“The first, the fast, and the least reluctant to change will succeed”: Interview with Saskia Van Uffelen, Digital Champion for Belgium, Part 2

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. You can read the first part of our interview here.

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As Digital Champion, you have an interest in the future of the public library, an institution which is also very dear to my heart. The social changes you’re describing will have an impact on our civic information institutions, and the context they operate in.

You’ve said elsewhere that, “If anything has remained the same in your organisation (culture, processes, eco-systems), it will simply not work anymore. You need to adapt your company and your culture. Adapt or die.”

Are libraries too prone to thinking about what used to work, instead of looking strategically to the future and to forces outside their sector?

A library is an organisation like any other one. They’ve been very successful during a certain moment in time.

You can imagine that a library is a house full of books, with only one door. You can’t keep every book in the world within that house, so already as the collection comes in the door, a decision is being made about what to keep and what to exclude. Then the public can choose to go through that door, into that house, choose a book, and check it out.

Today, in the connected world, you have the internet: a worldwide house with many doors, which anyone and anything can enter – whether it’s fake news or scholarly journals, whatever your age, your background. Libraries’ competition is not coming out of their sector: it’s coming from this other house.

At the same time, this causes an evolution in society: if you need to do research to complete your schoolwork, historically you might have needed to visit the town library, but why would you now, if you have access to the internet and you can find the same information by reading or watching videos online?

The value add of libraries stops being about access to the collection. It becomes a social space in the neighbourhood, providing people with contact and perhaps a place of learning. The value add of yesterday is no longer valid. Just as in any other organisation, libraries must now ask, what could our value add be, not today, not at the end of the quarter, but in 2030?

Even doing this exercise is challenging, however, because for some librarians, even that exercise of thinking ahead to 2030 stops with: “Oh, even in that future, there is still a reason to have a house with many books and one door.”

Certainly this is one of the reasons we do scenario planning with forward-thinking libraries: to help them imagine the possible futures which would be most challenging or opportune for them, a little further out than the immediately coming months or even years.

Many sectors resist change, or even looking at the futures which require us to change. I was telling education professionals back in 2011 that we would be moving to online education or a hybrid model, to raise awareness of this possibility, and there was a pretty strong reaction against that. People didn’t want to hear a perspective which they thought was coming from outside of their sector – although what they didn’t realise was that I had actually trained as a teacher originally!

Getting people even to consider the possibility that there won’t be a house with books and one door in 2030 can be a difficult challenge.

It’s also a question of naming. If we say “going back to normal after COVID”, for example, it sounds as if we are going back to yesterday. As soon as people use the world “library”, it conjures this idea of the house of books.

In our Norwegian education scenarios for 2050, we had one world where teens and even children were self-educating at a highly digitalised institution that was somewhere between a school and a library, with self-directed learning being the order of the day.

If we think about libraries’ digital services, are there issues with being a digital gatekeeper? Martin Kristoffer Bråthen expressed concerns about the library becoming an unnecessary middleman between the public and digital content.

This is the same issue faced by the retail sector: if everybody goes to the same marketplace called Amazon, what do retailers do? You don’t get a value add from the old way of thinking. The fault is not Amazon’s, the fault is that you didn’t redefine your value add, taking into consideration that the whole world around you has changed.

One place where it would be useful to have a digital gatekeeper is the issue of fake news, for which, again, no one person or agency is taking responsibility. It’s not realistic for us to block fake news and create only trusted content, so what we need is to give people the critical skills to understand and interpret what they are seeing online. Who is teaching our kids how to live in that kind of world? It’s not the schools, because they’re still using yesterday’s schoolbooks; not the parents, because they don’t have the skills; not the media, because they benefit from it! It’s affecting every election in Europe. Maybe there’s an opportunity for the public library there: helping people to better understand in a connected world what kind of news can be trusted. But if you want to take on that challenge, you’d better wake up very fast.

I have a son with autism who can’t, when he meets a stranger in the street, tell the difference between someone smiling and being happy, and someone smiling but in anger. We have a similar problem online – making sense of expressions, understanding challenging systems of communication. We are living autistically in a digital world. We urgently need help and support, and this could be a value add for the public library, vital as it is to the future of society.

