flying taxis, which are closer to reality than many realise. Transport companies will be sharing their data with governments, and with the onset of AI, smarter road design and traffic management will help to manage congestion.
Ever-progressive Singapore and its citizens will benefit from encouraging that kind of transport innovation. There are, however, other Asian nations that risk being left behind. In Hong Kong, for example, ridesharing is still outlawed, and proponents of the service have long criticised the government for protecting the “taxi mafia.” The city is as a result served by some of the shabbiest taxis in the world.
3. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics
The mere mention of AI gives some people visions of the “machines taking over.” However, AI, and robotics powered by AI, will bring dramatic benefits to industry, business, and consumers. Sophisticated AI could make the world a better place. It might let us fight cancer and improve healthcare, or simply free us from the menial tasks that dominate our lives.
Some of the most-obvious AI applications include virtual assistants, online customer service, telephone call centers, factory-floor robots and automated equities trading. However, AI will be rolled out in many other areas including creating computer-generated news, mining medical records to fight disease, controlling autonomous vehicles and drones, and expanding the use of robots outside of manufacturing into everyday life.
4. Maximising the opportunity for drones
It’s not an overstatement to say that everyone will be affected by drone technology in some way over the next few years. Businesses know that drones are changing the way they operate.
The use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), has continued to evolve well beyond military applications, which are now just a fraction of the overall drone market. Having already captured the imagination of consumers for recreational use, drones are now being put to work in a wide range of civil and commercial environments. With uses as diverse as farming and firefighting, their mainstream adoption is set to boom.
The construction industry uses drones for inspections and surveying. In farming, they monitor the health of crops and livestock, as well as sowing seeds and spraying pesticides. At sporting events, they capture video for broadcasters, and security teams use them to keep spectators safe. The mining industry uses drones for exploration and impact assessments. Telecoms deploy them for tower maintenance and rebroadcasting. Police, firefighters and coast guards save lives by using them to conduct search and rescue missions, and for surveillance in a way that wasn’t possible only a few years ago.
However drone technology is more advanced that drone regulation. Aviation is one of the most heavily-regulated sectors in the world, which makes disrupting the status quo difficult. While some restrictions should certainly apply, governments should be open to the prospect of drones delivering our medicines, groceries and meals, as well as transporting us around our cities.
5. E-commerce and the global marketplace
Asia’s e-commerce industry has scale, to say the least. The continent is home to more than 4.5 billion people. Roughly half of them, 2.3 billion, shop online.
E-commerce makes international goods more accessible than ever, and it means that buyers no longer have to depend on brick-and-mortar stores. E-commerce platforms give consumers greater scope to shop based on price or quality – or both. The top driver of e-commerce spending in Asia Pacific is the range of products found online.
For merchants, online marketplaces open new paths to build their consumer base. E-commerce platforms also provide merchants with business intelligence, allowing them to understand their customers better. Research by FedEx Express found that four in five APAC small and medium-size enterprises used e-commerce in 2018, and that 64% of those companies expect an increase in e-commerce revenue this year.
Of course, there have been growing pains, particularly when it comes to taxes and consumer protection. In China, the government passed a comprehensive e-commerce law in August 2018 to crack down on counterfeit goods sold online. The law also came bundled with new tax policies for cross-border e-commerce sales.
While it’s important to regulate fairly across the entire retail sector, governments in Asia need to understand that overzealous e-commerce laws may cause sellers to go underground on social media sites, making it harder to monitor them, let alone tax them.
6. Health and healthcare
Tech is revolutionising diagnoses, patient monitoring, operations, and even how physicians treat substance abuse.
In Asia, countries such as India are using digital technologies for preventive medicine and education campaigns. With only 0.7 doctors and 1.3 nurses for every 1,000 people, the Indian government is turning to mHealth (mobile health) devices to screen citizens for risk factors leading to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs are responsible for 62% of deaths in the country.
Meanwhile, in Singapore, the healthtech sector is booming. The government has set aside US$2.95 billion for research and development in the fields of health and biomedical sciences from 2016 to 2020. In the first half of 2018 alone, healthtech startups closed on over US$16 million worth of investments.
Companies are leveraging mobile technology and artificial intelligence to make it easier for patients to seek medical help. AI will provide patients with a doctor-discovery search engine and video consultations helping them find specialised medical care.
The Asia Pacific region has the second-largest healthtech ecosystem in the world, only behind the United States. So Asia plays an important role in pioneering healthcare digitalisation.The process can provide faster access to doctors, greater continuity of care, and better patient engagement, among many other benefits.
7. Controlling the purse strings with digital banking
Just 10 years ago, the idea of keeping your money in a bank that existed only online would have been ridiculous or scary. Probably both. A bank with no physical address, no counters, no tellers, no cash you could touch? The average consumer would have baulked. Today, it’s happening, and early adopters are making the shift.
Asia is historically underbanked, with only 47% of adults having a bank account as of 2018, according to data from CB Insights. But it is now full of tech-savvy young citizens who grew up using the internet on their mobile phones. So there will be a flood of people driving liquidity into digital banks in Asia.
The modern consumer is no longer prepared to wait in line when they can get their financial errands done in the palm of their hands. Digital banks and other fintech companies are keen to serve the gaps in the market that conventional banks have failed to fill.
Traditional banks have for years been able to get away with lousy currency-conversion rates and high service charges. But digital banks with disrupt the market by bringing better conversion rates and lower remittance fees to Asia. This will benefit small and medium-size businesses, particularly those that import and export. Lower rates also translate to greater savings for ordinary consumers and also overseas workers, who have in the past seen a good share of their paycheck eaten up by wire transfer charges when they send money to their families back home.
For frontier markets such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, digital technologies such as peer-to-peer (P2P) lending and virtual banking have the potential to lift people out of poverty. For example, a P2P lender can give micro-business owners lines of credit they otherwise would not be able to access with traditional banks. Online banking can also bring unbanked populations from the black or grey market of cash transactions into the above-board financial system.
Asia’s traditional financial institutions are already realising they must adapt to modern consumer demands and the digital world if they don’t want to be left behind.
8. Tech solutions for food scarcity
According to the Asian Development Bank, two-thirds of the world’s 1 billion hungry people reside in Asia and the Pacific. Both rural and urban poor spend more than half their income on food. So supplying adequate food is a priority. Tech can help significantly by making agriculture, food distribution and storage more-efficient.
In the last 10 years, the use of tech in agriculture has taken a quantum leap. There will be greater use of indoor vertical farming to increase crop yields, overcome lack of space, and even reduce farming’s impact on the environment. Urban farms cut the distance traveled in the supply chain. Farm automation will manage crop and livestock production, with drones, autonomous tractors, automated watering and robot seeding revolutionising the way farms are managed.
Real-world tech for real-world problems
Big Tech has developed a bad rap in the West. U.S. regulators are mulling how to curb the excesses of the world’s biggest technology companies, even considering breaking them up to prevent monopolistic behaviour.
Asia has the scope to foster a tech sector that serves the public as much as it does itself. Issues such as data privacy, data security, consumer protection and digital taxation will certainly come to the fore. The region has the opportunity to develop innovative solutions.
It is incumbent on regulators to consider these issues, and put in place progressive legislation. They have the difficult job of creating a fertile and encouraging economic environment, while keeping the needs of the public in mind.
Government, academia, nonprofits and the for-profit world all have a role to play in encouraging Asia’s tech emergence. Companies need the autonomy to innovate, but also need the guidance to develop along ethical lines.
It’s truly a brave new world in Asia. We know that technology will drive the region’s development, and with the right guidance it will be a bright future indeed.