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On the Digital Day – «Trying to increase our ability to adapt»

Almost a month ago I started with this blog series on the Digital Day and why it is important for Switzerland to why we all need to learn the bicycle trick. Today, I present you my third insight into the why we need to try to increase our ability to adapt in order to come out on top of the digitalization – meaning that we need to take all the chances as well as prepare for the threats it has in store.

Just to remind everyone, this blog series is based on the book by Thomas L. Friedman, Thank you for being late – An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations. There is also a great podcast in which he summarizes the main points of the book. Please read the book or listen in on him talking about it for an hour, it is THAT good. For more than two months now, I’ve been talking about nothing else with my wife, my friends, my colleagues and even our members.

Human adaptability – A steep increase is necessary

As discussed in the last two blogs, digitalization is so fast-paced that it is hard to keep up with everything that is going on in the world. Terms such us Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, Gene Editing and many more are increasingly common, but only very few people actually realize where these developments will take us. This by itself is not really an issue; with new inventions it’s always the case that at the beginning we cannot see clearly where they are going. But until now there was always a time when we understood the wheel, the car, the world wide web. However, today all of these things are happening so fast, that when we grasp the idea of it, the technology has already moved on. The best example of this is UBER: While today we are still concerned with regulating UBER, its business model is fast becoming obsolete through the emergence of self-driving cars, that for some are just around the corner.

«Everything feels like it’s in constant catch-up mode. What to do? We certainly don’t want to slow down technological progress or abandon regulation. The only adequate response is that we try to increase our ability to adapt. That is the only way to release us from the society-wide anxiety around tech.» (p. 33)

«Enhancing humanity’s adaptability is 90 percent about “optimizing for learning” – applying features that drive technological innovation to our culture and social structures.» (p. 34)

Out of the many examples that are given in the book, I would like to focus on three cases. These three provide a deeper understanding of what we need to do and reproduce many times over in order to raise our ability to adapt to the same level as the technological progress is going forward. As the examples below will show, we need to take technological innovation and use it to learn better and faster as well as to raise the average skill set of our society up. The tools are already there provided by the digital transformation.

AT&T’s new social contract with its employees

AT&T realized early on that the skillset of their current workforce needs to be “enhanced” in order to cope with the work of the future. Hence, they invested heavily in enabling employees to develop in whatever skill direction that is in need.

«The new social contract is that you can be a lifelong employee if are ready to be a lifelong learner. We will give you the platform but you have to opt in. Everyone has a personal learning portal and they can see where the endpoint is [for whatever skill set they are aiming to acquire] and the courses that will get them there. you can pick a different future and how to get there. You can be anything you want to be in this system. But again, you have to opt in. The executive’s role here is to define the vision for the future. The company’s responsibility is to provide the tools and platforms for employees to get there, and the individual’s role is to provide the selection and motivation. We need to make sure that anyone who leaves here [does not do so] because we did not provide them with the platform – that it was their lack of motivation that did not make it happen.» (p. 218)

«What we have done is to take our best and make it our average and our average is now right up there. Our cycle times for [new ideas] are much faster now. Anyone who finds a solution, we can scale it through the company. Our employee engagement surveys showed 30 percent improvement in lost sick days in one year. People are calling in sick less because they are feeling more empowered, more of a sense of ownership, and more connected. (p. 219) 

Online course providers with new courses up and running in three months and available worldwide

Faster adoption is also necessary within education courses with skills that are in need for the jobs of the future. This is just a hint where fast adoption in courses can lead the general education system.

«The supernova [aka the cloud] is enabling deeper revolution that is just beginning [within Moocs; Massive Open Online Courses], spurred by learning platforms such as Udacity, edX,and Coursera, that will change the very metabolism and shape of higher education and, one hopes, lift the adaptability line in the way [as written above]. When a company like Udacity can respond to a major technological leap forward, such as TensorFlow from Google, and offer a course online to teach it to anyone in the world within three months, the word is going to get out and the market will change. Who is going to wait until next year to take that course on the campus of a university – assuming that school can even change its curriculum that quickly?» (p. 222)

Khan academy with individualized education tools for pupils

The Khan academy offers free Youtube video lessons for everyone around the world to learn. What it did now is connect with the US College Board that oversees the SAT-tests – similar to our “Kantonsschulaufnahmeprüfungen” – and develop a platform on which every kid in the US that wants to get better scores can learn, optimized and free of charge.

