Data can be misread, warns Jan Berlage.

On considering which key competence they need for the labour market of the future, Simone, Vishal, Luke, Pedder and Beatrice, all part of a large international cohort of students, were quick to decide. Their pick was competence in technology – coding algorithms, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and so on. After all, digital technology opens the way to a good careerand high earnings. At least that is what pop media tells us.

Clearly digital products and services are being developed at an immense rate to respond to a growing demand across nearly all industries. Speculative capital has, over the past 25 years, pushed digital technologies through and reaped huge rewards. But the installation phase and its financial frenzy now appears over. We now expect to witness a significant digital deployment phase. 

We now expect to witness a significant digital deployment phase. Enter the new ‘Golden Age’.

As this revolution makes fundamental changes in the ways that we live and work, its effects are  rippling through the economic, environmental, technological and political domains. So it was clear to our group of students that their generations – variously Millennials or Generation Y – are uniquely positioned to benefit from this surge. After all, they are natives to the digital world and proficient users of digital technologies. So, the huge deployment phase over the next 25 years is essentially their game. Not only to the extent that they have the skill sets, they also are the largest generation in number. One pointed out that China’s Millennial cohort potentially comprises some 400m alone. And equally impressive numbers from India and Indonesia combine to make this the Asian game.

Naturally this shift creates peril as well as promise for our group of students; if this is the Asian era, it can’t be the era for Western developed countries. And their parents’ generation appear most exposed to the downsides of digitalisation. Robotics and the Internet-of-things threaten their parents’ jobs and those of their own age-cohort, who are less qualified. That means lay-offs, re-skilling of retained workers and continuous up-skilling, particularly for all of those who aspire to reach leadership ranks.

And during the pandemic, our students have experienced, firsthand, other downsides to digitalisation.

Having arrived from their countries of origin, they had hoped to join fellow students in getting away from their parents to party, engage romantically with other young people, and to enjoy their education in lectures, tutorials and other time-honoured ways based on contact with others. What they got was: staying with their parents, prohibition from partying, romance through digital dating platforms and education delivered in open, online courses.

In that way, the pandemic made it clear that digital tech cannot provide the relationships and interactions that make up much of the value of education. And the emerging prospect is that that shortfall will be ever present in their careers, as life-long learning is expected to be delivered through online courses, webinars or Zoom conferences. An upside is that the pandemic has arguably made real the capacity for digital platforms to educate the world’s poorest peoples – a globally agreed Sustainable Development Goal.

Meanwhile digital technologies such as augmented and virtual reality not only change how we interact with one another, they change how we see and experience the world – how companies will interact with customers. The capacity for all market participants to exploit data could spore new businesses, even new economies. But here too is a potential flaw in the prospects for a digital future.

”Data is not information; information is not knowledge; knowledge is not understanding; and understanding is not wisdom.”

The late American management theorist, Russel Ackoff, made the point that “Data is not information; information is not knowledge; knowledge is not understanding; and understanding is not wisdom.” And despite their demonstrable power, predictive analytics and elaborate algorithms, draw on the past to provide their outputs. They are based on experience and tell us where we have been, possibly only to lead us down a well-trodden path where today’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems. Routes away from that path calls for more innovation born out of creativity and imagination.

Simone, Vishal, Luke, Pedder and Beatrice, agree. They acknowledge that current best practices and learned competences too often do not fit the tasks ahead that look to global collaboration in sustainability and question continual economic growth. They accept that while digitalisation provides the tools for divergent thinking, it is up to them and their generation to use them to that end.

The Millennial and Y generations in the West are more independent from their elders, more collaborative and more inclined to value rather than profit. Overall they are more oriented towards a sustainable world, compared to their parents. The same has been said of the upcoming generations in the past. What makes , the assertion that today’s next generation might realise real and lasting change more plausible, is that it is equipped with a technological capability that makes global changes possible in real time.

But a digital revolution does not guarantee success. In fact, it could make the revisitations of past failures that have characterised our histories still-more likely. In truth, there are elements of an unacceptable future discernible in the present.

Jan Berlage

Jan Berlage works as an independent consultant on Strategic Foresight, Stakeholder Management and Change leadership. In that capacity, he also serves as a lecturer at a leading German business school. He was …

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