Takeaways and reflections from the 12th Annual National Digital Conference #digileaders

Digital Leaders is, in their own words, “a global initiative that has created a shared professional space for senior leadership from different sectors promoting effective, long-term digital transformation”. Digital Leaders held their 12th Annual National Digital Conference earlier today. Whilst its fresh in my mind, I thought I would share some highlights from the speakers and panellists and some of my own reflections.

TL;DR: Young entrepreneurs are making our world better; we need to upskill people and not just rely on new shiny tech; lets make sure Brexit isn’t a distraction; lets all be digital heroes.

These are in no particular order, other than as they come to me.

1. Today’s young entrepreneurs make me hopeful that a better future is being built. Jessica Okoro, Jack Parsons and Molly Watt are all mission driven entrepreneurs. They have each faced a challenge our society and have taken it upon themselves to solve it for others with an innovative, optimistic and inclusive approach.

Here are their stories, in the order they were told:

Jessica is the founder and lead STEMmer of the award-winning BeScience. She was open about the challenges she’s faced: being a BME, coming from a low-socio economic background, and being dyslexic. In a Maths class, she wrote angel instead of angle and was completely intimidated and put off by STEM subjects. She’s created a ‘pioneering not-for-profit organisation providing means of creatively exploring STEM subjects with the whole community, to change common misconceptions’.

Something that stuck with me was that she asks parents to come down into those community spaces, to be there when that child is learning about STEM subjects, so that when the family comes home the conversation continues. If you come home from school and your parent/s ask how your day was, you’re not always going to remember everything. But if they say ‘wasn’t today great when we did that thing together?’ then the conversation and the learning will continue. Jessica said with passion that we already have what we need: we have skilled individuals and a number of resources, so we don’t need to reinvent things, we just need to put those resources and people into a number of communities so that everyone has access to those skills. It made me think about what education spaces we need in the future. If we take a flexible approach to the workplace, what approach do we we take to education?

Jack is the CEO and founder of yourfeed. Jack shared with the audience that he is dyslexic and grew up with an alcoholic parent. And he believes that ‘if a man can get in a rocket and land on the moon then anything is possible — as long as you work hard’. So he did that, and got his GCSEs and started working for a recruitment agency. He was there 3-years and when questioning a moral decision the company wanted him to make, he found himself without a job. So he looked to the entrepreneurs that inspired him. When he noticed Richard Branson has 10m followers, but Virgin only has 230k, he realised that ‘people buy from people. And [I] decided to focus on my personal brand.’ He surrounded himself with mentors, has met 200–250 CEOs and is now on a mission to ‘connect 2 million young people to purposeful opportunities.’ He said is goal is to become redundant from his company, because then he’ll know he’s achieved the mission, and will have done a good job because what he’s creating won’t be needed anymore.

Congratulations to Jack Parsons for winning Young Digital Leader of the Year 2017!

Molly is a ‘tech/web accessibility/usability consultant, motivational speaker, author, blogger, and International ambassador/advocate’. She’s helping to improve lives by educating others. Molly has Usher syndrome, a form of DeafBlindness, and she regularly gives talks about this progressive condition. She has spent her life being excluded and told by others about her disability, having others assume what she can see, hear, and what she can do. Her reliance on technology has increased due to her disabilities — which is why she is so passionate about making technology work for all, and is on a mission to make the world accessible to all. She’s worked with GDS and BBC, so if you’re thinking about accessible design and usability then hire her as your consultant or speaker. In her words, ‘please let me open your window to inclusion’.

What do we have in place to learn from young people? Or what should we put in place?

2. We need to stop relying on the latest technology trend to fix our problems. (I know.. that’s an obvious statement). There was a talk which asked if there was a need to teach skills when we now have AI.

We should create opportunities for everyone to learn different digital, data and technology skills. Tech Partnership are building on DotEveryone’s work to give basic digital skills for everyone. At the Open Data Institute we are advocates for basic data literacy for everyone and we’re thinking about data ethics and policy design patterns for those who collect, use and publish data.

AI will make some jobs obsolete. But it will also create new jobs. Just the other evening, our ODI co-founder Sir Nigel Shadbolt pondered if ‘Algorithmic Accountant’ could become the ‘new’ Data Scientist. Skills for humans won’t become pointless. We’ll need them more than ever to continuously improve data quality, to reduce/remove bias from our data and the algorithms we create. If a robot can’t be held accountable, the person who collected the data or designed the algorithm needs to be taught about ethics, values and morals.

Fortunately I was reassured by everything the brilliant Helen Milner said in her panel, and Mayank Prakash’s closing talk.

3. The pace of of technology and digital transformation is relentless — we can’t let Brexit can’t be distraction

Jacqueline de Rojas’ message was clear: 18% of the technology sectors 3 million workers are foreign born. 50% of businesses say that finding and retaining talent is their biggest challenge. 11.5% of all international data flows through the UK. We must ensure all of this continues after Brexit.

And its more than being able to access the best skills from across the World — its about the UK being somewhere you want to go and work. Its about the UK staying at the forefront of technology and innovation. Whilst we’re focusing on Brexit, Emmanuel Macron is launching plans for France to become the place to invest and invent.

Lets use Brexit (together with GDPR) as an opportunity to look carefully at the people and processes we need. But we can’t just rely on optimism because there is a mammoth task to get all of our policies right, right now. In Jacqueline’s own words, ‘This is our moment to consider diversity and inclusion and close our skills gap. If we invent the future, we can shape it, We must look outwards not inwards, let’s be inclusive not exclusive’

Finally, to quote Clare Moriarty, ‘Digital is the world we live in. Digital transformation is changing to the world we live in’. A question was asked about responsibility and focusing on one hero per organisation. This builds on thoughts from (one of my heroes) Janet Hughes recent blog post ‘What a digital organisation looks like’, and her comments made earlier this week at the Institute For Government’s event ‘Who is responsible for effective, efficient and secure digital govt?. It’s clear, we can’t rely on having just one digital hero per organisation.

So lets be open and build trust, encourage un-design, experiment and fail fast, be diverse and accessible, surround ourselves with mentors, simplify our language and processes, go out to where communities are and teach ourselves skills for jobs that don’t yet exist. For this to be a sustainable, inclusive future, we all need to be digital heroes.