The Digital future is here…

By Erik P.M. Vermeulen

I had to speak at a “Future of …” event and got involved in a very engaged discussion. The issue was how serious we need to be about the Digital Transformation. Are we currently experiencing the 4th Industrial Revolution? Are artificial intelligence and blockchain technology real game-changers?

My message was — as it always is — that new technologies are changing the world and that preparing for this change now is vital. In response, members of the audience — most of whom were professionals and not “technologists” — raised the following objections:

“I don’t have time to get up to speed with new technology and what it means for my work.”

“It’s not my responsibility to familiarize myself with new technology.”

“New technology doesn’t affect what I am doing.”

I come across this kind of reaction a lot. Not enough time. It’s not my responsibility. And (anyway) it’s all just hype.

I understand this viewpoint, but unfortunately, it’s wrong. You must make time. It is your responsibility. And it isn’t just hype.

And the first step in preparing for a digital future is to stop making such excuses and embrace a different attitude towards technology.

Don’t Wait for “Perfection”

A big part of the problem is that many people are waiting for the perfect implementation of technology before they engage.

Of course, it would be best if I could come up with a long list of “success stories” that show how technologies have instantly succeeded in changing the world. Unfortunately, however, it doesn’t work like that. Even the “mind-blowing” examples aren’t perfect “the first time,” and their current flaws can easily be used as a justification for not acting now.

For instance, Google-translate has become better and better over the last couple of years, but it still cannot be used for a reliable and entirely accurate translation of a text. A similar point could be made about the early versions of Facebook — Facemash — or any new tech. Does that mean we should dismiss it?

The key point is that technology rarely arrives “perfectly formed.” Waiting for it to do so means being left behind. Instead, it makes sense to get involved now in the uncertain and messy process of finding and building new solutions.

3 Signs Things Are Changing

There are enough signs that things are changing. Here are three that I noticed recently.

#From Centralized Tech to Decentralized Tech

We see more and more “danger” in the Big Tech companies that currently dominate the industry and technological developments. Think Amazon, Apple, Google.

Don’t get me wrong: I admire the visionary tech leaders and the businesses that they have built. Their innovations and activities have had an enormous impact on the way we live and work. They have changed the way we communicate, search, advertise, listen to music, enjoy entertainment, and select and buy products.

But we increasingly get the feeling that their innovation capacity/power has reached a limit. There are too many inefficiencies in their approaches. And the bigger they get, the more problematic their “power” becomes.

Facebook is a good example. As long as the companies it acquired (such as WhatsApp and Instagram) maintained their own identity and way of working, it appeared to work well. But with the recent integration efforts by Facebook’s leaders/executives (and the departure of the founders of the acquired start-up companies), there is more and more doubt about the efficiencies of Facebook.

One way to deal with these issues is to break them up legally. But instead of starting a legal (and time-consuming) process/legal procedures, more is expected from the “decentralized tech” initiatives.

These initiatives align network participants to collaborate, share, and co-create technological and digital innovations. Talented developers, other technologists, and non-technologists are attracted by its level — non-hierarchical — playing field.

Currently, a lot of risk-capital is being invested in decentralized tech (for instance, blockchain start-ups that should offer better and more efficient solutions).

Yes, we are still in an experimental stage, but I always follow a simple rule: when smart people with smart ideas receive significant investments, something is going to happen.

#Decentralized Governance

Influential non-governmental organizations (such as the World Bank, the United Nations) are increasingly convinced that new digital technologies will play an essential role in solving today’s global issues.

Climate change, poverty, deforestation can be solved by new digital technologies operating together. It is expected that satellite images, drones, distributed ledger technologies, artificial intelligence will all play a role in making the world a better place.

What is interesting is that their involvement attracts more and more private companies/actors. They see it as honor (leading to reputational gain) to be involved in these “tech-for-good” projects.

#Entrepreneurial Students

And if you aren’t persuaded yet. The most fantastic experience I see is in the classroom.

Indeed, we have a lot of engagement when we discuss traditional topics, but this is nothing compared to the energy boost you get when new technologies are being considered.

And this has changed remarkably over the last few years. Five years ago, many of my students were skeptical about the Digital Revolution. They wanted to know how this would help their careers. But this has changed completely.

In general, students are more entrepreneurial. They want to work for a start-up, start their businesses, or ironically wish to work for the Big Tech companies (as a stepping stone to gain experience and credibility).

They also see the advantages of new digital technologies. Most of them understand that in the traditional world with its standardized processes and procedures, manual and knowledge work will be more and more automated. Students want to think out of the box. They immediately start thinking about possible solutions for our current problems. They have become more practical and problem-solving-oriented. Levels of creativity are off the charts.

Of course, most of the ideas will never see the light of day, but the drive to experiment with technology and co-create technical solutions shows how things are changing.

Lessons Learned

The stories we tell ourselves about technology matter. Attitudes towards technology matter. A skeptical position based on the three excuses I encountered last week closes off options at precisely the wrong moment.

The new world of de-centralized tech and de-centralized governance in which everyone is more entrepreneurial will not arrive fully formed. Radical change doesn’t “just happen.” It needs to be built through collaboration between technologists and non-technologists working together to create a better future.

Developments will accelerate if we all start to be involved and, in this regard, “diversity” is critical. If we work in teams, we build smarter solutions. And not doing anything can be devastating: we will see less effective solutions, and people will be left behind since the digital world will move forward.

So, my message for anyone making excuses is simple. Change the narrative you tell yourself and others about technology. Get involved now. And help change the world. Your role in building the new world is probably more important than you realize.