Portulans’ ‘Dialogue on Digital Transformation’ Report Consolidates Expert Insights, Identifies Digital Trends for 2021

In 2020, the Portulans Institute launched the flagship Dialogue on Digital Transformation series.

Over the course of several months, Portulans staff virtually convened a series of thought-provoking video and written conversations with renowned global experts. The interviews addressed the critical issue of digital transformation and the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on its advancement and acceleration worldwide. In addition to hosting over 20 interviews, the Dialogue series builds on the data-driven findings about digital readiness included in Portulans’ Network Readiness Index 2020, and the ‘Building Forward Better’ panels, virtually convened around the world, with panels covering North America, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East and North Africa.

Download the ‘Dialogue on Digital Transformation: Interviews & Panel Insights’ report.

Building on insights from digital transformation thought leaders, hailing from government, international organisations, the private sector and nonprofits, the report consolidates and highlights key ideas and draws attention to the main digital trends that will shape innovation, technology and human capital throughout 2021.

COVID-19 is a key catalyst of digital transformation

According to Olu Teniola (President, Association of Telecoms Companies in Nigeria), “the reset of our economies suggests a new order is now upon us.” Vint Cerf (Vice President, Google) comments that this “forced transformation… has been underway for quite a while”: COVID-19 has just catalyzed a pre-existing undercurrent of explosive, digital change. In her interview, Frances West (former Chief Accessibility Officer, IBM) shared a similar perspective: COVID-19 “has given digital transformation an extra boost… accelerated [its] pace and reach.” Accordingly, in 2021, digital transformation “is being elevated from strategic initiative to strategic imperative,” says Karim Michel Sabbagh (Former CEO, DarkMatter). For Emma Arakelyan (CEO, Orion Worldwide), the crisis “has helped us what needed to be done”; for Dr. Anand Agarwal (Group CEO, STL Group), the crisis has made digital behaviors “mandatory”. Sharing their insights from the private sector, both Jean-François Gagné (CEO, ElementAI) and Marco Stefanini (CEO, Stefanini Global) commented on adapting to a changing business environment, and the learning curve of forced digital transformations. For Simon Kemp (Founding CEO, Kepios), the crisis has shown that “you’d be crazy not to want to be part of a more digitally integrated world.”

New digital realities demand meaningful inclusion and diversity

The first year of the pandemic has made it clear that inclusive, digitally-ready societies with strong connectivity are well-equipped to handle the pandemic’s fallout. “As human-machine collaboration becomes both necessary and more prevalent… workers’ experience must emerge as the focal point of organizational transformation,” says Gianna Sagazio (Director of Innovation, CNI.br) Amid a global public health crisis, access to the internet is not a luxury; however, around half of the world’s population still lives without meaningful connectivity, as emphasized by Sonia Jorge (Executive Director, Alliance for Affordable Internet). On rebuilding more inclusive, diverse and equitable societies in the post-COVID world, Mei Lin Fung (Co-Founder, People-Centered Internet) commented that if digital transformation “is not inclusive, it’s not about us – we have to remember that.” Samantha Schartman-Cycyk (Director, Marconi Society) agreed: closing the digital divide should be “a bottom-up, not a top-down, process”, rooted in building trusted networks. The founder of the term ‘digital divide’, Larry Irving (CEO, Irving Group), emphasized that “we have to do better by our children.”

Digital transformation irreversibly changes global talent landscapes

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed critical deficiencies in the digital skills required to continue working, trading or learning in a remote, hybrid or compromised setting. Demands for individual digital readiness have irreversibly transformed human capital worldwide, especially as digitization “actually creates a new type of employability (Dr. Jacques Bughin, Former Director, McKinsey Global Institute). Nnenna Nwakanma (Chief Web Advocate, WWW Foundation) agreed that building digital skills is essential: “digital transformation must follow along with human transformation.” To harness digital change, Dr. Jim Poisant (Secretary General, World Information Technology and Services Alliance) suggested governments hire a “digital champion: someone who gets up in the morning and can’t wait to do the next thing to get your country digitized.” Marie Lou Papazian (CEO, TUMO Center) underlined the importance of “levera[ging] the social dynamic online.” According to Dr. Cristiano Ferri (Founder of the Hacker Lab, Brazilian House of Representatives), “if you have an innovation mindset, you can do it.”

Balancing sustainable development and economic competitiveness is a core priority for digital transformation in 2021

Interviewees commented on the balance between human-centric, sustainable digital transformation and economic competitiveness. Jocelyn Kennedy (Director, Harvard Law School Library) noted the significance of free and fair access to information for human-centric innovation. In order to ensure digital transformation puts people first, Dr. Giacomo Damioli (Researcher, European Commission) outlined his vision for fostering political commitment to connectivity. As Professor Demi Getschko (Director, CNI.br) commented, “connectivity is a core part of a country’s competitiveness.” As for leveraging digital transformation to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals, as Dr. Rene Arnold (Public Affairs Expert, Huawei) remarked that “connectivity is only part of the problem: affordability of data and skills to use digital solutions represent equally high thresholds for many to become part of – and benefit from – digital transformation.”

From crisis-driven digital transformations to changes in human capital landscapes, the balance between connectivity and competitiveness, the growing digital divide, and inclusion and diversity, the report identifies emerging conversations to watch in 2021. The Portulans Institute looks forward to offering expertise and insights, and driving dialogue and knowledge-sharing between our global network.