A Glimpse Into the Future

Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of the future in the here and now. The strategic uses of cameras and digital communication in Ukraine show where insurers are headed. 

a view of a city skyline and a blue sky. There is a darkened portion of the photo that is the outline of a man staring off in the distance.

A favorite line among technophiles is that “the future is here; it’s just not evenly distributed.” Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of the future in the here and now, in a way that can help us prepare for when that technology or way of life will become pervasive.

And I believe that the exceptionally quick, vivid and detailed coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine shows us what a truly connected world will look like – a world that all businesses, including insurers, are moving into, whether they like it or not.

We talk a lot about living in a connected world, with the IoT, telematics and so on, but we’re actually still in a pretty primitive state. I’d say the world of business is connected in much the way the world of communication was connected for the coverage of the Gulf War in 1991 – some crackly video, often days after it was shot; audio reports from correspondents while the TV showed a map; reports from military headquarters, etc. But the world of business is moving toward the world of unlimited communication and cameras and sensors everywhere that is giving us almost instant understanding of what’s happening on the front lines in Ukraine. The implications will be profound.

Think back to early this year, as Russia massed troops on the Ukrainian border -- and satellites let everyone see what was happening. While Saddam Hussein had managed to surprise the world with his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, even a cable-TV audience today could watch what Putin was doing. He insisted that he intended no harm, and some commentators bought the line, but then the satellites saw medical units being moved up to the border, including supplies of blood -- a pretty clear sign that he intended to attack.

He did, on Feb. 24, and all sorts of other cameras came into play. While few TV cameras were in Saudi Arabia in 1991, and transmission via satellite was spotty as the U.S. and allies geared up to retake Kuwait and then attacked, cameras are everywhere in Ukraine. Living on the U.S. West Coast, 10 hours behind Kyiv, I could turn my TV on at 9 every night, see the scenes from cities across the country and assure myself that Ukraine still stood.

That sort of coverage helped Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy rally support from the international community and turn some initial victories into a resounding defeat of the overwhelming Russian forces in the northern part of Ukraine. The availability of cameras and high-bandwidth connections has also let Zelenskyy boost morale by showing himself daily and even to address the U.S. Congress and the E.U. Parliament.

The ubiquitous cameras in people's phones have captured video of Russian atrocities, like a tank veering from its path to run over a car with an old man in it (miraculously, he survived) and like all the bombings of civilian targets, including a maternity hospital. The cameras also broadcast the remarkable courage of the Ukrainians, such as someone popping out from behind a tree to fire a Javelin missile and blow up a Russian tank at the head of the convoy, making the whole convoy a stationary target, or such as the intrepid farmers who hitched up tractors to tanks and hauled them away if they were briefly left behind because of a mechanical problem or because they ran out of gas.

In the Gulf War, you'd get some action footage, but not at this level of intimacy, not this quickly and not from the very front lines. (I have pictures of myself from 1991 standing in a Russian tank whose top had been blown off, but I assure you that no combatants were anywhere in the vicinity.) Russia has banned journalists from entering Mariupol, to hide the hardships that its siege is inflicting on residents, but satellite images let us count just how many desperate people are standing in line outside supermarkets. Today, satellites can see the front lines or even beyond, even when journalists can't get there. 

The adage says that the first casualty of war is truth, but satellites have even pushed back there. When the Russians pulled back from Kyiv over the weekend, they claimed that the hundreds of dead civilians left behind had actually been killed by Ukraine or that the scenes had been staged. But, as this New York Times article documents, satellite images showed that the bodies had been in the streets of Bucha for weeks, while the Russians controlled the area. 

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times refers to the invasion of Ukraine as World War Wired because of all the digital aspects to it. He writes

"Anyone with a smartphone and a credit card can aid strangers in Ukraine, through Airbnb, by just reserving a night at their home and not using it. Teenagers anywhere can create apps on Twitter to track Russian oligarchs and their yachts. 

"Meanwhile, Ukraine’s government has been able to tap a whole new source of funding — raising more than $70 million worth of cryptocurrencies from individuals around the world after appealing on social media for donations." 

What happens to insurance when the future becomes more evenly distributed and a Ukraine war-level of connection takes hold broadly? We can already see pieces of that future.

Telematics, while progressing slowly over the past two decades-plus, is nonetheless offering real-time observation of drivers. Cameras on the rearview mirror will increase that monitoring -- then autonomous cars will change the game entirely. 

The ever-present cameras in our phones are already being used to take pictures of car accidents and damage to homes, to speed the filing and processing of claims and to lower costs. Those cameras are also being used increasingly for do-it-yourself home inspections. Drones are being used to inspect rooftops, especially after major storms. All of those trends will continue.

And I think the satellites that are playing such a role in Ukraine will become increasingly important. If you can count people standing outside a supermarket in Mariupol, why can't you routinely check on the homes you insure to warn of risks -- perhaps a problem with a roof or the growing potential for flooding or a mudslide -- or make sure a home is properly insured after the owner installs a pool or a trampoline? At a macro level, satellites will make it increasingly possible to monitor the effects of climate change -- erosion, the effects of increased heat on water supplies, etc.

Cameras will also feed social media. Just as the images out of Ukraine are touching people's hearts, consumers will increasingly use images and videos to document and share their interactions with companies. In my experience, I'm sorry to say, consumers are much more likely to share complaints than to offer praise, so I'd say insurers should be prepared to deal with unhappy customers who tell compelling "stories" on social media using visuals designed to make a company look bad. 

Finally, while the issue doesn't relate to what's happening in Ukraine, I'd say insurers also need to be increasingly prepared for unhappy customers to start producing audio recordings of their interactions with agents and other representatives. Those smartphones don't just contain cameras; they're all recording devices, too. Disputes about guidance may no longer be, he-said, he-said; they may be, he-said-and-he-has-the-recording-to-prove-it.

War drives innovation to the extreme because so many lives are at stake, and it'll take insurance a while to catch up to the cutting-edge uses of technology happening in Ukraine. But we'll get there, and we can start preparing for the implications now.