IDATE DigiWorld’s senior advisors

Jean-Hervé Lorenzi

Can digital technology cure what ails us?

Not since the arrival of the steam engine has technology so divided we humans. Some imagine a world where all of us would be free from performing all physical tasks, and where our only purpose would be to continue deepening our knowledge throughout a virtually eternal existence. In other words: heaven on earth. Others, meanwhile, provide a stark contrast to this idyllic vision: a labour market that is deeply polarised between the qualified and the unqualified, for those who still have a job, and where the two underlying tides are technological unemployment and invasion of privacy.

Of course, neither of these black and white views should be given any real credence, and more careful scrutiny is warranted. There are two main issues, then: the impact on the job market and the impact on our lives.

The tech illusion and the end of work

While the question of the relationship between technical progress and employment is by no means new, it has always had dramatic implications for those on the receiving end. Current fear of innovation has come to replace the fears of the luddites and silk workers. Some, like Rifkin, believe that the end of work is nigh whereas others, like Sauvy, believe that new jobs will be created at the same time as other are destroyed. These simplistic and soothing pronouncements may promise a society of knowledgeable individuals, of entrepreneurs, but today’s society produces more unqualified jobs than ever before, the labour market is becoming polarised between highly skilled jobs, technology’s beneficiaries, and very low-skill jobs, the drones of the digital transition, aka bullshit jobs. All this is based on the idea of massive gains in productivity which, thanks to the machine, frees humans from having to work. Unfortunately, this is not at all what is happening and, well before the coronavirus crisis, we were seeing a clear decline in productivity gains, and this in ever country, even though digitisation continued to spread.

Stagnation but not a secular one  

This is why the strange expression “secular stagnation” is in fact a reaction to his naïve vision, whereby our society’s trajectory is rooted only in progress. Here again, reality lies somewhere between two opposite views. The idea of stagnation is not really new; Keynes referred to it when talking about the massive unemployment of the 1930s. But if this debate has really taken hold over the past few years, it is because everyone has finally admitted that, in all likelihood, the only explanation for the widespread decrease in productivity gains is the ways that technical progress is currently being disseminated. This stagnation, which is characterised by low inflation and near zero interest rates, is the subject of much debate amongst economists. It is impossible to know what will happen a century from now. What we can say, however, is that the changes being ushered in today by digital technology are profound, and affect how work is organised, our relationship to wage earning, and our growth potential.

The ubiquitous invasion problem 

Some digital prophets are promising us a technological Eden were limitless knowledge will bring humankind back to a sort of earthly paradise. Right now, however, it is more an invasion of privacy issue. And even if we have become aware of the issues that data sharing, and digital giants’ pervasive presence in our lives represent, no efficient solution has yet been put forth that would enable people to take back control over their personal data, and lead us back to true privacy.

Putting digital technology back to work for prosperity

Digital technology alone has been unable to bring about radical change in the economic world. The real problem is that, as it stands, while passing itself off as modernity, it is actually taking us back to the 19th century. The real danger is that technology is seen as an objective source of divides between humans. The resulting responses, notably those for overcoming inequalities, are far too weak. As has always been the case across history, scientific progress needs to lay the groundwork for economic and social progress, designed for the good of one and all.

Jean Hervé Lorenzi
Président du Cercle des économistes

Éric Labaye

The digital revolution, which continues to pervade every economic, social and cultural aspect of our lives, spreading across the entire global chessboard, is creating a number of challenges for the system of higher education and research, in terms of the way it operates, the curricula and the areas that research and innovation focus on most.

The system is addressing these issues and has largely begun to adapt by becoming more agile, developing new courses, redirecting its research priorities to key areas such as AI, data science and cybersecurity, and by encouraging innovation.

In this ever-evolving environment, IDATE DigiWorld has also evolved by opening itself up to the entire digital ecosystem, which means it is directly plugged into the different stakeholders’ needs and concerns, and by focusing on identifying the paradigm shifts.

This 2020 edition of IDATE DigiWorld’s DigiWorld Yearbook once again traces the course of the revolution that is playing out before our eyes, rooting its analysis in the developments surrounding the ever increasing number of digital infrastructures, services, content and applications, and the pervading transition to digital.

Particular focus is on the consequence of the 5G rollout, the potentialities of artificial intelligence and the implications of the Internet of Things (IoT).

IDATE DigiWorld’s forward-looking analysis and the annual chronicle that is a staple of the DigiWorld Yearbook are invaluable contributions that cover the key trends emerging from R&D, but also a tremendous stimulus for rethinking the higher education and research systems, its excellence training for tomorrow’s leaders and policy makers, its areas of research and its commitment to innovation, working in tandem with every economic stakeholder.

The Covid-19 pandemic provided an unprecedented opportunity for innovation in all of the infrastructures and services that enable the digitisation of all our activities that allow us to produce, consume, learn, care, heal, meet and interact remotely.

The lockdown that was imposed across the globe to stop the spread of the virus accelerated the transition to digital for a huge swath of the population, as much in their working as their personal lives, shoring up new forms of organisation, interaction and sociability.

That this transition was able to occur by and large without any major hiccups illustrates the extent to which the switch to digital is already well underway in a great many processes, as well as the high level of dissemination and adoption of new digital technologies.

If this crisis was also an opportunity to show the degree to which the virtual has become an integral part of our daily lives, it also made us question the role that real life, live experiences and human relations play in society in the 21st century.

We must take the new digital reality into account, as IDATE DigiWorld invites us to do, and its annual report is a must read for higher education and research – which is both a producer of new technologies, but also a user for all of its operations – as well as an opportunity to broaden our thinking about the issues and challenges at hand.

Éric Labaye
Président de l’École Polytechnique

Senior Advisors of IDATE DigiWorld