«The system works like this: In tenth or eleventh grade you take the practice SAT, known as PSAT. And let’s say , for instance, you scored 1060 out of 1600 on English and math. Your results are fed into a computer, which, using AI and big data, then spits out a message: “Tom, you did really well, but you need some work on fractions. You have a real opportunity to grow here. Click here for customized lessons just for you on fractions.”» (p. 228)

«We are providing personalized learning at a time when students need to take far greater command of the cultivation of their talents and their career trajectory. The College Board used to just give tests to measure and mark progress, now we are actually trying to provide the tools of practice and coaching to change trajectories.» (p. 228)

In the next blog in about two weeks time, I will deep dive into other cases than just investing in learning and education that we can do as a society to prepare ourselves for what’s to come.

If you enjoy this blog series on the Digital Day, please subscribe to our bi-weekly newsletter.

Two weeks ago, in the blogpost on Why the Digital Day is important for Switzerland, I talked about the consequences if the dialogue with the broader public on digital transformation is not happening and people start being left out or behind in this 4th Industrial Revolution. The book from Thomas L. Friedman presents a great many quotes perfect for our cause. However, the book not only provides warnings, but also focus areas where we will need to act upon as a state, society, as business leaders and politicians in order to cope with the age of accelerations. In short, and as quoted in my last post, now is “a time to understand more, so we may fear less” (p. 3).

Below, I want to share with you my key takeaways from the book regarding the focus area «Education». In this time of digital transformation, education is an area that we at digitalswitzerland put a strong focus on and invest much of our resources in in order to move in the right direction and fast – both within the Digital Day 2018 as well as within one of our main pillars Education & Talent.

The bicycle trick – a new kind of stability

In the book, Astro Teller, Captain of Alphabets Moonshot Research lab Google X, is pointing towards a new human state we need to get into:

«What we are experiencing today, with shorter and shorter innovation cycles, and less time to learn to adapt, is the difference between a constant state of destabilization versus occasional destabilization. The time of static stability has passed us by. That does not mean we can’t have a new kind of stability, but the new kind of stability has to be dynamic stability. There are some ways of being, like riding a bicycle, where you cannot stand still, but once you are moving it is actually easier. It is not our natural state. But humanity has to learn to exist in this state.» (p. 35)

«We are all going to have to learn that bicycle trick.» (p. 35)

«When that happens, in a weird way, we will be calm again, but it will take substantial relearning.» p.35

Preparing our children for the new reality

One of the main keys to dynamic stability is an overhaul of today’s education for our kids, our students and ourselves. The following statement is crucial and needs to be addressed by all education stakeholders, be it in primary or secondary school, in vocational training, in universities or in lifelong education:

«We definitely don’t train our children for dynamic stability.» (p. 35)

Astro Teller is supported in this sentiment by IBM Chief of Watson (Supercomputer), John E. Kelly, who piles on top of that:

«In the twenty-first century knowing all the answers won’t distinguish someone’s intelligence – rather the ability to ask all the right questions will be the mark of true genius.» (p. 103)

Motivational divide will matter

We have to train everyone and ourselves for motivation and inspiration:

«You have to know more, you have to update more often, and you have to do more creative tasks with it than just routine tasks. That recursive loop really defines work and learning today. And that is why self-motivation is now so much more important.» (p. 205)

«Within the next decade that digital divide [note: not everyone connected/online] will largely disappear. And when that happens only one divide will matter […] and that is the motivational divide. The future will belong to those who have self-motivation to take advantage of all the free and cheap tools and flows coming out of the supernova [note: the cloud].» (p. 205)

In my next blogpost in two weeks’ time, I will provide specific examples as presented in the book on how AT&T handles employee education and how the Khan Academy provides free support for all kids. Stay updated and sign up for our newsletter.

