The Roaring 2020s: A Booming Decade May Follow Covid-19

Will a boom follow Covid-19? A century ago the 1920s saw creative energies explode after the tragedies of the Spanish Flu and World War I. In big cities such as New York, London, Shanghai, Sydney and Tokyo, economic growth was palpable. New technologies such as cars and radios became common. So did a risk-on optimism. I think the 2020s will similarly roar. Here are four reasons (with caveats at the end):

1. Accelerated digital productivity

Back in 2017, Diane Greene, then the Google Cloud CEO, told a Forbes audience that the rate of digital technology progress was accelerating rapidly. She guessed a rate “two to three times faster” than Moore’s Law. Of course, digital technology progress by itself does not guarantee productivity. New business and organizational models are always needed to harness that progress. 

Covid-19 did that for us; the pandemic forced rapid business change. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has said that five years of digital transformation had taken place in six months. Covid-19 forced companies to become smarter, faster, nimbler. The alternative was failure. No company can revert to slower, dumber and stuck. From a business perspective, the 2020s will be the Agile Decade. 

2. Scalable AI

There’s now a convergence of digital technologies—cheap cloud computing, ubiquitous mobile computing (billions of sensors and phones) and faster communications such as 5G—simultaneously reaching maturity. Enter AI—the 2020s will be the decade of enterprise AI. 

One more step is needed. Previously, deploying AI always meant hard, labor-intensive, expensive work. But what if AI was easy to deploy and use? What if anyone who can use a spreadsheet could also predict supply chain risks in India or maintenance costs for an Indonesian trucking fleet? That is happening. To adopt Apple’s famous 1980s slogan “a computer for the rest of us,” AI for the rest of us will shape the 2020s. 

3. Capital surplus

The world is awash in capital, making it historically easy for entrepreneurs to get funds for innovative startups. While there’s plenty of hype around cryptocurrencies, meme stocks and SPACs, make no mistake. Global capital knows well that digital technology acceleration and AI are game-changers. These will disrupt business models and markets, and power enormous fortunes. 

4. Physical world revolutions

Digital technologies, as noted by Greene, are evolving fast. But in the physical realm, progress is always slower—limited by physics and other forces. Yet here, too, progress is accelerating. Drone cameras raise agricultural yields. Autonomous trucks don’t need to take rest breaks. Gene sequencing plus AI will create personalized medical treatments. 

Take German startup Lilium. It proposes to bring air travel to the masses with an electric-powered aircraft that can take off vertically yet fly like a plane. Using composite materials and AI, it is designed for autonomous piloting, though a real pilot will be used for now. Unlike most aviation startups, Lilium has has plenty of capital. It represents the post-Covid-19 spirit. 


The Roaring 1920s had not one, but two awful stock crashes and depressions. The one many people forget occurred in 1921; it almost derailed the decade. Also prosperity was very uneven in the 1920s. Cities boomed. Rural areas much less. Don’t expect the 2020s to be all good news. But it will be thrilling.


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The Other Virus That Can Wreak Havoc Across The World: Ransomware

On May 7, a hacker’s note was discovered on a control room computer at Colonial Pipeline. The hackers had swiped 100 gigabytes of Colonial’s data and threatened to make it available to hackers around the world unless paid a ransom of $5 million in bitcoin. Colonial responded by shutting down its core asset, an oil and gas pipeline that travels 5,550 miles from Texas to New Jersey and transports more than 100 million gallons a day. It is the largest pipeline in the U.S.

The shutdown’s effect on gas supply and prices was immediate. Prices in Virginia spiked from $3 to $7 a gallon, and hundreds of fuel stations in North Carolina had no gas to sell. Within days, Colonial paid the hackers $4.4 million, later admitted by CEO Joseph Blount.

It could have been worse. The hacker group, called DarkSide—presumed to be from Russia—reportedly stole customer billing data. They did not disrupt pumps, valves and physical structures controlled by sensors, yet DarkSide caused billions in economic damage in the southeastern U.S in a week.

“The hacking threat is escalating globally,” says Nicole Perlroth when I spoke to her in late May. Perlroth is the chief cyber reporter for the New York Times, and the author of a deeply researched book with a scary title: This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. Perlroth spent seven years to research and write her book. She traveled the world and opened doors to a hidden multibillion-dollar industry led by paranoid geniuses perpetrating data theft and ransomware. 


“The dilemma of ransomware attacks is the asymmetry,” Perlroth explains. “Whereas shutting down a developed country’s electric grid would require the resources of a national military and be judged as an act of war, ransomware just requires a simple theft or credible threat. It can be done by loose affiliations of hackers around the world. It can be done for money—ransom amounts around the world are inflating quickly—or even by anarchists with no other motive than to poke the powers in the eye.” 

“The hacking threat is escalating globally.”

Nicole Perlroth

Here are the industries that Perlroth thinks are most vulnerable to ransomware attacks: banking, electric power, healthcare, military, oil and gas, transportation, and water supply. Her top worry? “When I began my research, my own fear was water supply. It still is.” Perlroth is correct—earlier this year, a single hacker tried to raise sodium hydroxide to poisonous levels in a U.S. water treatment facility. Next time, it may be a state-sponsored terrorist group, with deadlier results. 

Perlroth also worries about global supply chains in energy and transportation: “I worry about smaller, privately owned companies in the supply chain that underinvest in network security because they operate on thin margins, or maybe they can’t find the talent they need.”

The threat is growing and global. Vanson Bourne, a research firm in the U.K., surveyed 5,400 IT executives in 30 countries. More than a third were hit by ransomware attacks. The majority said the attackers succeeded in encrypting their data. The average bill for rectifying a ransomware attack, considering the downtime, people time, device cost, network cost, lost opportunity and ransom paid, was $1.85 million.

The top attacked country? India. Top attacked countries in ASEAN are Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. But many countries, including those most suspected of sponsoring or sheltering hackers—Iran, North Korea, Russia—did not participate in the survey. World attention for the past 18 months has focused on a biological virus that has killed millions and caused trillions in economic damage. Covid-19, thanks to heroic pharma innovators, will recede. Who are the innovators that will stop the ransomware crisis?


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