Reading Time: 5 minutesWe interview Carina Lopes. head of the Digital Future Society think-tank.
With solid international experience working for the European and North American markets in digital transformation, urban & social innovation, government innovation, and culture and sustainability policy, she’s the Head of the Digital Future Society think-tank.
Both 2020 and 2021 have been challenging years, also for the digital transformation. How would you describe the state, our situation, regarding digital equality and rights, now at the end of 2021?
Okay, let me start by talking about digital transformation; it's been an opportunity, and the COVID-19 has presented a speedup of the process of digital transformation. I'll just give a little bit of data that I think is relevant. For example, McKinsey tells us that the leap we've seen is about three to four years for most companies, especially around customer service, supply chain, and internal operations.
But when we look at the design of digital services by these organisations, it has been about seven years of a leap, and that is relevant also in their strategies because digitalisation was a means to save money, to become more efficient and save costs before the COVID-19 for them. Now, they see it as a strategic positioning to stand out in the crowd. So that's relevant because it's not just about beliefs; it also shows the mindset that it's a significant change in the attitude of organisations when it comes to digital transformation. That's one side of digital transformation. And then we have digital rights and “leaving no one behind”. And I highlight this expression because it's one that the European Commission uses a lot in their policies.
The objective is to leave no one behind. What does that mean not to leave no one behind? And how is that going to happen? In terms of 2021, we can highlight the pandemic recovery funds. We're looking at a window opportunity regarding the digital and green transformations. The pandemic has accelerated those plans, and recovery funds will be tied to that. Those two processes and digitalisation and digital skills of the population will be critical to assure that this transition happens.
And another point that I think is relevant for digital rights is the Spanish digital rights charter that was publicly published and announced last July. That also tells a lot about what's happening in Spain and the importance of digital transformation for this government.
Do you feel that digital literacy has grown in these pandemic times in our Spanish and European societies?
My first attempt would be to say yes, but let's go back to data. I was reading the latest European Digital Skills Index from 2021 and 2020. They show us that from 2015 to 2021, there's been an increase in sensation regarding how many people in the European Union have used digital tools regularly. It's almost 90%. But the issue is when you look at basic digital skills; only around 56% of the population in Europe has basic digital skills.
We're talking about fundamental skills. What’s concerning is that there’s only been an improvement of 2%. So the tendency is to say, yes, digital integration has improved; digital skills must have improved because we have more people using Zoom, online banking and remote work. But, when it comes to basic digital skills, what data tells us is that the people that have taken most advantage of this digitalisation probably are the ones that we're already taking advantage of before the pandemic times.
I think that's the data that generates the most concern to me is about how slight improvement we've done when it comes to basic digital skills.
In your opinion, what significant milestones have we reached during 2021 on digital humanism, the critical topic?
The first one I want to highlight is the announcement in November by UNESCO: the first agreement between the member states on a standard-setting instrument for the regulation of artificial intelligence at a global level. We see a massive effort by the European Commission on this regulatory framework.
All the regulatory activity in Europe today is also essential. We’ll announce the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Service Act, for example. And I'll mention the digital Rights Spanish charter again. It's relevant.
The objective is to have a European digital rights act; I think that's important. We've been working a lot on what is digital humanism to try to understand what's the conversation that is taking place, what's the position of Europe in comparison with the US perspective or Chinese perspective.
What’s the biggest challenge you foresee that we will have to face in 2022?
I think the challenges will come from the social side of things, and I believe there is quite a storm forming above us if you bring together all the impact the COVID-19 has had on the economy and specific collectives, the polarisation of society and the growth of digital exclusion. We see governments making efforts to understand how they can regulate and pass on a lot of responsibility to platforms to handle the spread of misinformation online. On the other side, we have the rise of prices because of energy fares, which is having a knockdown effect and that's having an impact on the income of most families throughout Europe.
And I'm mentioning this because we cannot forget that the green and digital transitions include increased costs in certain services. That is not going to be easy for many regions in Europe. So we'll have to monitor the mitigation policies and activities by the European Commission and governments to help mitigate their impact because that will affect how digitalisation is perceived and how people prepare for it.
How can we design a 2022 future that not only includes everybody but that doesn’t rely on specific tools that can discriminate against people?
Well, that's a tricky question. The first challenge we have to understand is that society has no space or social context that doesn't have a bias or discrimination. We have an inherent tendency as human beings. What we should not allow when it comes to, for example, digital services is environments that amplify, crystallise or replicate bias that we already have identified as problematic; that's important mainly when we use big data because this is replicating institutional bias into the systems.
The second one, I'll say, is that we have to start thinking about intersectionality and what it means and the impact it has when we start thinking about the different layers of exclusion that lead to discrimination. It’s a concept that will help us understand the complexity of this context.
The third one is that we have to admit that conversations about race, gender are not comfortable most of the time and generate tension among citizens, society and political parties. So we have to be prepared to have some very uncomfortable conversations. Not having them will mean that we'll still have a digital design system that discriminates with a systematic bias for specific collectives.
The last one I would like to highlight is that we need to start opening up spaces to design services. Unless we start embracing diversity and having teams representing the society we live in developing, we're not going to achieve the desired outcome. Digitalisation is never the solution to an already problematic context. Thinking that you can pass from an analogue to a digital context in a complex environment will not work. In most cases, we will amplify and crystallise the issues you already have in place.