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“So that digital transformation does not become an elite project”

Digital expert Valerie Mocker encourages people to get involved in shaping the digital future.

© Martin Kraft

Valerie Mocker was a speaker at the For..Net Symposium, which took place in April 2021 in cooperation with bidt and the Research Center for IT Law and Network Policy at the University of Passau.

She works as an investor for the common good and trains leaders with the Wingwomen Academy. She was European Director at Nesta, a social innovation fund in the UK. In the interview, she talks about the prerequisites for a digital transformation oriented towards the common good and promoting continuous education.

You are an advocate for public good-oriented digitalisation. What exactly does that mean?

The core idea of public good-oriented digitisation is that it is made for many and by many. A prime example of this is Wikipedia, one of the five most-used websites in the world. Behind it is the mission to make the world’s knowledge available to all. So, on the one hand, Wikipedia is used by many people, but at the same time, it is a product made by tens of thousands of volunteers to which everyone can contribute.

In your talk at the For..Net Symposium, you called everyone to “get more involved themselves so that digitalisation is something everyone can shape”. Why is that important?

Digital products have a huge impact on all of our lives, on our everyday lives and also on our opportunities. For example, they will soon play a bigger role in the care of older people because care will become more digitalised. Another example is the use of artificial intelligence, which brings with it the challenge that prejudices may be reproduced depending on the data with which algorithms are trained. If, for example, artificial intelligence is used in job centres to place unemployed people in jobs, this can mean that women are mainly offered part-time jobs simply because many women have worked part-time up to now. This shows the importance of who writes, finances and sets the rules for such programmes. When people talk about the future and digitalisation, these questions always resonate: Who decides what digitalisation should be used for? Who benefits from it, and who does not?

To ensure that digital transformation does not become an elite project, where a small group decides the rules of the future behind closed doors, many must participate to shape digitalisation and take the future into their own hands.

Valerie Mocker, Digital expert

You say that “many people have to participate”. What do you mean by that?

It is not enough to be satisfied with others developing digital products. We all need to educate ourselves and understand how digital technologies work. Co-design and co-determination require that everyone gets involved and feels empowered and enabled.

Using digital applications is often very simple. However, there are usually more complex interrelationships behind them, just as you described earlier for artificial intelligence. What is your impression, where does society stand here?

Studies, such as those by Initiative D21 in Germany, regularly examine how good digital literacy is in society. They show that a large part of the population feels overwhelmed by many technological trends. On the other hand, there are interesting initiatives to change this. But many people don’t even know about them. One example is the programme “The Elements of AI“, also offered in Germany, funded by the Ministry of Economics. It’s a course on artificial intelligence that anyone can take for free. It was developed in Finland by researchers at the University of Helsinki to make AI understandable for everyone. This is just one example that aims to make us all more empowered for digitalisation.

<br>But it also requires the willingness of each individual to continue learning and to remain curious about new things that one would like to understand.

Valerie Mocker, Digital expert

What contribution can science and research institutions make to a public good-oriented digitalisation?

I think research institutions can contribute in two areas. Firstly, by striving for knowledge transfer and making what they develop understandable for everyone. And secondly, it means training a generation of young leaders in teaching who also understand that they need to get involved. Because to be a digital co-creator, you need technical understanding. But it also requires the attitude of each individual that one may and should get involved. It takes the courage to help shape things, which also means enduring the fear of possible failure. Especially in science organisations, a certain goodwill is important because innovative digital ideas arise precisely in an environment where people trust each other, and everyone can openly share their thoughts.

You were born in Hamburg but have lived in England since your studies. When you come to give talks in Germany today: Do you see any differences in how digitalisation is handled?

I notice some differences in two areas: In the UK, it’s quicker to say: try it out. On the other hand, the way of working in Germany is still very widespread, which is well expressed in this saying: “If you get stuck, form a working group.” And then there’s a round table and strategy papers. The second difference I experience, especially as a younger woman: In Germany, companies, but also universities, are often still very hierarchically structured. Working at eye level with each other works better in Anglo-Saxon countries.

In your opinion, what are the most pressing issues in connection with digitalisation?

Digitisation brings with it power. One of the most pressing challenges is, therefore, the question:

Who are the people who decide what, how and who is financed?

Valerie Mocker, Digital expert

The decision-making spaces in our society are currently very homogeneous and not exactly diversely occupied, especially with people from 55 to upwards. This means that entire generations, described as digital natives, are not represented, and many social classes are not represented. Yet many studies show that diversity leads to better decisions. Of course, this question of power is also uncomfortable. But change is never a win-win situation for everyone. For more people to have a say in society, others have to make room, give up some of their decision-making power, and allow newcomers a chance.

You initially studied archaeology. So the path to becoming a digital expert didn’t seem preordained, did it?

My curriculum vitae hopefully encourages everyone you can get involved in digitisation with any professional background. It shows me two things: firstly, education is considered more like training in Anglo-Saxon countries. It is not expected that an archaeology student will necessarily become an archaeologist. The team was very interdisciplinary in the fund at Nesta, which I co-directed for a long time. Colleagues had studied art, economics or law.

The second thing is: we should think of digitisation more broadly. Digitisation is not just writing a computer programme. That is important, of course. But especially when it comes to the social implications, to the big structural questions – like how money is distributed – and to developing scenarios for how we want to live in the future, my studies in archaeology and anthropology were very helpful because it touches on questions of how societies function and what mechanisms hold them together. Today that is precisely one of the most important questions: What should our society and our future look like with digitalisation?