Opportunities and Challenges: Navigating the new world of data

The history of humankind is the history of the transformative powers of technology. In devising new ways to do familiar things, we sometimes trigger deeper change. Private cars not only shortened journey times; they also reshaped cities, work patterns and family structures, altering both our relationship to the environment and the environment itself. The impact of digitisation has been at least as profound, a dizzying and ever-accelerating process of disruption and innovation.

The digital revolution is still in its infancy, yet already it has upended many of the precepts of the analogue world, forging products and services not by moulding plastic or riveting metal, but out of the raw material of human existence—personal data. The expanding capabilities of data-driven technology are already delivering opportunities unimaginable even a few decades ago. Change this far-reaching rarely arrives without unexpected consequences, good, bad or, not infrequently, a befuddling combination of the two. As we grapple with the immediacy of digital transformation and datafication, we rarely take the time to scan further horizons or even know where to look. Technological change has dramatically increased flows of information while helping to undermine faith in the systems and institutions that told us the information was legitimate. Data in all its forms is multiplying, but trust in institutions that collect, handle and analyse data—and that’s most institutions—is diminishing, not least because of institutional missteps, malfunctions and, in the most damaging cases, malfeasance. In 2017 the Edelman Trust Barometer of 28 countries for the first time found a decline in trust across the board, in government, media, business and non-governmental organisations.

This reality simultaneously makes the debate around the impacts of data-driven technologies more urgent and more difficult. The global companies that last year approached me to lead a new initiative to examine the evolving opportunities and challenges created by data-driven technologies understood the business imperative of taking ownership of those challenges. If businesses move in this space without due care, they create risks not only for others but for themselves. They acknowledged another imperative too. In a world of patchwork regulation and political turbulences, building an ethical, sustainable data environment relies on businesses doing more to ensure this outcome than is required of them by law.

This means not only identifying and adopting best practice, but also constantly updating their structures and cultures to reflect and anticipate changing realities. This means future-facing impact assessments and critical thinking around assumptions and received wisdoms, such as the notion that the gains in security offered by technology must come at the expense of privacy, which is not necessarily the case. This means sharing insights and opening up dialogues around sensitive issues. These are not things that always come easy to business. And so Datum Future was born, a new non-profit think tank, supported and deeply informed by its business members, and structured so that decision-making on the content and direction of initiatives and projects is independent of them, individually and collectively.

Datum Future was founded out of the conviction that the only way to ensure a better future is to engage in building it. And that the only way to realise the opportunities of the digital era—of big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence, automation, connected devices and cities, cloud systems, distributed ledger technologies and many more emerging trends and capabilities—is also to understand and communicate such trade-offs as exist and to find ways to mitigate or, better yet, resolve them.

Many research-based organisations are already doing great work in these fields, and Datum Future will strive to highlight their reports and recommendations and to seek out joint projects and partnerships. What Datum Future offers in addition, whether in collaboration or in its own research and initiatives, is the ability to tap into the experience of its members and to foster vital discussions within and between them and other entities. The range of sectors represented by the eight founding members, Accenture, BNP Paribas, Experian, Facebook, Mastercard, Microsoft, Novartis and Publicis Groupe, reflects another fundamental shift. All global businesses these days are, in a sense, tech companies, with data ever more central to their activity.

This report, our foundational piece of research, maps the fast-evolving digital terrain. The research identifies five areas of maximum opportunity, Powerful Me, Healthier World, Protected Lives, Smart Cities and Brighter Economies, and associated challenges that could diminish or distort their impacts. The report also illuminates a roadblock that Datum Future will strive to dismantle: the fractured nature of the debate around data. There is confusion over what is meant by data and how it is created, collected and deployed. A more damaging disconnection arises in the nature of the discussion itself. Businesses, governments and regulators, scientists and technologists and individuals (who are sometimes, but by no means always, consumers) too often talk past each other. Joining up these conversations and breaking down the silos between and within these constituencies will enable the informed debate and decision-making essential to successfully navigating the path to a better future.

The interests of these constituencies sometimes converge and overlap, at other times appear in conflict. Datum Future starts from the principle that it is not only possible to balance the interests of businesses and individuals but essential for the future wellbeing of business, individuals and wider society that we do so.

I hope you enjoy the report.

Yours sincerely,

Catherine Mayer
Executive Director
Datum Future

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