Introduction on "The Digital Challenge for Europe"
A book about changes as a result of digitalization
This book is about the radical influence that digitalization has on human life and the functioning of organizations and therefore on the functioning of societies worldwide. The influence is such that it will ultimately lead - will even have to lead - to different social structures. Digitalization does not just affect technology environments or the economy, but it affects all areas of human existence and even the natural environment.
In the author's opinion, the influence of digitalization on daily life and world events is considerably underestimated. This book therefore attempts to sketch a coherent picture of the macro effects of digitalization on society. Starting from a macro picture of the influence of digitalization, the author will point out why and where other policies are needed on numerous points. Europe has been taken as the starting point, but the observations and suggestions can also be applied elsewhere.
In this day and age, digitalization appears to be the centre of everything, for better or worse. At the same time, partly caused by digitalization, mankind is facing a number of other gigantic challenges, such as climate problems, overpopulation, migration, cybercrime, an imminent technology war.
There is absolutely no certainty that things will continue to go well or that mankind will benefit. This also applies to nature, of which we are part and which we have so far treated as disposable. And which in turn, if we are not careful, will treat mankind as a disposable article. Therefore a lot will have to be done and a lot of cooperation is needed, to make sure that the earth will remain liveable and that man, nature and economy will return to a reasonable balance in the decades to come.
Digitalization touches society to the bone
It is too often assumed that digitalization is "only" about novelties that will find their place in the existing world order and that, at best, will lead to minor changes. Too much it is also assumed that technology will find a solution for everything. That the problems of overpopulation, i.e. increasing consumption, will be solved "automatically". That climate problems can be solved with some technical interventions. This is a form of wishful thinking that is totally unfounded and extremely risky. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that problems caused by human beings will be solved by them automatically. Too little it is understood that digitalization touches mankind, humanity and the functioning of society down to its deepest core, right down to the bone. And that this new technology has the potential to destroy human beings, mankind and nature. But that the same technology can also be used for the benefit of mankind and nature in order to alleviate the current problems. Perhaps digitalization - if applied intelligently - is even the only possible route to enable mankind to handle the many large-scale world problems. In this sense, we may be fortunate that now that problems such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, over-consumption, migration, and accumulation are increasing, we have at least acquired a technology that can help in many areas. During the corona pandemic, for example, it turned out that countries that were advanced in the use of the internet were considerably better off.
Digitalization leads to further increase of internationalization and globalization
Whether politicians or nation-states like it or not: digitalization irrevocably leads to further internationalization and globalization. Digitalization also causes numerous effects with an international dimension, such as increasing migration - thanks to smartphones and the internet - , increasing cybercrime, new business chains, technological quarrels between superpowers, the threat of digital war, uncertainties surrounding robotization and artificial intelligence, etc. Digitalization with all its side effects is an unstoppable tsunami. Partly because of the enormous benefits for the quality of life, the economy and mutual communication, consumers and companies are all too happy to embrace it. Meanwhile, there are also more and more negative social effects of digitalization.
It is therefore an illusion to think that the existing world order, which we have been accustomed to for many years, will be unchanged by the digitalization tsunami in the coming decades. Pandora's digital box has been opened and nobody can close it anymore. That means: either get in control of the digital effects or let things take their course with all the chaotic effects that will result.
The current control model in the world is not sufficient
It is becoming increasingly unlikely that the existing political control model in individual countries, Europe and the world will be capable of solving the many, complex and expanding problems we are facing - with or without digitalization as the primary cause. Many of the world's major problems urgently require solutions, which cannot be found because governments and current institutions are unable to reach or fulfil joint sustainable agreements, as the Paris Climate Accord has shown.
Time is now ticking for an earth with limited nature and raw materials and an expanding world population, which wants more prosperity and therefore more consumption. In addition, it is clear that the old economic model - on which most nation-states base their economies and which does not take into account the vulnerability of nature and the finite nature of raw materials - is worn to threads. The model currently causes more and more irreparable damage and almost depleted wealth for all instead of increasing prosperity for all. The question, therefore, is how to come to a different control and economic model that will enable us to adequately manage these problems.
