Foto: Gregor Fischer


The Role of Leadership in the Digital Era

In Berlin, spring comes with re:publica. FLI spokesperson Laura Bechthold attended Europe’s most important conference on digital culture. Inspired by different sessions, here are some thoughts on the role of leadership in the digital era.

re:publica futureofleadership

Every spring, it is re:publica time in 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’s motto was “POP”, inspired by the emerging pop culture in the 1950. And akin to pop culture as a reaction to the age of excess and lack of identity, we saw a similar zeitgeist breezing through the convention halls. Over 900 talks, workshops, meet-ups and discussions oscillated between enthusiastic excitement for new opportunities brought about by digital technology (AI, VR/AR/MR, blockchain, and you name it), and great concern about the (unpredictable) downsides of exact these developments. Talks, such as Eyal Weizman’s presentation on how big data can be used to detect human rights abuses went side-by-side with dark stories like journalist Richard Gutjahr’s keynote on how he and his family became victims of conspiracy theory and hate speech.

In that sense, the re:publica line-up was a micro-representation of what society is going through at large: A transition to its next state of existence, testing out limits in all directions, searching for identity and trying to navigate through an increasingly complex, intangible and foggy sea of opportunities. And whenever we talk about systems in flux, the question of cybernetics isn’t far – the question of who is in charge? Which (biological, mechanic or virtual) entity will take over the steering wheel and determine the direction? Will we let ourselves fall into a state of data-driven determinism (as the dark warning by media activist Mushon Zer-Aviv suggested), or will we manage to “cancel the apocalypse” and reclaim our future?

This is exactly where leadership comes in. Leaders, be it in the virtual or atomic world, in the public or private sector, on a global level or in small teams, have now not only the opportunity, but clearly the responsibility to define the framework for the path forward. If anything, re:publica 2018 made one thing clear: The times of blatant ignorance are over. It is the basic 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 leadership do to proactively respond to the upcoming challenges in the digital era?

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

1. Treat automation anxiety

In 1952, historian Eric Hobsbawn published his essay “The Machine Breakers” to describe 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. Worried that automated looms could replace their work, they saw their jobs, income and families’ well-being at stake. A good 200 years later, stoking automation anxiety looms large again. Estimates of workers being replaced by machines reach up to 800 million by 2030, and mass media does not get tired of painting dystopian pictures how legions of robots come after everybody’s jobs.

What are the implications of automation anxiety for modern leadership?

First, it starts with sincere awareness: As New York-based author of the book “Four Futures”, Peter Frase, discussed in his talk, automation anxiety is not a new phenomenon, but a recurring pattern whenever mankind goes through a technological shock. And 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 mere whitewashing never helps to overcome anxieties. At the same time, curing automation anxiety, in the sense of proving it to be unsubstantiated, seems highly unlikely regarding the high levels of uncertainty automation brings about. Hence, we need to go for treatment and coping.

Leadership in the digital era means to take automation anxiety seriously, help people to put it into a realistic perspective, develop strategies to deal with it, and allow them to still look confidently into the future.

2. Deal with biases and fight the epistemological war

Identifying and overcoming both cognitive and virtual biases were another big topic at re:publica 2018. Biases influence us in almost every situation. In Wikipedia’s “complete list of cognitive biases“, you find 180+ biases that influence human decision-making. And again, the rise of artificial intelligence brings about new opportunities but also threats in that realm:

First, we need to acknowledge that our internet is already deeply biased. A striking example therefore was provided  by Martha Lane Fox, founder of Doteveryone – a think tank on responsible technology. By bringing up the famous example of Google’s image search showing mainly pictures of white, Western babies when searching for the generic term “cute baby” (Don’t believe it? Try it out yourself!), she exemplified how our machine learning systems are already set up to discriminate. But, luckily, there is hope!

AI can also help us overcome our cognitive biases. While human thinking and behavior is inherently guided by cognitive biases, artificial intelligence bears 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 by providing the example of furnishing a new office space: Imagine, you would have the task to organize a new office space for your company in the best possible way. Normally, your design would be guided by many cognitive biases (e.g. “It has always been like that.”, “The boss needs the corner office.”). But instead of designing it yourself, you start by observing and asking every employee about their daily routines and preferences. You then feed all this information to an algorithm  , which automatically calculates a myriad of possibilities – considering your parameters , but free from any ex-ante biases regarding the optimal solution. The proposed solutions might look completely different to what you had expected and you might still need to do some adaptations – but in this case, chances are high that AI will help you to reach more comfort and convenience for everyone.

Don’t shy away from the epistemological war. While the two examples about biases illustrate current dynamics of an increasing online-offline-convergence, the story goes even further. Danah Boyd, principal reseacher 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 about “fake news” is not only about differentiating between facts and fiction, recent political events have 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 were “alternative facts” become increasingly accepted?

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

We need to set clear ethical and moral boundaries for algorithms to operate within, and develop a framework how we create and spread knowledge in the digital world. We need to ensure to not just copy-pasting the discriminative structures of our offline world into the virtual space, but rather seizing the opportunity of starting from scratch and overcoming historic pitfalls of humankind.

Danah Boyd re:publika futureofleadership
Opening Speaker Danah Boyd. Picture: Foto: Gregor Fischer/re:publica

3. Close the digital divide

Did you know: Only 15% of the global population have highspeed internet. In low-income countries, 94% of women the female population is still offline, and 41% do not even have a mobile phone! Given this challenge, re:publica joined forces with the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and GIZ, and curated an entire “Tech for Good” track including over 40 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 encourages women to amalgamate their powers to fight for gender equality. Equally encouraging were the thoughts of Robert Franken, who founded the first male feminist network, and 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. 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 contexts – where ongoing political conflicts, frequent power outrages, or illiteracy are still prevalent.

Leadership in the digital era means to develop policies and programs to ensure that digitalization does not only remain a luxury good, but that everyone can have access to and ultimately benefit from this disruption.

The digital divide concerns everyone! Talking about virtual knowledge production and fancy algorithms is all relevant – but reflects also a deeply Western, industrialized perspective. We may not forget that managing and overcoming the digital divide is one of the decisive factors whether digitalization will bring our global society closer together or not.

4. Define your agenda for digital responsibility

The previous three thoughts all pointed out some of the major challenges digitalization brings about. All of them are occurring in parallel and are overwhelmingly complex. With now 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 which the extent of dystopian versus utopian outcome will come true, we yet can prepare ourselves.

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, 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 how a retail company should act as a responsible and trusted entity in the digital era. The goal was to derive the most focal points, the company needs 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. 

Just give it a shot and try to answer some basic questions:

  • 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?

What are you answers to these questions?

How would you define the role of leadership in the digital era?

And what other issues concern you when thinking about leadership in the digital era?

We are looking forward to your feedback!

re:publica futureofleadership

Foto: Gregor Fischer/re:publica

About the author: Laura Bechthold

Laura Bechthold is the FLI’s Executive Director. Before that she has worked as a entrepreneurship researcher and social entrepreneur. She holds a B.A. in Corporate Management & Economics from Zeppelin University, a M.Sc. in Sustainability Science and Policy from Maastricht University, and a Master of Business Research from Ludwig-Maxmilians-University in Munich. Further, she is currently in the final stage of her PhD in the field of “Fostering Female Entrepreneurship” ​ at the Max-Planck-Institute for Innovation and Competition. She has worked as program coordinator and educator at the Center For Digital Technology and Management (CDTM).

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