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2021 at warp speed

Podcast episode 61

2021 was the year 90-year-old Captain Kirk actor, William Shatner, blasted out to space, Facebook launched its Metaverse, and the physical and digital worlds truly combined. Hear Nokia’s Jason Elliott discuss the highlights and summarize it all with “The 3 C’s”: challenges, collaboration, and connections.

Below is a transcript of this podcast. Some parts have been edited for clarity   

Michael Hainsworth: 2021 marked the year we really got good at “working from home”. But for Jason Elliott, the Head of Cross Portfolio Solutions, Partners and Ecosystems Marketing at Nokia, it was about more than just learning how to work through a global pandemic. This was the year we began to make big strides in some of the most urgent issues of the 21st century, such as climate change. And it was the year Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg introduced your mom to the term “Metaverse”. (You already knew all about it didn’t you). It was also the year that we began to leverage the power of 5G to bridge the digital divide. Elliott says you can summarize the year that was with “The 3 C’s”: challenges, collaboration, and connections.

Jason Elliott: Connections, I think is probably one of the most important of those three C's, Michael, because when you think about 2021, I think many people now have been reconnecting, I would say, and rebuilding those connections, both through travel, obviously with some restrictions, being able to be physically in the same space with people now and sharing that face-to-face contact. But also, there's continuing reliance on digital connectivity to ensure that people are still meeting with each other, both professionally and personally as well. And I think it's interesting to see just how more mature a much broader set of individuals across the globe have become in the use of their digital technologies to be able to connect with people. And that's really amazing that an unfortunate situation has brought about an incredible focused activity in terms of pushing everyone online and finding ways to collaborate digitally, which is amazing.

MH: So, 2021 was filled with the challenges as you've intimated here, they were personal, they were national, and they were global.

JE: Yes, that's right. I think there's been some incredibly immense challenges here that really both affect us personally in terms of obviously our health in making sure that everybody's well, and when you look at that, that also transpires to kind of more at the country level in terms of how you manage that kind of situation, these big challenges like that. And the fact that it doesn't just stretch within the country, but it stretches across borders as well. And that's been very apparent, and we've seen the impacts of that and making sure that we manage and are conscious of that I think is very, very important.

JE: And then at a global level as well, this is very, very much come into focus towards the latter half of this year from a global perspective, is really talking about climate change and environmental aspects as well, and that's really been brought to the forefront. So, that's more kind of at a global level. And additionally, obviously one of the negative side effects we've had through the pandemic this year is the impacts it has had on us to do business in terms of those supply chains as well. So that's definitely a global effect that people, in terms of a challenge, have been trying to grapple with as well.

MH: And I guess that ties into the collaboration front as well. We learned, as you point out, how to work together during a global pandemic, but you also brought up an interesting point. It's also valuable when it comes to addressing one of the most urgent issues of the 21st century, climate change. And so, we learned how to work through the pandemic, but what lessons can CSP's learn from climate activists such as Greta Thunberg?

JE: Yes, I think this is very important for service providers to pay attention to. So, their customers who are starting to come of age in terms of coming to the workforce like the Millennials now and then obviously Gen Z as well, really kind of speak with their wallets in terms of thinking about the moral decisions that they have to make when they're purchasing goods and services. And they really are the next generation of consumers. They're very much empowered by the choices they have, and they recognize the impact they can have. And the other interesting thing is they are digital native or digital masters, they've grown up with this technology, and you combine that with the fact that they are very socially astute. We always see this type of generation, the college grads, they always seem to be a catalyst to affect huge amounts of change. And I think climate is one of those topics that I think is very, very important to them and it's very important the way they think about it and how it affects them.

JE: And that's why companies and service providers specifically also need to think about what’s their environmental sustainability goals and objectives. How are they helping overall? And when you think about this digital native generation, they're more about not owning specific assets, but they're much more into kind of the sharing economy and more about experiencing things as well. And that's going to play a huge role in their decision of what types of goods and products they want to purchase first of all, and what types of experience they want to have. As long as that it's done in a more in an ethical, social, responsible manner. And they will really choose with their wallets which companies they really want to be able to do business within the future.

