There is always a certain degree of hype around any new technology. Blockchain, for example, has an extremely dedicated grassroots user base who will bang its drum until the hide breaks. The tech media too is often guilty of blowing up a technology’s potential impact in pursuit of clicks, while solution providers and their marketing teams naturally have a tendency towards hyperbole.
However, hype does not necessarily lead to adoption. Often, it actually clouds the issues and creates additional layers of complexity that make reaching critical mass a more distant prospect. It leads organisations to adopt technologies in areas they’re not needed, to race ahead without a proper roadmap for implementation just so they can stay ahead of the competition – both of which will end in failure and disillusionment.
Emerging technologies need digital leaders to blaze a trail – businesses, nonprofits, and governments who can demonstrate successful adoption efforts for others to see how it’s done.
BDJ spoke to Martin Bryant, former Editor-in-Chief of The Next Web, at the ‘Digital Capital of the World’ event in London. We discussed the city as a digital leader and the steps that must be taken for emerging tech to realistically continue its wider roll-out unhindered.
Digital Leaders – More Than Just a Mouthpiece
Bryant believes that one of the key characteristics that sets digital leaders apart is their ability and willingness to be more than just another voice in a sea of positive spin, more than a town crier heralding the imminent arrival of transformation.
He uses the example of London, widely considered a hub for technology companies. Its regulatory regime, access to investment and proximity to Europe make it a highly conducive environment to set up camp. The capital’s mayor is also considered a friend to technology. But Bryant says it takes more than mere words.
“I think it's one thing to say you're the digital leader of the world,” Bryant says, “It's another to actually be a digital leader. It's really about more than just putting out press releases from the top, from the Mayor's office, saying how great the city is, and funding a few little projects.”
“[Being a digital leader is] really about having a spirit of innovation and wanting to be that digital leader right across the city through different disciplines, through different industries”
Bryant emphasises that to be a digital leader, the city’s government must adopt a certain kind of attitude. “It's really about having a spirit of innovation and wanting to be that digital leader right across the city through different disciplines, through different industries,” he explains. “That means people at all levels embracing that idea and really pushing it forward.”
The same is true of all organisations, large or small, who want to be considered a digital leader. They must take an holistic approach, with everybody getting excited about adoption and helping to drive it forward.
The Importance of Taking Risks
A culture of experimentation and openness is vital to the growth of any new technological trends, and a key aspect of what makes a digital leader. This means taking risks. “It's important to use things that are in the making, that aren't maybe totally stable and totally proven,” says Bryant.
“It's important to use things that are in the making, that aren't maybe totally stable and totally proven… only through using them do you find out the pitfalls and the benefits”
Equally, new tech cannot receive the necessary testing and associated user data without the willingness of users to adopt new platforms that are at varying stages of development.
In this respect, Bryant encourages common sense and transparency when it comes to digital transformation, noting that “you wouldn't want to use them in ways that would lose people lots of money if they weren't informed and they were taking a risk, for example, in terms of public services. But only through using them do you find out the pitfalls and the benefits.”
Consumer demand for emerging tech platforms will ensure their presence on a larger scale going forward. Bryant says that “new technologies are inevitably going to have a role in shaping the infrastructure of future cities, simply because people will want to use them and they'll offer useful additional benefits.”
“But,” he adds, “I think we're a long way from that if you're talking about something like blockchain.”
Blockchain is at the forefront of the current wave of emerging tech. However, the problem is that the law is often slow to adapt to rapid infrastructure developments. As a result, blockchain's ascension over the past few years has seen many jump in without the established legal precedents that safeguard users of more traditional currency and contract platforms.
“I think it's really important to consider the legal side of this stuff – a lot of that hasn't really been thought through,” says Bryant. “I think that's the one thing that maybe some of the big crypto enthusiasts don't consider enough – a lot of this hasn't been tested in court and the future may not be quite what they think it will be because of that.”
For a city to be a digital leader, they must be forward-thinking when it comes to introducing a legal framework that protects consumers, but at the same time allows a technology to flourish unimpeded. For a business, they must consider that the legal framework will likely change and be prepared for it to do so. No small task on either side.
Commitment is Needed All the Way up the Chain
Blockchain is a breakout example of a new technology that began with small, passionate early adopters. Today, major corporations and industry leaders are building blockchain into their future business models, and they are doing so in no small part because of the ever-increasing user base of the platforms.
However, it can feel like this movement at the top-end of the chain is reactionary more than innovative.
“I think there's a strong role for corporations to lead in the innovations around technologies like blockchain. We're seeing that now, but the test is really pushing it beyond the press release,” says Bryant.
“Individual early adopters have far less invested in the proliferation of a new technology, whereas an overly gutsy move by a corporation could affect market positioning and shareholder confidence”
The problem is confidence. Individual early adopters have far less invested in the proliferation of a new technology, whereas an overly gutsy move by a corporation could affect market positioning and shareholder confidence. Bryant adds that plans to invest in innovation technologies “may become stuck at board level,” as the organisation lacks the commitment of people further down the chain.
Dipping your toes into the water is a perfectly understandable strategy for tech adoption. Evidence of user demand and the platform's functionality encourages larger corporations to invest and pursue further innovation for the platform. Once this happens though, the follow through from the C-suite must be as fast as it is incisive. There needs to be real investment from these industry figures, beyond casual support in press releases and token projects.
The willingness of organisations to pursue adoption of new technologies is undoubtedly influenced by such factors as existing legislation being slow to catch up, and the behaviour of the user bases down at the bottom end of the chain. To be a digital leader, though, they must not be reactive. They must understand new technology and the user base, act proactively and commit to its development.
As Bryant says, “It's about embracing the project at board level, seeing the benefit, and the benefit of taking it forward, beyond an initial bit of funding.”
Business Insider recently ranked the 25 most high-tech cities in the world. The top three spots were taken by the usual suspects like San Francisco, the home of Silicon Valley, New York, and London, but there were also a number of potential surprises. The Asian capitals of Taipei, Seoul, and Singapore filled positions 5, 6, and 8 respectively, while the North American regional hubs of Los Angeles, Boston, Toronto, Chicago came in at 4th, 7th, 9th, 10th.
An interesting cross reference for this list is with the Mercer Quality of Living Survey, which ranks 231 cities from Vienna to Baghdad on quality of life. Only Berlin, Copenhagen, Montreal, Amsterdam, Vancouver, Stockholm, Toronto and Singapore made the top 25 of both lists. So does being high tech mean higher quality of life for a city’s citizens? Three of those are in Canada. Are they the template?
Illustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]