To infinity and beyond…! The great Digital Leaders North West Christmas debate

It was a merry band that gathered in Manchester last week for the final Digital Leaders North West meeting of 2015. The excitement was palpable, as we took our seats ready for the hottest debate of the year! Liz Copeland of Knowledge Hub guides us through what happened.

Our motion: This house believes that digital saves money, solves problems and delivers efficiencies.

Speaking for the motion was Roger Longden of There Be Giants, ably assisted in rebuttal by Richard Wood of Grain.

Speaking against the motion was MMU’s Laurie Cooper, ably assisted by Kevin Harrington of Results Through Digital.

We were reminded at the beginning of the debate that views represented by both teams were not necessarily their own particular opinions, but the aim of the debate was to produce a thought-provoking discussion and convince the audience to vote for one argument or the other at the end.

The case FOR the motion

Roger kicked off the debate by reminding us of some staggering figures. There are 7.2 billion of us on this planet and 3 billion of us are online using 3.6 billion mobile devices. While digital means different things to different people, one thing Roger felt digital does in all contexts is create connections – it’s there to connect people to machines and systems. He listed a whole range of benefits we get from the use of technology in our everyday lives.

  • We can all be connected 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to the people that matter to us wherever they are.
  • We can even be connected to celebrities if we want to!
  • The jobs market is more accessible to us – it’s so easy to search for jobs.
  • Technology has helped in the management of our lives – shared calendars and reminders for example.
  • Digital supports democracy by connecting us more easily to our politicians and in turn increasing their accountability.
  • Everyone can build their influence in a digital world – as individuals and as businesses.
  • Price comparison websites enable us to make informed choices as buyers – the new watch words are ‘sellers beware’!
  • And what about the Internet of Things? It provides us with new opportunities to connect the physical and the digital worlds, wearable technology for example.
  • Technology is even helping with road safety – ABS now comes as standard in most cars, but driverless cars with intelligent braking systems are becoming more accessible to all of us.
  • Smart heating systems in homes are lowering CO2 emissions.
  • There are currently 40 million miles worth of empty lorry journeys – utilising technology to connect couriers with customers could make a 10% cost saving and have a positive environmental effect.
  • The sharing economy has the potential to save 20% on household budgets and lower waste production by 30%.
  • Companies such as Airbnb and Uber are enabling people travel in a more economical way.
  • Digital growth in the health and care sector can change lives, using iPods for music therapy for those suffering with Alzheimer’s, administering pain relief, or support for HIV sufferers in Africa are just a few examples of positive digital impact.

The case AGAINST the motion

Laurie Cooper kicked off his arguments by restating our motion and claiming that in an ideal world digital would of course save money and deliver efficiencies. However, this is not an ideal world…

Laurie reminded us of the many hugely important technological advances over the years that have eventually changed lives for the better, but how long did it take them to become part of the DNA of our culture and how we live? How can we expect digital transformation to become part of our DNA when it’s really only been around for such a short period of time?

History tells us that new strides in technology take many years to embed. And even when it is embedded, it can bring with it terrible danger. For example, cars have given us independence and mobility, but also pollution and death! Electricity is transformative technology, but it took 150 years of development before it was really ready to be made more widely available. It wasn’t until the 1950s that electricity was accessible to everyone in their homes.

The potential of the digital world is more profound still. Facebook took only seven years to achieve 1.5 billion users. The level of ease with which people can access digital is much lower than any technology ever before. But, the fact that ‘Digital Leaders’ exists, the fact that this debate has happened, shows that we are still organising our response to the power of digital. We need to give time to properly thinking through what it means to be connected via the Internet to nearly half the people on the planet.

Digital technology is complicated and must be treated with respect. It is too easy for the naïve to come into contact with the dangerous and how do we protect people if they’re not adequately informing themselves about life online? Is everyone actually fit to be online if diligence is not applied?

First rebuttal (against initial arguments for the motion)

Kevin Harrington began his rebuttal by reminding us of the many public digital projects that have most certainly not made life easier and have not created efficiencies – and that have in fact wasted taxpayers’ money.

He then went on to agree with Roger Longden – and in fact congratulate him on his astute observation ‘seller beware’. Kevin reminded us of occasions when online retailers had greatly reduced prices at short notice with no compensation or refund available to the seller. He also went on to say that buyers should equally beware, quoting one instance where a woman was charged £23.7 billion for one flight!

Kevin questioned Roger’s argument about technology’s positive impact on the environment. He suggested that running a smart phone uses more electricity than a fridge and that data centres are having an increasingly negative impact on the global carbon footprint.

Second rebuttal (against initial arguments against the motion)

Richard Wood began by branding the ‘against’ camp as ‘digital scaremongers’. Much of their criticism had focused on bad processes and mistakes made by people managing things badly. The blame could not be laid solely at the door of digital.

Consider what digital technology has achieved for small companies and start-ups. Much of how they operate and the business they have established is due to the freedom they have through technology.

90% of the world’s data has been produced within the last 2 years. Sites such as YouTube and Wikipedia provide us with advice and information on a whole range of things we would never have known about.

Audience questions and discussion

As you can imagine, with such impassioned points of view and so much fodder for debate, the audience were keen to get in on the discussion.

  • It was agreed that energy consumption presented a big challenge, but it seemed that everyone had differing data, which made it difficult to find a common view that made sense.
  • Examples were provided demonstrating how digital can improve lives. One audience member shared a story from an African village, where the acquisition of one smart phone had enabled farmers to check market prices on particular types of produce before travelling. The additional income generated and savings made were enough to send children off to university.
  • Equally, examples were provided demonstrating how digital is diminishing traditional skills and concentration. Recent research has revealed that the benefits of handwriting, such as better learning and creative writing, are being lost through typing on computers. Hand writing can also prevent distractions and help you stay sharp as you get older.
  • There was agreement that digital has brought a new way of working and most in the room were naturally positive about digital, reminding us of better accessibility to distant friends and family for older people, and the enablement of start-ups much more quickly and easily, which is positive for the economy.
  • However, the counter to this was the perceived efficiency of digital technology in some organisations where digital projects have ended up costing a fortune and delivered very little in the way of savings. Was this though, a failure of system, or a failure of people?

And indeed this last point appeared to be the crux of the debate. While it’s very easy to blame the technology, on many occasions it’s the people and processes that are really at fault and it’s this that gives digital a bad name. In truth, there were valid arguments on both sides of the equation and many agreed that a hybrid between the positive aspects of digital and the benefits of common sense and thoroughly thought-through processes would be the perfect mix.

Summing up

Both Roger and Laurie were asked to sum up, in one minute, their thoughts. Both ventured into the realms of the Seti Institute, which focuses on the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. (I’m afraid I confess this is where I got lost!) But they did each provide a nice concise quote to finish on:

“Not all digital projects are failures – there are also a great many successes. Digital is good!” Roger Longden

“Use the internet as you will, but it’s a dangerous world out there!” Laurie Cooper

As I suppose you would expect in a room of Digital Leaders, the result of the vote was no surprise. The ‘Fors’ won it convincingly.

Of course, it was worth reminding ourselves that while we were a room of ‘believers’, there are still a great many ‘doubters’ and we should aim to become more persuasive in our arguments, as we still need to convince people about the benefits of going digital.

Wishing a very happy Christmas and new year to all our Digital Leaders North West – and Digital Leaders everywhere. We hope you’ll come along and join us for our first meeting of 2016 on Thursday 21 January, when we will be covering the topic of the digital skills gap. Find out more in the Digital Leaders North West group.

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