Digitalization offers enormous perspectives with respect to sustainability, human prosperity and development
Digitalization may lead to a fairer distribution of wealth and a more stable world. These advantages should be to the benefit of everyone on earth. Meanwhile, few leaders seem to be able to estimate the far-reaching consequences of all kinds of technologies, which are often welcomed by consumers. Even the top managers of large tech giants admit that they often do not understand the consequences of their own inventions, nor have they properly assessed their effects on society in advance. Too many companies accidentally "come across" digitalization, instead of making timely plans for digital business operations. Many directors today have to ask themselves whether they are still suitable to lead their organization or sector through a digital transformation process. This shortcoming is beginning to break down society considerably.
Digital problems or challenges - both in terms of global influence and control issues - are somewhat comparable to the climate problem. After all, only global solutions will work for both, but the world is not yet in a position to come to unanimous opinions or solutions. Nevertheless, this will have to happen - in the case of the climate as well as with respect to digital challenges.
Looking back does not get you ahead
Outdated institutions and multinationals
Classical institutions including multinationals have brought much wealth, prosperity and social security to today's world. But they are all institutions designed to shape the classical industrial society and to defend vested interests, rather than being equipped to guide society through a digital transformation process or transition towards a digital society. They often pursue outdated goals or in the wrong way, or are more concerned with their own survival than with society. Their actions often place a heavy burden on the environment, the habitat of animals, or make local farmers and fishermen crumble or block much-needed innovation. As a result, many institutions from governments to banks and multinationals are losing the confidence of large groups in society.
Cramped boards of old-fashioned leaders
The tragedy of many leaders - both in private and public organizations - is that they are not fully aware of the world having entered into a gigantic transition. In a cramped way they continue to believe in old mechanisms. Maintainers of the classical order thus threaten to become caricatures in their tendency to cling desperately to the old paradigms, instead of developing a vision for the future.
Who believes that today's generation of leaders such as Xi, Putin, Bolsanaro, Erdogan or Modi, can guide the world through this transition period and lead us to a fairer, more sustainable and digitalized world? They are all people who seem to be more concerned with their personal power and their "bonuses" as CEO’s of their nation-states than with the long-term interests of the world, peace and prosperity for everyone, let alone nature.
The hopeless resistance of populists
Populists who stand up for the underprivileged or unemployed middle class easily reach a large audience. But do they have a real perspective to offer in the digitalizing world? They are harking back to a past with more autonomy for each country, which is presented in a brighter way than it ever has been and which in no way offers a perspective for the future. They want to tackle cross-border international environmental or refugee problems by closing borders, they want to retreat behind national borders and increase production on their own. But digitalization, environmental problems, overpopulation, a pandemic or migratory flows are neither stopped nor solved by closing borders. The world has already been changing too long and has become too intertwined to be unravelled by politicians.
Recipes from the past help us less than ever to shape the future: you cannot realize innovation with recipes from the past. If you want to move forwards, it is a good idea not to constantly look backwards: you run the risk of bumping into something.
Our own thinking blocks us
It is not only the institutions, the nation-state or specific organizational structures that need to be adapted to the digitalizing world. Our own thinking also gets in our way. Whereas digitalization, globalization, the climate and other world problems demand a holistic and long-term view of the world, people, on all levels of society, including politicians, remain too much stuck in classical, egocentric and short-term thinking. However, it is too easy to blame only the politicians or whoever else for this. Collectively we are in a transition of society, of frames of references that are familiar to us and we have to look for new frameworks in an unfolding digital world that is taking hold of us step by step. We are challenged by long-term issues, for which neither our structures nor our thinking is equipped.
The challenge is to replace our old frame of reference with a new one, while preserving the essentials of human existence in the digital world. We must replace classical dogmas that keep us trapped in more and more growth, in more pollution, in more consumption, which will end disastrously, in favour of a society less focused on material consumer goods. A society that works together worldwide for a civilization that is internally balanced and at peace with its natural environment. Digitalization, in particular, offers the necessary and perhaps the best perspectives for this, but how do we achieve this?
The blocking economic system
One of the big problems is that our economic system is based on an egocentric way of thinking and acting. The market economy is based on what is sometimes called the STC concept (Etienne Vermeersch, Belgian philosopher 1934-2019). Science, Technology and Capitalism work together in this concept in order to constantly produce larger quantities of numerous goods at ever lower prices and thus - as it is assumed - serve the welfare of citizens and nations. The efficiency of production systems is constantly being increased. But too little is it realized that this STC concept functions like a hungry caterpillar. As a concept it does not take into account the finiteness of what the earth or nature can handle. As long as science, technology and economics remain conceptually entangled around the common assumption that more, cheaper, faster production must take place, the world will continue to race blindly to the bottom of the possibilities, resulting in a climate and environmental catastrophe of unprecedented magnitude. We see it all coming, but are looking at it like a hare in the headlights and stay frozen waiting for what is to come.
