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In flux

Digital technologies have an impact on the lives of every single person. What opportunities, but also challenges, are associated with this will be examined at bidt.

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Digitalisation is no longer a primarily technical phenomenon. Technology has permeated all areas of life, is upsetting established processes and will continue to open up completely new possibilities for the foreseeable future.

Prof. Alexander Pretschner, Director of the bidt

In view of the challenges posed by digitalisation, academics speak of the “force of technological developments” and the “pull they can unleash”, according to computer science professor Alexander Pretschner, who also wrote the opening quote, or of a “gigantic new world” brought about by the internet, as sociologist Andreas Boes puts it.

Digitisation is experienced as an upheaval

Both are members of the bidt board of directors, which wants to help understand the digital transformation – the prerequisite for shaping it. Citizens also see that this is necessary: in an explorative study for bidt, people from different professions and educational backgrounds were asked about their assessment of digitalisation. It is experienced “as an upheaval”, just as “industrialisation was back then”, said one of the respondents.

One of the main drivers of the digital transformation is the internet. “It is not technology as we knew it before. The internet is a participatory infrastructure. It is actively used by millions of people. It represents a new level of social action. In terms of human history, this is completely new. Until now, the world has taken place for us where we are physically bound as humans,” says Andreas Boes.

The bidt study showed in an exemplary way how the respondents strive to integrate the possibilities of digitalisation into their lives, and also what contradictory experiences are made with it. For example, some see great advantages in their private everyday life, for example through the possibilities of shopping online and being close to friends who live in other parts of the world. At work, on the other hand, they experience digitalisation as a threat that endangers their jobs or increases their workload through constant accessibility via various media.

Experiencing upheaval

In a qualitative study, the ISF-Munich interviewed 35 people as part of a bidt project about what digitalisation means to them in their private and working lives. The results show that the digital transformation is perceived as a social upheaval. Whether this is seen positively or rather associated with fears depends on the individual options for action. The project team therefore recommends that people be more involved in shaping the digital transformation and that their competences and ability to act be strengthened.

The results were published in the bidt’s Analyses and Studies and Impulse series.

Digitalisation boost from Corona

The Corona pandemic highlighted the opportunities – and also the risks – of digitalisation as if under a burning glass. From one day to the next, a large part of gainful employment in Germany suddenly took place in the home office. “Companies had to try out models in the Corona crisis that they would never have used under normal circumstances because there was a lot of scepticism,” says innovation expert and bidt director Dietmar Harhoff.

In two surveys, bidt had collected data on how much working from home has increased in recent months. They also show that employees are coping well with it. 85 per cent of those surveyed are satisfied with their home office situation; very few have technical difficulties.

At the start of the bidt Werkstatt digital event series (under the title “Home office – the new normal?”), experts from science and business came together to discuss the implications of this development. They agreed that the future of work will be characterised by an alternation between remote work and presence in the office.

Home office is now also understood by management as a productivity and cost factor.

Prof. Dietmar Harhoff, former Director of the bidt

In bidt’s June survey, many home office workers expressed fears that their employers would again restrict home office options after the Corona crisis. The bidt researchers have other expectations, if only for purely economic reasons. Dietmar Harhoff, for example, points out that home office is now no longer viewed positively only by employees: “Home office is now also understood by management as a productivity and cost factor. All of a sudden, managers have to justify themselves if the majority of their team members sit in the office, because they also look at the associated costs.”

In addition to the home office, video conferencing and video calling are also being used more. Video calls are now often used as a substitute for business trips, so the frequency of business trips is likely to decrease. And the real estate industry is also affected: instead of paying expensive rents for office space in city centres, companies are more likely to expand workplaces in co-working spaces in the surrounding areas.

Digitisation through Corona?

Months after the start of the Corona crisis, home office penetration is still significantly higher than before. In March and June 2020, bidt conducted representative short surveys among adult internet users in Germany on the use and acceptance of home office.

The results are published in bidt’s Analyses and Studies series.

Avoiding the digital divide

For many people, the Corona crisis has led to them acquiring new skills. Some fears of contact with technological applications have thus disappeared. Whether participating in videoconferences or holding webinars, sharing photos or moments with family over long distances – many things were learned in no time at all and many experienced how accessible digital technology can be.

If you push ahead with digitalisation without a view to the social divide, in ten years you will have an irreversible split between people who can move in the digital world and those who cannot.

Prof. Andreas Boes, Director of the bidt

At the same time, the new circumstances also made it clear that not everyone benefits equally from the possibilities of digital technologies. While some professionals naturally moved to home offices and some students used digital technologies for learning, many others did not. For example, more than 60 per cent of all employed people in Germany do not work from home, despite Corona. A large proportion of them stated in the bidt study that this was not possible in their job. The Corona crisis also revealed digitisation gaps in the education sector.

Teaching skills via AI

It is developments like these that trigger fears about the digital future in Germany as well. Often, dystopian scenarios are created that have little to do with reality. This also applies to the topic of artificial intelligence, or AI for short. The technology is so versatile that it is permeating more and more areas of society – from medicine to insurance to customer advice. However, there is usually a lack of sufficient knowledge to realistically assess the technological developments. Thus, a bidt study showed that AI is a mystery to many, which leaves room for misunderstanding and also leads to unfounded fears.

The bidt addressed the lack of knowledge about AI in the event “Teaching AI – Experiences from the field”. The experts emphasised how important it is to strengthen the competences about AI in the population. Among other things, they suggested low-threshold educational offers that take away people’s fears and convey enthusiasm for different research and application areas. The goal is to enable people to deal with AI applications in a mature manner.

Strengthening the ability to act

In connection with digital technologies, the term disruptive is often used to describe the associated effects. “It is often unclear what is meant by this”; says business information scientist and bidt director Thomas Hess. “The broader definition is that it is a very radical innovation that displaces existing things. However, the word is often used in relation to individual products. Disruptive then means that a new product is not only better in terms of known features, but also has features that customers are not even interested in today,” explains Thomas Hess, referring to the breakthrough of the smartphone, which has many features that have little to do with the classic mobile phone that preceded it.

The impact of digital technologies is so broad that business and society must be addressed together.

Prof. Thomas Hess, Director of the bidt

“The impact of digital technologies is so broad that you have to address business and society together,” says Thomas Hess. From society’s point of view, especially in Germany, the risks are often seen, while the opportunities are not always recognised. This is also true in the economy.

For Alexander Pretschner, this is one of the main current challenges of digitalisation. In an interview, he pleaded for German industry to fully grasp and utilise the opportunities of digitalisation: “Otherwise, there is a risk that it will be overtaken. On the other hand, traditional machine builders need to consider how to develop their capabilities through digitalisation – both in terms of organising their own processes and developing new products and services.”

With regard to society, the study Umbruch erleben (Experiencing Upheaval ) made it clear how decisive competencies and the assessment of one’s own possibilities for action are for how people perceive digitalisation. The team of authors of the study therefore recommends that people be more involved in shaping the digital transformation and that offers for information and competence development be expanded: “Without people’s trust, but also without their commitment, the path to a digital society will not succeed