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The role of leadership in the digital era

In Berlin, spring brings with it Europe’s most important conference on digital culture - re:publica. Inspired by a visit to the famed conference, FLI Spokesperson Laura Bechthold reveals her thoughts on the role of leadership in the digital era.

Every spring, re:publica comes to Berlin. For three days thousands of tech enthusiasts, innovators, journalists and policy makers gather to jointly discuss the state and future of digital culture. This year the conference’s motto “POP,” was inspired by the emergent pop culture of the 1950’s. In that decade we saw pop culture grow as a reaction to the age of excess and a lack of identity, this year we saw a similar zeitgeist breeze through the convention halls.

Over 900 talks, workshops, meet-ups and discussions oscillated between enthusiastic excitement for the new opportunities brought about by digital technology (AI, VR, AR, MR, blockchain, you name it), and great concern about the unpredictable downsides of these same developments. Talks, from the likes of Eyal Weizman, on the use of big data to detect human rights abuses sat side-by-side with dark stories, like Richard Gutjahr’s keynote on how he and his family became victims of conspiracy theories and hate speech.

In a sense, the re:publica programme was a micro-representation of what society is going through on a grander scale: A transition to the next state of existence, a test of the limits in every direction, a search for identity as we try to navigate through an increasingly complex, intangible and foggy sea of opportunities. Whenever we discuss a system in flux the question of cybernetics, the question of who is in charge, is never far behind. Which biological, mechanical or virtual entity will take the steering wheel and determine the direction?

Will we let ourselves, as the dark warnings from media activist Mushon Zer-Aviv suggest, fall into a state of data-driven determinism? Or will we manage to “cancel the apocalypse” and reclaim our future? This is where leadership comes into play. Leaders, be they in the virtual or atomic world, in the public or private sector, on a global or small scale, have now not only the opportunity, but the clear responsibility to define the framework of the path forward.

If anything, re:publica 2018 made one thing clear: The time of blatant ignorance is over. As can be seen in the base logic of philosopher Jean Paul Sartre: “Once we know and are aware, we are responsible for our action and our inaction, we can do something about it or ignore it. Either way, we are still responsible.” 

So, what can leaders do to proactively respond to the upcoming challenges of the digital era?

Here are four thoughts inspired by sessions at re:publica and beyond:

1. Treat automation anxiety

In 1952, historian Eric Hobsbawn published his essay The Machine Breakers and described the phenomenon of Luddism in 19th-century Britain: In 1812, machine workers destroyed weaving machines as a form of protest against the introduction of new technologies. The workers were worried that automated looms were going to replace them. They saw their jobs, income and families’ well-being threatened.

A good 200 years later, automation anxiety again looms large. Estimates predict that up to 800 million workers could be replaced by machines by 2030 and the mass media tires not of painting a dystopian picture of how legions of robots are coming for everyone’s jobs.

What are the implications of automation anxiety for modern leadership?

First, it starts with sincere awareness:
As the New York-based author of Four Futures, Peter Frase, discussed in his talk, automation anxiety is not a new phenomenon, but a recurring pattern that appears whenever mankind experiences technological shock. While the future and the extent of dystopian versus utopian outcomes is yet unknown and fictional, the anxiety behind it is real. 

The second step, logically, is treatment:
It is a basic truth of psychology that whitewashing never helps to assuage anxieties. At the same time, curing automation anxiety, in the sense of proving it to be unsubstantiated, seems highly unlikely considering the high levels of uncertainty automation brings about. Hence, we need to focus on coping and treatment.  Leadership in the digital era means to take automation anxiety seriously, to help people to put it into a realistic perspective, to develop strategies to deal with it and to allow employees to continue to look confidently into the future.

2. Deal with biases and fight the epistemological war

Identifying and overcoming both cognitive and virtual biases was another big topic at re:publica 2018. Biases influence us in almost every situation. In Wikipedia’s complete list of cognitive biases, one will find more than 180 biases that influence human decision-making. In this sphere too, the rise of artificial intelligence brings about new opportunities and new threats:

First, we need to acknowledge that the internet is already deeply biased:
A striking example thereof was provided by Martha Lane Fox, founder of Doteveryone, the responsible technology think tank. Martha brought up the famous example of how Google’s image search primarily shows pictures of white, western babies when users search for the generic term ‘cute baby’ (Try it out yourself!) This example exemplified how our machine learning systems are already set up to discriminate. Fortunately, however, there is still hope!

AI can also help us overcome our cognitive biases:
While human thinking and behaviour is inherently guided by cognitive biases, artificial intelligence provides the opportunity to create a world without any. BCG senior advisor and Autodesk visiting fellow Mickey McManus, for instance, explained the potential of new forms of unsupervised machine or deep learning.