Inclusive "we-all" thinking is necessary
But not only that. This self-centred thinking has an even more venomous trait. For many, it means that "we", for example white people, consider ourselves superior to coloured people, with racism or ethnic profiling as a result. Or that "our" religion or customs - whichever - are better than those of the other. The "we-they" way of thinking is deeply ingrained in the cultures of almost all peoples - including Europe - where no consensus seems possible on many issues, as long as cultural contradictions are not overcome. Nevertheless, this blocking "we-they" thinking will have to be overcome in favour of "we-together" thinking, if the world wants to take steps forward.
An invisible digital tsunami
Without many policy makers and politicians realizing it, we have in the meantime arrived collectively in the middle of a digital tsunami. But the digital tsunami, unlike the climate problem, is not daily on television, such as floods or whirlwinds. The digital tsunami is not understood, because digitalization is not changing the appearance of the world. In this sense, digitalization is more like the corona virus that can strike the world unnoticed without you seeing anything. The physical world today does not look much different from the physical world of thirty or forty years ago. And perhaps little different from the world in a few decades time. However, the inner workings of society and organizations have already been disrupted or demolished by digitalization and will continue to change at an even greater pace in the coming years. It is therefore urgently required that more attention should be paid to the governance aspects of digitalization.
The hyperconnected world is the result of a digital network impregnating the classical world
An invisible, digital network emerges across the classical world, which goes its own way through all classical connections and is called the hyper-connected world. Everything, person or thing, is literally connected to everything else, distances play no role, location becomes irrelevant. This hyper-connected world is currently the plaything of a very limited number of very large companies, excessively rich people, but also cybercriminals and a few rogue governments. And this hyper-connected world - without a mandate from anyone - increasingly controls the "ordinary" world without us realizing it.
The tech giants think from a digital world view
Part of the hyper-connected world are the so-called tech giants, which provide uniform services worldwide and step by step replace or supplant numerous nationally-oriented production and service companies.
There is a lot of criticism of these companies, partly rightly so, but unmistakably these companies operate from an entirely different world perspective. Ever since they were founded, they have been thinking of the ideal of a digital universe in which borders do not exist, the world functions digitally and everyone can use the same services. No wonder that they clash in numerous ways with the classical laws and institutions of our nation-states society. It would therefore be good to enter into a dialogue with these tech giants about their ideas of a future digital world and not just talk about how we can get them back "into" the Pandora's box of classical regulations.
Ministers for Digital Affairs urgently needed
There are virtually no governments - an exception is Estonia, which even has a complete digital backup of all public services - with a detailed vision of the digital future or with a serious Digital Agenda that analyses the digital problems and outlines ways to shape the transformation process into the digital society. Only the EU has such a Digital Agenda, but little attention is paid to it on the national levels. Political parties often get stuck in classical left-right thinking, or more recently in nationalism versus globalism. However, one seldom hears about a vision on digital developments and related effects. Let alone adjusting laws and regulations to facilitate digitalization or to guide it, as is shown by numerous reports, such as in the OECD study of 2018. No government has a separate Minister for Digital Affairs who coordinates the many digital problems. While a vision on digital issues supported by a practical Digital Agenda including a competent Minister is urgently needed in every country.
New initiatives and improvements
Borderless thinking young entrepreneurs give hope
The unfolding digital society requires willingness to experiment with other forms of living together, thinking, developing, being creative and governing. Much hope can be drawn from the countless initiatives of the new generation of entrepreneurs, IT professionals, creative people and digital nomads. They pick up new technologies with a lot of momentum, apply new management concepts and start up new generations of companies unhindered and fresh. Many of these companies are growing rapidly in the globalized world market. There are countless examples of "the winner takes all", where a niche player grows into market dominance at lightning speed. And of so called “unicorn” start-up companies arriving at a turnover of € one billion in a few years. This requires courage, inspiration, ambition and strength. Many of the young generation ignore cultural or national contradictions, or borders, and mix effortlessly with other people and cultures in work and social life. Provided that they work together as a team, we can draw hope from this for the fluid, digital society.
