Informative. Stimulating. Enriching
It was an extraordinary experience for me to be part of the Digital Change-maker Delegation that was brought together by Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom’s (FNF) International Academy of Leadership (IAF) and Global Innovation Hub.
It was a great opportunity for nine Digital Change-makers from Asia and Africa to share information and ideas on digital transformation happening across government, business, media and society at large. In a diverse and packed programme, we visited 5 German cities in 6 days, meeting a broad range of individuals and visiting various institutions. A whirlwind tour it was, but I found the programme informative, stimulating and altogether enriching for the kind of work I do.
We met Parliamentarians at federal and state levels, and also senior government officials, with whom we discussed policies, laws and regulations related to digital technologies and innovation.
I was particularly interested to find out how Germany’s new social media law – which is in force from January 2018 and commonly known as NetzDG – is being implemented. We heard how the well-meant law is having unintended consequences: making global social media companies like Facebook block content excessively (i.e. even legitimate content), thus affecting freedom of expression online. Outsourcing web censorship to private companies is a highly contentious topic everywhere, which has been highlighted by international human rights watchdogs and activists. It was good to see that this concern is shared by liberal parliamentarians and others in Germany.
Exploring how to nurture digital innovation was a cross-cutting theme of the entire week. At the Bundestag (German Parliament), when asked to comment on what governments should do to promote innovation, I said: “Governments can create an enabling environment for innovators to experiment, sometimes fail but learn from it, and be able to commercialize viable innovations. Excessive bureaucracy often gets in the way of innovation, so if governments can’t enable, the next best thing to do is to get out of the way!”
We visited several tech start-up companies and met innovative entrepreneurs. I was especially inspired by visiting the Next Media Accelerator in Hamburg, and Handelsblatt economic daily newspaper in Düsseldorf. A ‘legacy media’ house from early last century, the Handelsblatt company has fully embraced digital platforms and technologies while retaining its core values in gathering, analysing and disseminating news. It now has print and digital editions and remains a credible and trusted media outlet. Their experiences hold useful lessons for many mainstream media houses in South Asia that are still struggling to evolve from analogue to digital.
We also met researchers and activists studying the societal impacts of the digital transformation or advocating liberal approaches rooted in a human rights framework.
At a luncheon meeting hosted by Wirtschafts Club in Düsseldorf, I met members of the German business community. I spoke on 'What Germany and Asia can learn from each other about digital innovation'.
I highlighted 3 key lessons from South Asia:
- It's not the technology, but their right use in problem solving that matters. We should not get mesmerized by digital. Often it is a combination of reformed institutions augmented by digital tech that delivers optimum and affordable solutions.
- Progressive laws and regulations are vital for societies to innovate and solve problems using technology. Whenever tech races ahead and the relevant policies/laws/regulations lag behind, tech's potential remains unfulfilled.
- Digital transformation takes time, effort and persistence. Most societies will remain a mix of analogue and digital for years or decades to come. Careful balancing of largely analogue institutions and digital opportunities is needed to make progress.
Throughout the six days, I listened intently and took notes avidly. I had ample opportunity to question, discuss and share my views. I met and interacted with very interesting people who were fellow members of the delegation -- we even found time for some fun and laughs!
Nalaka Gunawardene is a leading commentator and analyst on social, cultural and political impacts of ICTs in South Asia. He recently attended FNF-IAF and Global Innovation Hub's Digital Changemaker Delegation to Germany. In this report, he is shares his personal views.