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Digital good, analog bad? It's hard to say

Zulfikar AbbanyApril 11, 2016

It's a tale of many sides. Most often we only get the positives of digitalization, while those speaking for the negative are hauled off to a padded cell. But a Berlin summit wants us all to come together.

Symbolbild Digitalisierung
Image: DW/Z. Abbany

If all we do is listen to the technology industries - in all their various shapes and sizes - there is but one truth: digitalization is good. Or if you'll permit a line of Orwellian poetry: digital good, analog bad.

Truths are seldom so simple or one-sided. Even in the digital world, we have the Boolean values "true" and "false," "on" and "off," and zeros and ones. And even these ignore the grey zones in between.

It's a reality that leading researchers, industry heads, politicians and others representing civil society meet head on on Tuesday in Berlin at the "2016 Forschungsgipfel." It's a research summit on digitalization of the highest order, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel giving the keynote address.

"Digitalization is the biggest topic of our times," say the organizers, and we need to come together to mold a digital future.

Questions and … answers?

Representatives from across business, science and innovation - but predominantly huge industry names such as BASF SE, Evonik, Google, Pfizer - face three main questions.

How can digitalization improve knowledge and skills?

How is digitalization affecting collaboration in research and innovation?

And how can Germany secure the best of digitalization's potential?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel: does she have the answers to the summit questions?Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

These are hefty questions and they are unlikely to find comprehensive answers in a one-day summit, where about 40 speakers all hope to make a point.

"We'll each get a maximum of 3-5 minutes to speak," says Markus Beckedahl, founder of netzpolitik.org, a platform for digital civil liberties. "It'll probably be a massive hodgepodge of demands and desires on a contemporary policy issue and I don't expect a lot to come of it."

Digitalization: positives

So let's focus on what appears to be clear. Professor Dr. Malte Brettel says the "biggest change through digitalization will be in teaching."

Brettel researches entrepreneurship and innovation at RWTH Aachen University and is one of the many speakers at the event. He says entrepreneurs are "disruptive" and we need them. He has his own history of entrepreneurship.

"MIT [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] is starting a MOOCs in mathematics. Everyone can share them. So why do we need a mathematics department if we can license MIT courses?" asks Brettel. "How many mathematics professors do you need in the world, except for research? Five? One for Chinese, one for English, one for Spanish, and two for the backup, and that's it? This may change the business models of universities."

Symbolbild Digitalisierung
Digitalization touches every aspect of modern life - the city of Hamburg uses this touch table to plan road worksImage: DW/Z. Abbany

Digitalization may also change the nature of research, by enabling more collaboration and changing the means by which we publish results.

"Right now we have our journals and we publish our best results in the best journals possible to have the biggest impact," Brettel says. "But why [do] that in 20 or 30 years? Why not put all your results online? And then it's the individual person who is cited most and not the others."

Beckedahl also sees collaboration as a potential plus.

"In the past, research took place in closed circles [in laboratories, in offices or in homes], and it was hard to collaborate with other researchers," he says. "Today, research can take place the same way as Wikipedia entries are written and edited. It's a big advantage in many areas, as peer reviews work better when everyone has access to the same data and can verify that data, or build on it."

Digitalization: negatives

Beckendahl's argument is fundamental. And it's all about transparency. He, for instance, is against the use of digitalization in electoral voting.

"It's used in elections abroad, but not in Germany. The Federal Constitutional Court [has ruled] that only when particular criteria are met, such as open hardware, open software, total transparency, will elections be allowed to be conducted digitally here," says Beckedahl. "And the current state of technology can't guarantee that."

Data security in related areas also needs more work. Brettel says we've yet to solve our security issues.

"I mean, we're all happy about the Panama Papers, because somebody was able to leak this data," he says. "But if all of our health records are stored digitally and then they're published and anyone can read about anyone's diseases, that'll be a disaster."

Markus Beckedahl, founder of Netzpolitik.org
Beckedahl: transparency is a must-have, as is open hardware and open softwareImage: picture-alliance/dpa

These are serious issues, ones which "disruptive" innovators are often loath to mention.

"There are negative sides to disruptive innovations, as there are with any phenomenon on Earth," says Dr Rajnish Tiwari at Hamburg University of Technology's Center for Frugal Innovation. "Because of that it's important we look at the trends, the possible implications, and how best to deal with it."

Digitalization: double-edged

Tiwari agrees disruption is not always good.

He says we have seen a "democratization" of innovation over the past 10-15 years bring a "vast number of actors" to the scene. While research and development used to be the preserve of government institutions and only the largest firms, it's now happening everywhere. And this is both good ... and bad.

For one, it's making it harder for us to determine and focus on the innovations most likely to make a difference. But, then, the rise of "frugal innovation" - the stripping back of products to bare essentials - could be a new market driver through digitalization.

"Digitalization [means] people can do their work in smaller numbers, so the need for economies of scale is reducing," says Tiwari. "We can help small to medium-sized enterprises participate in the mega trends by the use of digitalization."

But, hey, let's not lose sight of those negatives!

"You need a balance. You need these entrepreneurs running up front, looking for new opportunities - they change the world, often in a good way - but there have to be others who are very skeptical," says Brettel. "If Silicon Valley is too powerful, that's a threat for us. And if it's not powerful enough, if entrepreneurs don't have enough power, then the world will be too slow. You need a balance and it can't be the same people."