The first national Digital Day took place in 2017. digitalswitzerland is in the middle of preparing the second edition of the Digital Day on 25 October 2018. In the following paragraphs, I would like to lay out the reason behind and the necessity of a thorough and inclusive Digital Day in Switzerland.

Our mission at digitalswitzerland is to make Switzerland a leading digital innovation hub – worldwide. This can only be achieved, when we can get everyone, meaning the whole public in Switzerland, on board the digital transformation sooner rather than later, because the digital train is accelerating fast.

Digital transformation: opportunity or threat?

When the topic of digital transformation is discussed within the broader public, the question that often arises is: Will digitisation result in opportunities or threats for our economy, our government, our society and for ourselves?

My answer is always: Both!

Digital transformation or digitisation is a fact and already a reality today, the recent past and will stay here for the future. I am convinced that it brings both opportunities and challenges – as in every previous revolution. So the real question that we need to answer as a society, economy, government and on an individual level is what will we make of it and how can we embrace the manifold opportunities while at the same time overcoming the challenges ahead?

How to cope with the digital transformation

So, in order to support my case, I read some books to give a clearer picture to everyone fearing the digital future. Luckily, I struck gold very quickly when I found Thomas L. Friedman’s latest book: Thank you for being late – An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations.

In his book, he dives deep into the time and age of digitisation we are in and states that the most iconic year was 2007, when the smartphone was invented. The book has more than 500 pages and is worth every one. If you don’t have the time, just listen to him talk about it for an hour here. Below a couple of my favorite quotes (so far) from the book, which also explain why the Digital Day is so immensely relevant for Switzerland.

«Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so we may fear less.» (quote at the beginning of the book from Marie Curie, p. 3)

Our goal at digitalswitzerland is to make the digital transformation more understandable and more concrete for the public. We can only succeed with this endeavor if the public and everyone on an individual level is on board and takes part in the digital journey.


Acceleration is increasing

«In the world we are in now, acceleration seems to be increasing. That means you don’t just move to a higher speed of change. The rate of change also gets faster… And when the rate of change eventually exceeds the ability to adapt you get “dislocation”. Disruption is what happens when someone does something clever that makes you or your company look obsolete. Dislocation is when the whole environment is being altered so quickly that everyone starts to feel they can’t keep up.» (p. 28)

The most prominent example for this is in my view the UBER case. UBER was launched in 2009 and started disrupting the decade-long same business model of the taxi industry. However, UBER is already on the verge of being disrupted itself by the emergence of self-driving cars. In order to not become obsolet, but stay on top of this evolution, the company is at the forefront in developing and testing self-driving cars itself.

While UBER is actually still at the center of it all, many still struggle to wrap their head around the sharing economy, while new innovations are just around the corner flipping everything, at fast speeds and on a global magnitude on its head again.

«Indeed, there is a mismatch between the learning systems, training systems, management systems, social safety nets, and government regulations that would enable citizens to get the most out of these accelerations and cushion their worst impacts. This mismatch […] is at the center of much of the turmoil roiling politics and society in both developed and developing countries today. It now constitutes probably the most important governance challenge across the globe.» (p. 28)

A big warning in the age of acceleration

«In the age of acceleration, if a society doesn’t build floors under people, many will reach for a wall – no matter how self-defeating that would be. With so much changing so fast, it’s easier than ever today for people to feel a loss of “home” in the deepest sense. And they will resist. Addressing that anxiety is one of today’s great leadership challenges […].» (p. 155)

Not only the Digital Day team, but all of digitalswitzerland and its members are committed to the challenge of getting everyone on board the digital transformation. The Digital Day is our public cart horse, providing a great platform which brings together important stakeholders from business, academia, politics and the public to embrace each other’s perspectives, find solutions together for the challenges ahead and identify chances and opportunities for everyone.

In later blogposts, I will deep dive on some mechanisms presented in Friedman’s book that provide more basis for all our initiatives within digitalswitzerland. Stay updated and sign up for our newsletter.