MH: One of my favorite observations to your point about how it's the college kids today who are entering the workforce, making great change because they have these opinions and that it generally, from generation to generation, it's always been that younger generation pushing to make change. But the big difference between a millennial today and a hippie from the 1960's and the 1970's, who also had a huge concern about the environment, the big difference between those two generational activists was communications. The hippies didn't have a global system to organize and share their views the way today's generation does.

JE: Absolutely. And this shows you just from the types of tools and capabilities that are available to this younger generation now, they are using it to great effect, very, very positively. And as they start to not use this just for social use, but actually as they enter the workforce and they start thinking about how they're going to collaborate with their colleagues within a company, across companies, and going back to the connection piece and the collaboration piece, this is where it all really comes together is the fact that, you know, they have this incredible view from a digital perspective, a very fresh perspective on this and they want to really act upon that change. And these digital tools will help them iterate on that much, much faster than they have before.

MH: So, I suppose this also ties in on the topic of collaboration, of the blending of physical and digital, as a big story for 2021?

JE: Yes. And I think we will continue to see this, and this isn't necessarily something new. I think we've seen this over a period of time since you know the birth of the telephone and the internet. The ability to connect and transmit data and information rather than having physical assets or physical capability to do that is something that's always been happening over a period of time, but it's just the sheer acceleration and broad accessibility of the technologies that are available to be able to do that that's really bringing this to, what I would say, is a tipping point where we're now seeing this blending of physical and digital that really transcends the boundaries that we're really used to and the way that we've been operating with each other, both from a personal perspective and also professionally as well.

JE: And that it's not just about the kind of individual communications but even to be able to kind of just do normal daily activities. Whether you are ordering goods and services and basic necessities online, or whether you’re actually wanting to conduct business with companies and maybe to operate your critical operations within your enterprise, you have to have this level of connectivity and this blending of digital and physical to be able to control machines, to be able to control your environment, so you can continue to operate no matter where you are or what resources that you have available. And I think that's becoming more and more apparent and coming into focus as we've seen this year and will continue to accelerate as these technologies evolve over time.

MH: Which made it funny to me that Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook stood up in front of the world and said, "we're coming up with this thing called the metaverse", and the rest of us geeks in the background were like, "well, wait a minute, you didn't come up with this. We've been working on this for years now". And there's a whole bunch of related technologies, including 5G and IoT and near cloud technologies that are making this possible. It's not Facebook that's making the metaverse, everybody else is.

JE: Yes, I think it's interesting to take a bit of a step back. I mean, the word metaverse actually means beyond the universe, right? And that in itself is a very big, bold statement, right? There's a whole universe out there and that's the way I think we should be thinking about it. The announcement recently that was made in the news and the media, I believe it's brought this topic into focus and it's actually brought it to a much broader audience. So, in that sense I think it's very good, but you have to recognize that there are other platforms out there such as Minecraft, Roblox, et cetera, that have all already established significant followings. And even if you look at these gaming platforms as well, they're also forms of kind of like the metaverse as well.

JE: And I don't think anyone can actually say right now, we've defined exactly how this is going to play out. And it depends on, I think, the usage of what we want the metaverse to be. There might be different ways to think about it. Whether it's a fully digital, virtual type environment that we act upon, or is it more of where we're overlaying digital onto the physical world, and we're creating kind of more of that synergy between those two worlds as well? But what's interesting to see is that most of the large tech companies now, whether you're talking about the platforms from a cloud perspective, the connectivity in terms of what the service providers play, also kind of from an infrastructure perspective, what the wireless and wireline communication systems need to do is build the connective tissue and the platforms associated with this to create that universe, that way that we can operate together in a very, very large-scale.

JE: And that's the key thing here, is making sure that these technologies can scale and we can do this and provide the best possible customer experience, because that's what's been the limiting boundary or barrier, if you like, to date. We've only been able to do it in certain types of platforms or in certain ways and I think that's what the technology will allow us to do now that the advancements that are making both, not just in those cloud platforms and the connectivity, but also devices as well, they're becoming much more mature, much easier to use, more accessible and it's the convergence of all those things together that will really kind of explode what we're deeming the metaverse today.

