Reflection: Digitalisation as a transition requires a different way of looking at things

Anne Fleur van Veenstra: Digitalisation has become an integral part of our lives: we use apps, scroll, and swipe for an average of five and a half hours a day. It follows that digital technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI), not only has a great social impact, but also a major economic impact. For example, a McKinsey study predicted that the economic value of generative AI would be in the trillions and that the technology could automate 40% of an average working day in some industries.

Digitalisation, including generative AI, is often perceived as unfocused and disruptive to our society and economy. One example is AI assistant ChatGPT, which has 100 million active users worldwide a little more than a year after its launch.

Digitalisation thus appears mainly to take the form of a transformation: ‘a fundamental, profound change in how we work and organise, with major direct and indirect social consequences’. These consequences are usually both positive and negative. in addition to the impact on employment, other risks of using AI include unintended consequences such as discrimination, a lack of clarity regarding accountability, and dehumanisation.

Many other major, far-reaching changes that are currently ongoing are called transitions: changes aimed at achieving a new, desired future, for which existing systems have to be modified. Apart from being technical, these systemic changes may also be socio-cultural, political and administrative, economic, and legal.

One example is the energy transition, which aims to make the existing energy system more sustainable in order to have a carbon-neutral energy system by 2050 with the goal of no longer lagging behind the facts of climate change, but responding proactively. This is a ‘managed’ change process.

The energy transition therefore involves working towards a desired new energy system. This also requires a partial phase-out of the old system. Renewable and new technologies, such as heat networks and hydrogen, are given a bigger role, while oil and gas are replaced as much as possible.

Furthermore, behavioural changes are needed for a transition to succeed, as well as new laws and regulatory mechanisms. This will encourage consumers to save energy and make homes more sustainable. The renewable energy grant enables municipalities to plan for natural gas-free neighbourhoods.

All these elements combine to shape the transition: a vision for the future, phasing out the current system, behavioural change, and new legislation and regulatory mechanisms. What would digitalisation look like if we thought of it as a transition, rather than a transformation?

First of all, this requires developing a view of what the role of digitalisation is, as was done for generative AI: what digital future do we actually want? This process should also involve private individuals, as in Belgium.

More will be demanded of individuals and consumers as well. For instance, secondary school students will no longer be allowed to use mobile phones in class, and public officials will have to conduct a risk analysis before using generative AI.

Necessary legislative work is also in progress. For example, the European Parliament is expected soon to adopt the AI Act aimed at developing secure AI systems.

At the same time, all these actions are still fragmented. Together, they are far from constituting a transition and it remains to be seen whether these actions can turn the digital transformation into a desired future. This calls for a greater vision, together with stronger regulatory mechanisms and collaboration to lead these developments.

But above all, it requires us to make ‘transition thinking’ in all its facets central to our considerations and actions in relation to digitalisation in advance. Only in this way can we get ahead of the curve, rather than lag behind it.

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