We hadn't expected to hear a superhero story at a workshop about digital skills. Carl Callewaert, the coordinator of the lifelong learning programme in Flanders, explained Work Action Heroes, a toolkit that showcases ‘inspiring stories about heroes from the labour market’. Its goal is to help companies to train (and retrain) employees so that they hold onto jobs and continue boosting the economy. In the case of Silver Fox, the platform recommends mentoring, reskilling and an HR approach that does not discriminate by age.
Carl highlighted one of the main challenges he and other Digital Frontrunners participants - policymakers from the Benelux and Nordic regions - had come to address in The Hague at our three-day workshop last week: in a world that is going digital at an unprecedented rate, a huge proportion of the workforce - including experienced workers like Silver Fox - will need to adapt their skills or risk being left behind.
This pressing need requires an innovative response. Policymakers will also need to find new ways of working in order to deliver a digital economy for all. In an exercise we led, we therefore flipped the question to our participants: what skills will you need to address the challenge of delivering digital skills?
We used Nesta’s competency framework for successful public problem solving to shape the workshop. The framework defines the skills, attitudes and behaviours needed to solve policy challenges in an increasingly complex world. And there are many; no individual can realistically excel in all areas, unless they are indeed some sort of policy superhero. We used it as a tool for subjective self-evaluation, to provoke discussion, and most importantly to identify opportunities where countries can help each other as the Digital Frontrunner programme develops.
It quickly became apparent that our participants are doing their utmost to embody these competencies where possible. However, the reality of their everyday is far more complex.
For example, ‘working together’ emerged as a key challenge. Many were highly motivated to collaborate regularly for fresh perspectives from outside their usual circles, or work closely with other ministries in order to shape more robust and innovative policies. However, their existing ways of working make it tricky. Highly defined organisational structures, prescribed team roles, and limited time and resources were a few barriers to overcome.
A few participants stressed that breaking with traditional ways of working is often uncomfortable given how established the ‘silos of decision making’ were. This said, the importance of a shared ownership of solutions was strongly recognised as worthy of addressing. This is precisely why these policymakers were in The Hague, and participating in the Digital Frontrunners programme. They understand that future skills policy challenges can be tackled more effectively as an international collective.
As inspiration, participants heard from initiatives such as Women in Digital Empowerment, Integrify, and Make IT Work; pioneering programmes enabling a more inclusive digital economy by providing training and career support to women, migrants, and non-STEM graduates respectively. They had the opportunity to gain insights into how a Technology Pact for their own governments - such as the Netherlands’ Techniekpact - can help deliver a well-trained workforce for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
Working together in country teams, participants applied innovation design methods to identify key policy challenge questions. On the final day, they explored how through robust experimentation and evaluation, ‘nudges’ can be effectively used to drive social change. Participants chose a real policy challenge and designed their own interventions in a highly practical session delivered by the Behavioural Insights Team. The goal of these sessions was not only to introduce Digital Frontrunner participants to new approaches, but for them to embark on a journey of policy design through collaboration and experimentation.
Whether it’s reflecting on public service skills, or designing nudges, all of the insights policymakers are gaining from the programme will become more crucial given the rate of digitalisation we are experiencing. As keynote speaker, Erik P. Vermeulen, Professor of Business and Financial Law at Tilburg Law School highlighted on the first day: the rate of technological advancement is no longer constant and predictable, it is now exponential and uncertain. Looking at lessons from the past in order to plan for the future simply won’t suffice.
The solution Erik offered? To bring ‘technologists’ and ‘non-technologists’ together. By combining expertise, innovative solutions can flourish. He gave an example of how Tilburg Law School is bringing together lawyers and coders as a pioneering way of shaping the law profession into one that capitalises on advances such as automation.
The approach chimed with Carl’s superhero analogy. Today’s superheroes, like the Avengers, are tackling more complex challenges by combining superpowers to defeat their nemeses. But this is where the analogy ends. There needn’t be a nemesis in the story we’re writing about digitalisation; instead, we can focus on the opportunities it can bring about.
Lynette Webb, the Senior Manager at Google for European Policy Strategy gave some examples that echo Erik’s collective approach and show how humans and machines can work together: intelligent dairy farmer assistants using fitbit-like sensors on cows; AI systems that support paramedics in detecting cardiac arrests during emergency calls; or augmented reality microscopes that help surgeons detect cancer tumours. Giving these examples, she also reminded us that digital advances such as AI and machine learning are ultimately algorithms and mathematics, not magic. The influence these have on our world will be defined by how we choose to embrace them.
The experience in The Hague revealed a powerful motivation among government representatives to shape the future through collaborative and inclusive policymaking. It doesn’t matter whether you are a Work Action Hero or a policymaker: a collective vision for digitalisation can and should be something that we make happen together.
We’d like to thank our inspirational speakers and enthusiastic participants from Finland, Sweden, Estonia, Denmark, Netherlands, and Belgium for their contribution. Our Digital Frontrunners teams will reassemble in Finland in September where the focus will shift to designing testable solutions to future skills policy challenges.