MH: Yes. I think a lot of people assume that when we talk about the metaverse, we're talking about virtual reality. But the reality of VR is that for every dollar that's invested in VR, we're expecting to invest $10 in augmented reality. We don't want to block out the real world, we want to add to it and the metaverse is part of that, but how do we avoid the metaverse simply becoming yet another virtual mall? How must tech leadership and investments build something bigger and better?

JE: There's a couple of ways in terms of making sure, and this is the great thing about the internet as well right, is there has been a lot of work done in terms of across different segments of the technology industry, to make sure there's commonality of working, and the way different types of technology pieces fit together. And I think it's very, very important. We are at quite a big fork in the road here, I think, to think about what do we want this platform to be? Is it just purely for social use? Do we want it to be for more business and enterprise use? How would that be applied? And I think that's one of the things that the technology companies really kind of need to start thinking about. I mean obviously along with other things like security and privacy, which are very, very important if we want people to do wide scale adoption of this. But again, it's making sure that we do continue to collaborate in the forums that we have to build that very wide platform.

MH: I see 5G as an infrastructure that's critical to the success of the metaverse. But before this low latency, high bandwidth technology is fully leveraged it has to be introduced. It's being rolled out. Would you say 2021 was the year of 5G or is that a 2022 story?

JE: Yes, it's interesting. We always talk about is this the year of 5G? It's always going to happen in phases, and I think the way you can talk about the phase of 5G of this year was a very wide expansion that when enabled a much broader audience to adopt and actually use 5G, which is really good, which is exactly what we wanted to do. We've got more spectrum availability, there are more devices out there. There's been a very good uptick in terms of, like I said, the availability of the technology and the networks to a broader consumer. These additional devices that are getting developed and the different use cases in terms of, not just the traditional mobile phone, tablet, smart phone type of activity, but also things for broadband access into the premises, whether it be at home using fixed wireless access or a small business using that technology as well.

JE: And again, we've seen a lot of work around this, supported by various governments around the world, to build and bridge the digital divide, which I think is very, very important. And we're seeing 5G playing a role in that. And I think that's very, very important to look at. It's not just about the traditional consumer model, but it's how we can actually improve lives and actually get more people connected so they have more equal access to markets, healthcare, opportunities overall as well. So that's the great story, I think, of 5G this year. It's really starting to kind of like broaden out a little bit more.

MH: Yes. And then we get Release 16, Release 17 of 5G. We're talking about network slicing now and the ability to have enterprises take advantage of this technology in ways that they just can't right now. Meantime, the vaccine rollout. There's a key news story for 2021. I don't think many people are aware though of how the success of mRNA based vaccines have laid the groundwork for the development of a whole bunch of emerging technology.

JE: Yes, this is very interesting because, not just in terms of connectivity, but the way that we think about how we can actually use technology to augment our abilities. So, this starts to talk about artificial intelligence or really AI, or specifically machine learning to help us accelerate the solution to very complex challenges, whether that we'd be developing a new drug for a vaccine, whether it be to you know automate a network or a business process, identify new types of data sets. And this is very, very important because I think the algorithms that are actually being put into place to be able to scale machine learning and the data models around that is something that we're, again, starting to kind of understand and bring into focus a little bit more. And it will be very fundamentally important, not just to use this technology for connectivity services and technology on its own, but to solve these very complex challenges related, whether it's to do with healthcare or climate as well. And that's the important role things like algorithms and machine learning will play in the future.

MH: All right. As my fellow sci-fi geek, tell me TV's Captain Kirk blasting off into actual space 53 years after Star Trek first aired?

JE: Yes. I think this is a fantastic heartwarming story. It really is. I mean, and to see those pictures, to see those images, those videos of that, it really brought it back to me that, you know, anything really is possible. You know, we're breaking all sorts of boundaries here in terms of what we're capable of doing. And using a combination of technologies to take us to new limits that we've not been able to reach before. And I think the embodiment of that was that moment in time, and again there are lots of others out there that are working through the space race as well for lots of different reasons. But again, it’s I think it’s another huge milestone in the development and showcasing again, how technology can be brought to bear to do some incredibly fantastic groundbreaking achievements.

