Digital is here – not to make a few rich, but to benefit us all

Jacqueline de Rojas, Chair of Digital Leaders

Written by Jacqueline de Rojas, Chair of Digital Leaders

It matters more than ever today that we get Digital right. From the building blocks of our economy, to the foundations of our democracy, we are seeing the impact of the choices we make around technology. To shape the future, you have to embrace it.

If there is a magic recipe for digital innovation, then the UK surely has all the ingredients. We have created and attracted some of the world’s best and most diverse digital talent. We have world-leading businesses, universities and powerful ecosystems that enable expertise to spill over from one part of the economy to another.

But to really thrive, two things are important: we must stay focused on making digital work for people and our economy; and we must accept the enormous responsibility that comes with developing powerful technology.

If you read the headlines, you would be forgiven for believing that we are all about to be replaced by robots. But I hear far more about augmentation than automation. For example, doctors with more time and better tools to deliver better outcomes for patients, and companies that apply robotics to drive productivity, competitiveness and actually grow their workforce as a result.

We should be worrying far more about the destructive impact on jobs of old technology than we do of new technology. If we are to seize our opportunity in this fourth industrial revolution, we must prepare and support people through change. We need to be radical when it comes to a lifelong learning and retraining strategy and, in this regard, inclusion matters.

Inclusion matters for so many reasons, but perhaps mostly because the future state of what we are creating is potentially ungovernable. Relying on a small homogenous tribe of innovators to invent the future is the surest way to fail.

We cannot, for example, allow our world to be organised by algorithms whose creators are dominated by one gender, ethnicity, age or culture. We need diversity of thought, experience, geography and gender if we are to succeed. For example, for every pound of government investment in artificial intelligence (AI), couldn’t we insist on diverse design and development teams to create outcomes that work for everyone?

In staying focused on making tech work for people and for our economy, we cannot afford to be complacent about international competition. Looking outwards, not inwards, matters.

My final point is about responsibility. For those of us who were around 20 years ago, we knew that the internet was an enormous force for change. We knew it would be disruptive and we all championed that disruption.

But how many of us expected the world to change so far and so fast? How many of us conceived of the ways in which technologies could be used and misused? From online abuse to attempts to disrupt our democracy, technological change has shown the world at its best and its very worst. And that was just the internet. What comes next is far more powerful and far more impactful.

But here, I am resolutely optimistic. There is a deep debate happening within the sector about ethics and the responsibility we have as digital innovators. We have seen some businesses taking significant commercial decisions based on ethical values.

It is our collective responsibility to use our technology for good, to head off the potential for misuse and to respond quickly if unintended consequences ensue. But that means having an informed and thoughtful discussion about the kind of society we want and finding the right tools and means to ensure that we deliver on that vision. This is something that requires collaboration rather than confrontation.

Our mission as Digital Leaders, must be to create the conditions where productivity can grow, society can thrive and every individual, from every walk of life, has the opportunity to flourish. It matters because this is a time of profound change and pace. Ultimately, our duty is to ensure that digital changes people’s lives for the better and leaving our world in a better place than we found it.

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