So, what exactly is ‘Digital’?

So, what exactly is ‘digital‘? I asked this very question to one of my Computer Science students once, and he gave me what could be construed as a near-perfect response:  “it’s not analogue”.  Whilst there is truth in that answer – it does not encapsulate what we really mean by ‘digital’ in the world that we live in today.  There are many examples that can illustrate what we do mean, and one that I want to highlight relates to my 2-year old grandniece, Amila.

Recently, she tried to talk to Alexa (Amazon Echo).  On the surface, this may not seem spectacular and it may even appear amusing (and actually it was).  However, we need to consider this further to really understand the force that is at play.  Amila cannot yet engage in human conversation – at best she can articulate baby-like sounds as she learns and replicates words of the English language spoken by people around her, people that she learns from.  At the age of two, she is learning not only to speak with humans, but also with machines.  Her tutors are not only people, they are also smart devices.  If she is learning to talk to machines at the age of two, what will she be interacting with when she’s twenty-two?  What language will she be speaking?  What will she know, and what job will she be doing?  This change in behaviour that we are seeing, and will continue to see, is a result of ‘digital’.

Whilst there is no one definition of digital, we do know that it is a transformative and disruptive force that is changing society.  Digital is not just about the technology stack (and there’s a difference between a Digital Strategy and an IT Strategy). It is, on the other hand, about the harmony between cross-disciplinary thinking and the technology that results in solutions that add value.  It’s about creating transformative impact by aligning people, processes, culture & technologies to yield effective digital environments and a seamless experience for all users.

In my sessions on Digital, Mobile & Enterprise Transformation, I dissect digital into three aspects: (1) Core Concepts such as temporal and spatial frames, and how we alter and exploit these – this is where working “at any time and in any place” comes from; (2) Affordances such as: access; choice; connectedness; efficiency; empowerment; flexibility; ownership; value – and there are more; (3) the IT Strategy & Technology.  The degree and dimensions of digital transformation can also be considered – such as small-step changes through to organisation-wide diffusion; markets; processes and inclusion of organisation-specific concerns.

When talking about digital, we often talk about the ‘Digital Economy’ too.  The House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee defines this as an economy that, “refers to both the digital access of goods and services, and the use of digital technology to help businesses.” (The Digital Economy, Second Report of Session 2016–17) – a simple but somewhat effective definition.   That report also refers to the revolutionary & transformative impact of technology; the disruption of existing markets; the sharing economy and a model that relies on the sharing of goods, intellectual resource, labour and property using a digital platform.  Another report published last year by the Dept. for Business Innovation & Skills and Dept. for Culture Media & Sports states that, “Digital skills underpin growth across the economy and are vital to ensuring global competitiveness and productivity” and it goes on to define basic digital literacy skills, digital skills for the general workforce and digital skills for ICT professions.  Earlier this year (March 2017) the Government published the UK Digital Strategy and very recently its Industrial Strategy.  The word ‘digital’ appears many times over 53 pages (out of 256 pages) in that Industrial Strategy document.  Clearly, digital is high on the agenda – and it will remain so.

Beyond personalised examples of digital transformation – such as Amila talking to Alexa, there are macro-level concerns that need to be addressed in order to secure our digital future.  These concerns are about our immediate spatial context and how this determines our lives.  This spatial context is about our geography: where we live, learn, play and work.  It’s about our town, city and area/region.  Nesta (an innovation foundation) calls this ‘place-shaping’ – something which fits the broader concept of ‘clusters’ of people, industry sectors & businesses, technologies, knowledge & expertise – and the resulting socio-economic impact that they create.

Whilst there is a natural and appropriate democratisation of digital, there also needs to be some overarching direction and governance – a steer that will harmonise and magnetise the digital ecosystem as it matures.  In other words, digital leadership.  Failing to harness this ecosystem effectively is likely to result in inertia and a federated & disaggregated digital ‘place’ that will not yield the true affordances of digital in every respect.  There are many players in the digital space – all of whom have a valid role and contribution to make – but is there a first amongst equals that can truly drive digital, and should there be?  For example, we have two tiers of Local Government (County/City Councils); Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs); local/regional Universities; Chambers of Commerce, and sector-specific agencies in: healthcare; ICT; the creative industries; transport systems; tourism; lifestyle & leisure – to name a few.   In addition, we have programmes that embrace the concept of digital by convening like-minded individuals and groups to evolve and progress the digital agenda – for example, #SmartStaffordshire has recently been launched in this area.

Each of these is an essential player that contributes to the DNA of our ‘place’, but the systemic & intelligent interweaving of their contribution to result in digital congruence is crucial.  This is what will enhance our most immediate spatial context (our place) and move us forward as a digital society.  Perhaps an alternative ‘new kid on the block’ is needed – a ‘digital tsar’ type entity which provides a unifying platform, which establishes a common language and ensures that ‘digital’ is delivered. Perhaps an over-arching Regional Digital Assembly mandated to this effect.

So – what exactly is ‘digital’?  It’s the future.

Khawar Hameed is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Computing at Staffordshire University and a Digital Transformation Consultant.