MH: Speaking of which, didn't NASA select Nokia to build the first ever cellular network on the moon?

JE: Yes! This is an incredible opportunity, I think, again, in looking at how we can use communications technologies literally not on our own planet but looking to do this for working with NASA and intuitive machines to really look at how we can create cellular communications to support communications between the Lander and the Rover that will be on the moon. And what this is teaching us is if we can build equipment and technology and send it to the moon and operate it in a very, very harsh environment, this really is kind of telling us that, well, we should be able to do any of this here on earth, even in the toughest environments we have here.

JE: So, for example, when we're thinking about connectivity in a mine or other kind of hazardous locations with chemicals and hazardous production environments, this is kind of providing us with an incredible set of learning experiences to build networks here on earth that are very resilient in the most hazardous environments that are really going to help us increase safety for those that operate in those hazardous environments, increase productivity overall and make us more efficient as well.

JE: So, yes, it's an incredibly important project. Again, going to break a lot of milestones here, but also sets a very good kind of precedent in terms of how we can think about deploying networks here on earth as well in those very, very challenging environments.

MH: Meantime, while most are thinking about 5G, Nokia is already leading the EU 6G project.

JE: Yes, and before we even get to even talking about 6G, we've still got the evolution of 5G. And we're starting to think about what we're going to be calling 5G advance, which is the next iteration from the current releases that we have. And you know there's already work underway to facilitate that as well. And there'll be some fantastic enhancements in 5G advance that will lay the groundwork as we start to talk about what we're doing with 6G. And obviously that work in terms of the discussions of what the research areas should be for 6G has already started. There's the Hexa-X project, which is the EU funded project as well, of which Nokia is the leader of that overall project.

JE: And it's very exciting just to see right now, the types of conversations we're having in terms of setting the groundwork for what 6G will be in the future. And we can take a step back and actually already see how we're building the blocks through 5G, 5G advanced on the road to 6G, of which we will move beyond obviously blending just physical and digital, but also physical, digital and biological worlds in the future when we start talking about 6G. So, really exciting times and a lot to look forward to over the coming years.

MH: Wait a minute back up, back up, back up. Are you talking about spearheading the singularity biological?

JE: I think it's more about making sure that not only can we be able to control the physical world in real-time like we're doing now with automation, so controlling robotic systems and vehicles and cars and stuff like that, but actually being able to have different types of interfaces as well. So instead of actually augmenting ourselves in terms of with devices like smartphones, tablets and glasses, we'll find even tighter integration into the biological world between us as humans and that digital world to blend those worlds together a bit tighter. Early days, early days, but there's a lot of work going on in this area, but that's something to look out for.

MH: Okay. So, you're thinking more about the next generation pacemaker versus a chip in my brain that feeds my Facebook right into my head?

JE: Yes. I think there are lots of sci-fi fantasies out there, but there's some real-world applications for you know embedding kind of more different types of user interfaces in terms of the biological sense. So, whether it's augmenting eyesight or hearing for those that may be impaired in those areas potentially as well. So, there's lots of different types of ways to look at that I think, and really, really excited to look forward to.

MH: What are you looking forward to most for 2022?

JE: One of the key things will be a lot more, again, around the collaboration of working together and making sure that the key topics around, specifically around the industry around openness, revenue generation and customer experience. There are lots of activities in those areas I think in 2022 that we've set the groundwork for in 2021, and moving forward there'll be a lot more collaborative work to be done in accelerating the opportunities in those areas overall. And, I hinted at the 5G advanced work, that's still in its early stages, but there's definitely some more traction, I think, that will happen throughout the second half of next year in that area as well. So, a lot of work to be done, but yeah, some really interesting times to look forward to.

MH: And if we're lucky we might be able to have our next conversation in person.

JE: Absolutely, yes. And I think that's one of the things that everyone is hoping for is how do we come together for more face-to-face interactions. I think everyone recognizes how important that is. And, again, I think through ensuring that we collaborate together in the best possible way for the greater good is of paramount importance so that we can all conduct what we want to do both personally and professionally in the way we want to do it.

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