How do you think libraries should start going about looking for their new value add?

Well, I’m an outsider to the library sector, so I don’t presume to dictate. I can compare it to my experience in industry: to disrupt your organisation, you need a diverse leadership group. If you have the same white men in the same blue suits with the same brown shoes driving the same car, having the same ideas, you’re not going to find fresh thinking. The chance that you’ll find an answer to your question is very limited.

If in the library you surround yourself with colleagues who have the same backgrounds, perspectives, and opinions, it will limit you. Look at Aarhus’ Dokk1 library, led by someone from outside the library sector; they dared to make a diverse team.

One thing I had to learn as a corporate leader was that I needed a diverse team to generate useful ideas and extend my own ecosystem. If you don’t go and meet people from outside your sector – and for the libraries that might mean health, mobility, education, the private sector – you won’t see the possibilities ahead of you, or find the answers to your question.

There are huge opportunities ahead for libraries, but the issue is what will they choose?

Even in a connected world, we’ll need a physical connection point beyond the city centre.

I imagine COVID has actually helped make this opportunity visible, as we’ll be increasingly driven out of the city centres, working from home in our suburbs. New life may come to our local neighbourhoods through COVID and beyond.

People in the street who want to have a chat will need a place to come together. Will that be the future library? Or will it be the coffee shop and the restaurant? People working in hospitality may see that their industry has suffered and find ways to add value, not just by providing food and drink, but a place for people to gather, connect, and collaborate. If they move faster than the library, they may exploit and take away that opportunity.

The new opportunity may, alternatively, be in the health sector – at that place where social inclusion, wellbeing, and the first level of healthcare meet. Hospitals and health institutions are under pressure, they have limited financial means; they might welcome partnership from enthusiastic libraries which can help them to meet their goals and address social needs. Can libraries help society to take care of people who are suffering?

The strategic choice made by libraries is: which opportunity do you take first? There are many opportunities, but you will not find them if you are all looking through the same tunnel.

Some time ago, I was leading a corporate management team with 5 engineers, all similar guys of a similar age, and I brought in a younger person to encourage fresh thinking. It took me about six months to explain to head office why I wanted a junior person on my management team. This young guy had lots of energy and lots of ideas, but every idea he proposed was killed three seconds after he said it: “No, that will not work; No, we do not have the money; No, the politicians will not accept it.”

So I introduced a new rule: no killing ideas in the first ten seconds. Being good engineers, of course they started counting!

If you kill every idea after three seconds, you might as well leave after ten seconds. Because you have to embrace new thinking. Just saying “No” won’t get you anywhere.

There are a bunch of opportunities: the first, the fast, and the least reluctant to change will succeed, because they know how to appreciate those opportunities.

Is it hard for public libraries, as public bodies, to move fast enough to embrace these opportunities?

Working in the public sector means meeting your public responsibilities and duties, but it doesn’t stop you from innovating, trying new things, building new partnerships and public-private collaborations. There is nothing stopping you from making a disruptive move purely because you are working for public good rather than private profit.

The old civic mindset worked fine for the Napoleonic administrative system, but now we need to be ready for tomorrow, not yesterday. Library leaders need to understand: I am the CEO of this organisation, I need to build an ecosystem of people who will help me to have better ideas, and I need to take responsibility and act.

We see this in the education system; two schools opposite one another in the same town, one school saying it wasn’t possible for them to start using digital education, the skills or the technology weren’t there, the other achieving precisely this, and thriving! The difference lay in the people; in their leadership.

I’m entrepreneurial, but as a business leader, I’m managing the money for someone else. I make creative and strategic decisions within the boundaries and the blocking factors set by my superiors. The same is true for public institutions. We’ve been forced to go to a new world faster than we expected; there are so many opportunities. We have to manage the progress we have made, and clear the hurdles that arise. But it’s a great starting point to create a new future.

You can connect with Saskia Van Uffelen via LinkedIn, or read more in her latest book Dare for Tomorrow.

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