There are great perspectives for everyone
But digitalization does not only offer great opportunities for entrepreneurs. There are also great prospects for the individual. First and foremost, of course, everyone in the world who has a smartphone and the internet can make giant leaps in terms of knowledge, contacts, business, entertainment. It is therefore not for nothing that especially in developing countries really everyone who can afford it has a smartphone. But it is no different in rich countries. Poor and rich, all have become addicted to this handy, new gadget and no one can live without it anymore. Nobody would like to lose the possibilities offered by the smartphone - and the technology behind it - and as time goes on, the importance of a smartphone and digitalization only increases.
An unprecedented global technology and social breakthrough
We can therefore speak of an unprecedented global technology breakthrough, which is far from being at the end of its development and which enriches everyone's life or makes it more enjoyable. It is also a social breakthrough, because these digital tools touch the social lives of everyone in the world and often change it fundamentally. Finally - thanks to digitalization - there is an opportunity to give practical and real meaning to the important principle of equality of every human being. That is the promise of global digitalization and the task for politicians to fulfil.
It is, of course, also the task of governments to bring under control the negative or problematic aspects - taxation, data security, fake news, cybercrime - that unfortunately surround these technologies, in such a way that the individual human being, anywhere in the world, can make safe use of, or enjoy, what these new technologies offer in terms of prospects.
Emergency breaks the law and causes breakthroughs
Unfortunately, too many new, good digital possibilities always get stuck in old rules or vested interests. Taking online education or online oral exams was unnecessarily forbidden. Online shareholder meetings were not allowed by law. Online doctors’ consultations or diagnoses have already been technically possible for a long time, but are hardly done. Governments continue to send citizens papers instead of digital documents. This is harmful from an environmental point of view and practically inconvenient. But all of a sudden, because under pressure everything liquefies, the corona pandemic gave a new impetus to the world. What could not be done before suddenly became the new standard and the only way to work and communicate. What a blessing it was for those countries that had already been extensively digitalized and were therefore able to make use of the internet, social media and other tools. Otherwise, the pandemic would have struck even more seriously, which is exactly the reason why the pandemic was economically more severe in many under developed countries. Why do we need something like a corona pandemic to enable useful innovations? The resistance to change seems to be deep.
An abundance of new perspectives
Seen from the perspective of new technologies, there is an abundance of perspectives for realizing a more sustainable society, for better dissemination of knowledge to all, for creating opportunities for large groups of people now living in countries with no prospect of improvement. Statistics show that global hunger and poverty have been further reduced than ever, partly thanks to new technology, even though it is not enough. It is "only" necessary that there is a little more togetherness in the world, a little more understanding for each other and a little more willingness to tackle the big problems together. That is really all, but that positive basic attitude seems further away than ever in the current political situation. In fact, the key question is whether humanity will manage to break away from Darwin's "survival of the fittest" rule in nature, popularly translated into the right of the strongest. Whether humanity succeeds in cooperating to solve the big issues instead of continuing competing with each other. If that succeeds, mankind will really take a giant step forward. If it does not succeed, a doomsday scenario threatens in the coming years, given the state of the present world problems.
A perspective for Europe
Strange as it may sound to some people, Europe has, in terms of positioning, governance principles as well as cooperation between countries, a promising starting position in the digitalizing world. Europe could become a driving force behind a number of desirable - perhaps even necessary - governance steps between nation-states. After all, a future peaceful and sustainable world is only conceivable if there is much more and better multilateral cooperation. In recent decades, Europe has already been a testing ground for multilateral cooperation between European countries. This did not go easy, but it cannot be denied that much has been achieved. Let us imagine that Europe vigorously continues along that path. Particularly in the digital field, Europe has succeeded in creating the necessary European - perhaps globally usable - new forms of regulation and governance. Now a cautious new European momentum that can be felt here and there, this path needs to be explored further. That is why this book takes Europe as the starting point for innovation in the field of digital governance in public society.
For whom is this book intended?
This book is intended for anyone who wants to collaborate and think about changes in society, especially arising from or related to digitalization. For who is open to new developments coming our way and is open-mindedly willing to question everything, this book about the effects and perspectives of digitalization will hopefully be a handle. In these confusing times, the aim is to stimulate discussion with the key objective of developing new forms of governance, leadership and thinking that fit in with the 21st century in which information technology plays such a prominent role.