“We have stretched our society to breaking point…These issues are the responsibility of all of us”: Interview with Saskia Van Uffelen, Digital Champion for Belgium Part 1

Saskia Van Uffelen is the Digital Champion for Belgium, tasked with promoting the benefits of digital society as part of the European Commission’s efforts to ensure every European citizen acquires the digital skills they need to remain productive, employable and enfranchised. After a career encompassing roles at Xerox, Compaq, HP, Arinso, Bull, and Ericsson, she is currently Corporate Vice President for the French group GFI, supervising developments in the Benelux countries. Saskia is also the author of Dare For Tomorrow: Leading, Working, Learning, and Living in a Digital World.

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The crises of 2020 have moved many aspects of our lives online, not always without complications. I started by asking what this year looks like from the perspective of Belgium’s Digital Champion.

My role is to help Belgians through the digital transformation in a secure but fast way. So above all it’s a role of awareness-raising, or in French sensibilisation. I work across several domains in which COVID has an impact: digital commerce, digital economy, digital skills and competences, digital government, digital security, in the context of data, and digital infrastructure.

Before March, I had to try and wake people up to the fact that a connected world would change their behaviour – but it was a little bit like preaching in the desert!

Since March, a lot of the excuses for not changing have been proven to be wrong: “You can’t deliver education in a hybrid way, you can’t have people working from home, it’s not secure to use online communication, I don’t know how to use this software, the infrastructure is not there”, and so on. People were confronted with the truth: that these things were possible.

However, we also saw new challenges for the digitalised COVID world: working from home 7 days a week could be a bit too much, so how do we create a balanced situation? In Belgium, we found we still had a lot of vulnerable youngsters who didn’t have the right equipment to participate in hybrid education: they were willing, but they didn’t have the technology to gain access, because of their personal circumstances. We’ve had to appreciate the positive aspects of this transformation, but also be realistic about the other sides.

Our priority for 2020 is to keep up the positives: that the opportunity for online connection is there; that we can all figure out how to Zoom or Skype or use Teams; that people can take their lifelong learning into their own hands through online webinars, many of them free-of-charge. We’re also seeking to manage the challenges by focussing on e-inclusion, for example through the “Digital For Youth” initiative here in Belgium. This is a collaboration with the education system, in which we aim to make 12000 personal computers available for youngsters who didn’t have Internet access.

Are there generational issues around e-inclusion: a digital divide or a digital difference depending on age groups?

There are always exceptions within any generation, but of course it makes sense that Generation Y, growing up with this technology, has a different experience to my generation, which born into a world of telex and fixed-line telephones. You can’t neglect that difference, which does shape people’s acceptance of technology.

However, the beauty of working with diverse generations is not just about technology, it’s about experience. Being older doesn’t necessarily make you more wise, but it does mean you’ve lived more; length of experience and technological competencies complement one another.

Where it may be an issue is around the questions of e-inclusion: some vulnerable youngsters miss out on connection because their parents aren’t connected or lack digital competencies.

“Digital” encompasses almost everything in society today. How has the digital champion role been shaped to find some focus?

Neelie Kroes was the EU’s first Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, at a time when few people knew what the scope of “digital” would be. Recognising that she couldn’t take on all of the member states alone, and that the digital maturity of each country differs, as well as its infrastructure, its education system, its social structure and so on, she sought a single point of contact in each EU member state. At the time, the Belgian minister of the economy was also managing telecommunications, so the request for a Digital Champion in Belgium went to that ministry, and they invited me to take on the role. The role was very broadly defined, the resourcing was limited, and the KPIs were also initially somewhat fuzzy. We went from 22 priorities to the key domains which I’ve set out: commerce and the economy, skills, government, security, and infrastructure.

As of 2014, we had our first minister responsible for the digital agenda, which helped to structure the ways we address those five domains.

Security is of particular interest to me, in two aspects: the individual and the question of infrastructure.

For me, the GDPR regulation is laudable, in its aim to protect my private data, but it’s extremely over-regulated, and it has arrived too late. We’ve come to a point where we can’t make a coronavirus tracker because it wouldn’t respect GDPR. It means that there’s something wrong in how the regulation is framed.

Said this, the most important issue for me, in terms of individual privacy and security, is how we create ethical behaviour around the handling of data. Ethics are currently insufficiently addressed – maybe mentioned a handful of times in the discussions around GDPR. What matters is how each individual, each citizen, independently of his or her role in society, handles data – are they doing it in an ethical way? If you look in some corners of social media, the answer is quite clearly no! Yet adults are role models for children. If kids see that adults communicate in the way that we do, they will copy it, and this will lead to serious consequences for our young people. There’s still a lot to do around personal data and ethics.

