Technology is Changing Us

We Must Be Much Smarter about the Digital Transformation!

Sony’s “New Aibo”

Erik P.M. Vermeulen is as Professor | Executive | Entrepreneur. He shares insights into how the digital world is changing the way we live, work, and play. 6 minutes read.

Digital technologies are changing the world. This became very clear to me again last week in my conversations with students, my talk at a digital transformation event, and the Mark Zuckerberg hearing in Europe.

Successive waves of innovation have created a new technological reality that within a single generation has transformed all aspects of our personal lives, businesses, and society.
A “New Digital Living”

The social effects of these technological developments are deep and profound.

I see this in my interactions with students. A tech-driven “Millennial” culture has re-shaped our conceptions of freedom, responsibility, and happiness. The meaning of work, consumption, and leisure are similarly affected. No aspect of our lives has been untouched by these changes.

And yet, most of us seem to have an ambivalent relationship with these new technologies. Think smartphones, networked technologies, social media, and “peer-to-peer” platforms.

In one sense, new technologies have been hugely empowering. They keep us connected and instantly informed. Technology augments our knowledge and experience. Within moments, we are aware of events happening on the other side of the world.

We go to bed with our smartphones. We wake up with our smartphones. We even go to the toilet with our smartphones. We have allowed ourselves to be locked into a global network.

And — on occasion, at least — this becomes a problem. We can feel overwhelmed by the demands on our time. I sometimes intentionally “forget” my phone just to enjoy a quiet “disconnected” moment. An interlude from the endless expectations that are generated continuously in a globally networked world.

But, as soon as my phone and I are reconnected, I am immediately overwhelmed with more messages, news, and updates.

Technology has completely embedded itself in all of our relationships, personal and professional. Any sense of escape is short-lived and, ultimately, illusory.
A “New Digital Economy”

The business has been similarly affected by these new technologies.

An innovation economy framed around globally connected technologies has emerged in which powerful tech companies leverage these new technologies to develop business models that deliver a different kind of consumer experience.

The disruptive effects of these companies are felt across all sectors of the economy. The result is that every company is now obliged to re-invent itself as a tech company.

We all live and work in a fast-changing world that is structured around computer code, fluid identities and rapidly evolving forms of capitalism.

These changes have created a massive problem for “old world” organizations.

Large “established” companies all recognize the opportunities of the new economy and Millennial culture, but they often struggle to adapt. I spoke at a “Digital Transformation” event last week. It was apparent that the shift to a technology-driven economy has proven enormously challenging for established companies.

In particular, all companies must now engage with social media and Big Data. Soon, they will all have to engage with robotics, automation, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things.

Too often, existing corporate culture and governance means that older, established firms struggle to adjust to these new realities.
A “New Digital Society”

It is similarly difficult for government and other policymakers

Politicians at all levels of government — local, national, and international — all struggle to adapt to digital challenges. Rapid technological change makes it difficult to identify and agree on an appropriate regulatory framework. The result is that regulations often prohibit, or otherwise limit, the development of new technologies.

And as disruptive technologies facilitate new forms of “doing business,” debates around such regulatory constraints become more pressing. The recent Facebook hearings clearly show this. In the United States, the digital “knowledge gap” between politicians and business leaders became painfully apparent.

Our political “leaders” are blatantly ill-equipped to deal with the “new world” that is being created.

European politicians seemed slightly better prepared and had arguably better questions, but the result was the same. Critical issues were not addressed, and many politicians cared more about grabbing a “selfie” with global celebrity Marc Zuckerberg than the protection of consumers and other public interests.

So, What is the Answer to the Challenges of a Digital Age?

All of us are confronted with the challenge of navigating the complex and fast-changing tech-driven world that is emerging around us.

    As individuals, we need to build a relationship with technology that allows us to find greater personal freedom and happiness.

    As a business, we need to operate with a new set of principles and assumptions on how to be competitive in a digital age.

    As a society, we need to ensure that technology can deliver a more prosperous and inclusive global economy.

And none of this is easy. To do this, we need a lot more help from our “leaders.”

We need our politicians to fundamentally re-think how the new world impacts on “old” regulatory concepts, such as contracts, ownership, privacy, or IP rights. Mandatory regulations that prohibit or otherwise seek to control new technologies and tech-companies are not going to provide the answer.

We need more cooperation and better dialogue between politician-regulators and the tech companies that are creating our collective future. Prohibition and control results in the type of adversarial relationships that will, ultimately, fail us all.

Instead, politicians need to engage in much more “human-centered” design thinking and co-creation. This involves meaningful dialogue and partnership with all stakeholders, especially the end-users and producers of these technologies.

    “Consumer protection by design” will be the future.

Smart and dynamic protection embedded in the technology will replace traditional laws and compliance. And the design of these new embedded technologies needs to incorporate multiple perspectives if it is to ensure that technology creates a better world.

The business leaders of today’s most successful companies seem to get it. They are spending more on innovation, setting up innovation labs, and focusing on becoming agile.

There is still a lot of “theater” and window-dressing, but the “winners” have been able to transform their companies into “open and inclusive ecosystems.” In particular, they have put in place more committed and fluid relationships with startups (often acquiring them but letting them retain their own identity and culture). At the core of this approach is a recognition of the value of open and inclusive partnering.

    At its best, the new economy is creating a technological reality that is built around human-centered design thinking and co-creation.

But we still need a lot more sharing and experimenting. We must have a better understanding of the digital challenges and opportunities. This is the only way to ensure that new technologies can fulfill their promise of delivering a better life and world.

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