Mikey’s example focussed on the idea of furnishing a new office space. Imagine, if you will, that you have been set the task or organising a new office space for your company in the best possible way. Normally, your design would be guided by many cognitive biases – ‘It has always been like that,’ ‘the boss needs a corner office’ et cetera. However, what if rather than designing the office space yourself, you start by asking every employee about their daily routines and preferences.

You then feed this data into an algorithm, which automatically calculates a myriad of possibilities that consider your parameters but are free from any ex-ante biases regarding the optimal solution. The AI proposed solutions might look completely different to what you had imagined, and you might still need to perform some adaptations. But the chances are high that AI will help you to reach a more comfortable and convenient solution for everyone.

Don’t shy away from the epistemological war:
While the two examples about biases illustrate the current dynamics of an increasing online-offline-convergence, the story goes even further. Danah Boyd, principal researcher at Microsoft Research and re:publica’s opening keynote speaker, even went as far as claiming that we are in the middle of an epistemological war.

The question of ‘fake news’ is not only about differentiating between facts and fiction, but recent political events have also shown that digital technologies have the power to create new modes of knowledge production in the broadest sense. The question here is, how can we ensure the legitimacy and trustworthiness of sources and how do we define the term ‘fact’ in a world where ‘alternative facts’ have become increasingly accepted? 

Leadership in the digital era means to take a proactive role in the discussion of new modes of knowledge production. 

We need to set clear ethical and moral boundaries for algorithms to operate within and we must develop a framework for how we create and spread knowledge in the digital world. We need to ensure that we do not simply copy-and-paste the discriminative structures of our offline world into the virtual space, but rather seize the opportunity to start from scratch and overcome the historic pitfalls of humankind.

3. Close the digital divide

Did you know: Only 15% of the global population have highspeed internet. In low-income countries, 94% of the female population are still offline and 41% don’t even have a mobile phone. Given this challenge, re:publica joined forces with the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and GIZ. Together they curated an entire ‘Tech for Good’ programme which featured more than 40 separate sessions.

Again, it became clear how digital technology can be a driver for change.

For instance, Japleen Pasricha, founder of the platform ‘Feminism in India’ showed how the digital revolution offers new channels to promote equal rights and encourage women to amalgamate their powers to fight for gender equality. Equally encouraging were the thoughts shared by Robert Franken, who founded the first male feminist network. Robert explained how he uses his ‘white, male privilege’ to support women.

On the other hand, the Tech for Good Track made clear that there is still a long way to go.

Several presentations from entrepreneurs from South Sudan, Lebanon and Pakistan, for instance, showed how difficult it can be to set up digital skill building programs in fragile environs – where ongoing political conflicts, frequent power outages or illiteracy are still prevalent.  Leadership in the digital era means to develop policies and programmes that ensure that digitalisation does not remain a luxury service. Rather, everyone should have access too, and ultimately benefit from, this disruption.

The digital divide concerns everyone! Talking about virtual knowledge production and fancy algorithms is all relevant – but also reflects a deeply western, industrialised perspective. We must not forget that managing and overcoming the digital divide is one of the decisive factors as to whether digitalisation will bring our global society closer together or further drive us apart.

4. Define your agenda for digital responsibility

The previous three thoughts all pointed to some of the major challenges digitalisation brings about. All of them occur in parallel and are overwhelmingly complex. Without a doubt, the transition into the digital era is a wicked problem. But while we don’t know for certain what future technologies will bring and to how the of dystopian versus utopian outcome will resolve itself, we can still prepare. 

We need to learn to adapt quickly to changes, develop a great deal of resilience and proactively engage in shaping the future. In other words: We need a strategy.

One example of how such a strategy can be developed was provided by Stephan Engel, head of Culture & Collaboration at Otto Group. In a co-creative session, he and his team asked a diverse set of participants to share their ideas on how a retail company should act as a responsible and trusted entity in the digital era. The goal was to uncover the most important focal points the company will need to tackle in the near future. This approach is similar to the idea of ‘materiality’ in the realm of corporate sustainability. 

Leadership in the digital era neither means blind activism, nor adopting a fatalistic, ‘sitting-it-out’ approach. Leadership means assuming responsibility and translating it into a manageable, motivating and adaptive strategy.

Here were some of the most basic questions asked, try answering them yourself:

  • What are focal current and future technological issues in your industry or organization? 
  • Where could your digital practices have a negative impact on your stakeholders? How can you avoid or mitigate them? 
  • What are your largest factors of uncertainty? What can you do to reduce uncertainty? 
  • Where could you and your organization play a pioneering role in using technology to bring our (global) society forward?

How did you answer these questions? How would you define the role of leadership in the digital era? What other issues concern you when thinking about leadership in the digital era?

We want to hear your thoughts!


Veröffentlicht in Corporate Leadership am 28.09.2023

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