An even greater challenge may be the question of business-to-business data. 5G infrastructure connects everything – not just our personal calls but, much more importantly, industry 4.0, connected factories, robots, logistics, airports, health. There is no serious discussion about the security of the B2B connected world. And we also need to reflect on the fact that my IP as an industry, in a connected world, will be distributed on the network. Coca-Cola could put their recipe in a safe, but your proprietary software which you use to steer your robots is out there on 5G.

On top of this, you have to understand that Belgium is currently the only European country where the entire mobile communication network is Chinese. Again, it’s about awareness-raising: you don’t have to be an engineer to see the issues with this. Chinese law says that all data managed on the network must be shared with the Chinese government. So many aspects of our future society will be delivered over 5G – think of issues like health monitoring of older people – and therefore we have to have an informed conversation, a national reflection, about this. In all my time working in Belgian telecommunications, I’ve never found a person responsible for the end-to-end scope of this security problem, and if the problem belongs to nobody, will it be addressed?

I ask this question in my latest book Dare for Tomorrow: do we need a war to really realise that we can change very fast? We’ve been lucky with COVID in that it is a crisis which has left our roads, our buildings, our infrastructure intact: it gives us a lot of continuity. Can we imagine a world without connectivity any more? If an electrician visits my house to make some repairs, I can’t work for the hours while the power is off and the internet’s down!

Maybe my book should have been titled Dare for Today. We have stretched our society to breaking point. If you pull on elastic until it won’t stretch any more, it snaps and flies back in your face. We were pulling on the elastic of old financial models, the pressure to do more with less, the relentless emphasis on efficiency and neglect of wellbeing; we are still talking about climate as if it were a problem not for us, but for the next generation; we are ticking diversity boxes without genuine inclusion. These issues were already with us before March!

It’s not only technology which is changing our world drastically; the kind of leadership we need in organisations in the future will be completely different to that of the past. That’s even down to the simplest level of having to trust that you are working from home, when I can’t see you in the office. The old generation of white men in blue suits and brown shoes who all dress the same, talk the same, and think the same can’t steer the ship any further. You can’t, after COVID, expect to put everyone back into the same office, with the same manager, and the same way of working that you had before the pandemic. It’s simply not going to work.

In some of the conversations I’ve been having about logistics and supply chains, there’s been discussion around moving away from efficiency and the just-in-time model to resilience, sustainability, building in redundancy – learning from COVID’s crisis and anticipating crises yet to come.

In Belgium, we’re a country very focussed on sectors, and one thing we have to realise is that competition is coming from outside of those sectors now. Uber is an obvious example. In Brussels, Uber is not allowed thanks to pressure from the taxi drivers’ federation, protecting the old concept that a taxi is a car with a person in it and a plate on it. They never imagined that you could decouple those relationships: is Uber a transport company or an IT company? Essentially, they invoice you for distances, and that’s it. It’s a good example of competition not coming from within the traditional sector.

I expect to see more of this both during and beyond COVID: the most agile thinkers, those with the most disruptive ideas, being flexible in transforming organisations while the bigger, slower organisations aren’t thinking in that way. They’re thinking: “We need to lay off people, because we need to get the financial results back up.”

That’s not just the problem of the leaders, that responsibility also lies with financial analysts, who choose to measure the performance of an organization mostly based on its quarterly results; if they continue to do so, looking at the very short term, then there’s no incentive for me as a CEO to change my behaviour for the long term.

I’m reminded of a 2017 Normann Partners report on sovereign wealth funds, where one of their respondents told them: “I agree that in 50 years the climate will be warmer, but if I do anything about it and it’s not a pricing issue in the next 12 months, chances are my boss is going to give me a hard time.”

These issues are the responsibility of the sector, the government, the financial analysts, all of us: how do you valorise an organisation?

I sense a common theme to these aspects of your work: the need to have a national discussion about individual data ethics, about ownership of telecommunications infrastructure, about the ways we measure and understand value. You’re trying to provoke a conversation and get people to look into aspects of their society that they maybe have missed or wilfully ignored.

With all due respect, and from a position of political neutrality, above all I’m trying to encourage people to dare to take drastic decisions for tomorrow. Everybody should be CEO of their professional responsibilities, and that means thinking long term. When I reflect on the situation in Belgium, where for months now we’ve had no government, irrespective of your party, that is not taking up your responsibilities. If I tried something similar in the private sector, I wouldn’t get paid if I couldn’t get my organisation working! We need to take some disruptive decisions in order to break the easiness of yesterday and build for tomorrow.

I hope that the last few months are signs of a deeper change. Shareholders will start to think more long-term and in line with sustainable development principles. It’s small and slow, but at least it is arising. Nonetheless, it’s dispiriting that big organisations will be looking ahead to make layoffs in order to hit their Q4 results.

In the second part of this interview, you can read more from Saskia Van Uffelen on the changing digital society, and the strategic challenges which face public institutions through the pandemic and beyond.

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