This was the hashtag used at a blockchain event that I attended in Paris last week.
It perfectly expresses the central challenge facing us today. We all need to “go digital.” But the speed and scale of current change, as well as the resulting uncertainties and insecurities mean that we often struggle to understand and adapt.
This explains why the Paris event, which was organized by the OECD, attracted close to a thousand participants.
It was a diverse group. On one side were the “old school” policymakers nervously struggling to make sense of new realities. On the other were the visionary founders of start-ups who see their mission as changing the world.
I gave a presentation on what “going digital” means for business. The panel led to active discussion and debate.
But what became very clear to me over the course of the day is that we are all moving at different speeds and in very different directions. Right now, there are multiple answers to key questions:
My return flight was cancelled, so I decided to take the train home rather than stay an extra night in Paris. The train ride offered an excellent opportunity to think some more about these issues.
Several hours later (there were more delays), I “zoomed in” on three key strategies that I believe all of us need to embrace to better prepare for a digital future.
The world is now built on the zeros and ones of computer code. This is the essence of the “digital transformation.”
In the 90s, for instance, digital technologies (the hypertext transfer protocol — http) transformed how we make friends and communicate. The World Wide Web brought the world to us and changed how we produce, share and communicate information.
Now we are experimenting with blockchain, artificial intelligence, robotics, and multiple other new technologies. We often read how “this technology” or that “technology” has the potential to change the world on the same scale as the Internet.
But the impact of these “new” digital technologies will be much greater than we have experienced before. The reason?
New technologies increasingly “amplify” each other.
As my fellow panelists and I agreed, we shouldn’t look at any one technology in isolation.
Of course, each “individual” technology, such as distributed ledgers, artificial intelligence or robotics, can have an enormous impact on society. But to understand what “going digital” really means for the future, it is necessary to think about what the combination of these technologies can do.
The real value of digital technologies is how they “accelerate” and “reinforce” each other. And such amplification effects create fantastic new opportunities. Together, digital technologies can provide solutions to the world’s biggest problems (poverty, pollution and global warming, inequality, etc.).
What struck me in Paris is that too many people think that “going digital” is all about “retrofitting.”
By retrofitting, I mean “adding” digital solutions to older systems, models, and organizations in the belief that this will “future proof” an existing approach and make it more efficient.
Retrofitting is undoubtedly tempting, but with digital technologies amplifying each other, it just won’t work.
I have come across too many examples of how “just retrofitting” can quickly finish a business.
Take “brick and mortar” stores disrupted by new online platforms (such as Amazon) in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many believed that competing against Amazon could be achieved by simply “selling goods online.”
Such an attitude failed to understand the real disruption of Amazon. They were offering much more than just an online retail platform. Instead, through sophisticated systems such as algorithm-driven recommendations and online customer ratings and reviews, Amazon provided a new and highly personalized, interactive and communal experience.
The same will be true for the city, government and business of the future. They will offer a “smarter” experience, relying more and more on sensors, data-analytics, and algorithms.
Although it is essential to have a basic understanding of the underlying technologies behind the “digital transformation,” we don’t need to become fully-fledged technology experts to “go digital.” I have written before about how every level of education needs to change and offer a new kind of digital literacy.
But, just as important, is that we embrace an attitude of “total digital engagement.”
We need to think more about the meaning of these technologies, what they can do for us and how they can help us build a better future.
This often means rejecting and replacing old, formalized ways of doing things, such as hierarchies, legacy processes, and predetermined procedures. “Digital engagement” will lead to looser connections and relationships, and also a more flexible ways of doing things.
We have to “re-learn” what it means to interact, transact, and become visible in a digital environment. We must build “our own brand.” Everyone must learn how to think like an entrepreneur. Being creative in this way will ensure that “going digital” creates more jobs than it eliminates.
It is obvious that the three strategies are closely related. All of them are necessary to “win” in the world of tomorrow.
The Paris trip highlighted to me once again that we are at a crossroads. And the only way to find a “digital path” that works for each of us is to think seriously about the “amplifying” effect of digital technologies, avoid “retrofitting,”, and embrace total engagement and creativity.
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