Internet Pioneers Talk About Digital Transformation in the Age of COVID-19

September 29, 2020

This is part of our Dialogue on Digital Transformation series, in advance of the upcoming 2020 Network Readiness Index.

Our CEO and co-founder Carolina Rossini interviewed Vint Cerf, Mei Lin Fung  and Samantha Schartman-Cycyk on digital transformation in 2020, and how COVID-19 has impacted this process at the individual, company and country levels. Watch the full conversation here.

Rossini: How has COVID-19 affected the need for digital transformation?

Cerf drew attention to the fact that digital transformation is not new: on the contrary, while digital transformation has been occurring for years, “it penetrates at various rates… You’ll find some segments of the economy and [society] have been brought into this transformation more quickly than others.”

In Cerf’s perspective, COVID-19 has “highlighted a great disparity across our society… It’s like a great big spotlight, which is highlighting some parts and putting other parts in shadow.” The crisis has “highlighted the differentiation” between the rates of digital transformation between economies, professions and even individuals.

Drawing on her experience working in digital inclusion, Schartman-Cycyk agreed: digital transformation is and has always been inevitable. Yet it has not come without tension, particularly in workforce development. Schartman-Cycyk noted the degree of digital literacy now required to apply for jobs in all sectors.: “even if you don’t think you are part of the digital economy, [you need] some awareness and an understanding of how it affects your sector.”

Rossini: In the age of COVID-19, how could digital transformation be leveraged to rebuild more inclusive, diverse economies and workplaces?

Fung drew on her experience as a woman of color working in Silicon Valley. “I want to actually pay tribute to some of the things that have happened [here] for diversity and inclusion… At Intel, which I joined 30 years ago… We had a very diverse group of people… and really were part of the big first wave of startups that spread digital technology.” Fung continued: “It is possible for digital technology to come from [a place like this]. I experienced it and saw it: by having people like (Intel Chief) Andy Grove… coming forward and saying it’s important to do.”

Back to the present day, Fung noted “we now have to be responsible for making [diversity and inclusion] standard practice because the whole world is diverse. And in this COVID pandemic, we are returning to ourselves as people, people of culture, people of different races, people of different religions. And if we are to talk about digital transformation: if it’s not inclusive, it isn’t about us. And we have to remember that.”

Rossini: How can firms and governments build a supportive ecosystem for digital leadership, leveraging technology, governance and people for impact?

Schartman-Cycyk commented with concern the deficit in digital leadership governance facing societies on the brink of digital transformation. “What it feels like to me is that you’re trying to install software without checking the system requirements… I think we’re at a point where we need to get more people around the table to talk about how we strategically approach [the problem of digital transformation] in a collaborative way.”

Schartman-Cycyk also highlighted the importance of data that gives us an accurate picture of digital inclusion and the digital divide: “[Information] that’s out there to inform where people should set up shop, expanding and improving the economic development of communities, is hinged to our intelligence about where the Internet is and how it performs. And if we aren’t extremely clear and entirely transparent about that, then we are not able to use the tools and resources that are built into our governance structures… we’re working blind.”

Cerf agreed: “Data is really important for any business large or small: understanding your supply chains, understanding what the regulations are with regards to the business you’re in… whether you’re a street vendor or a big [firm]… Having access to this information turns out to be really important, and getting to it online is one of the ways you can do it.”

Rossini: At this juncture, how can we make sure that digital transformation is human-centric?

Fung commented: “We have seen such a change from agriculture to industry, where [the question is raised]: how do we prepare people to really flourish in this new connected world? And that still has to be learned. And those who are willing to be pioneers on this are going to actually help those coming behind us. And I think we have a fantastic new opportunity ahead of us…. We have to bring in the entity of community… That’s how we prepare for the next generation.”

Building off of this answer, Schartman-Cycyk replied that “this needs to be a bottom-up, not a top-down, process… You are much more likely to adopt something new… if it is provided to you or shared with you from someone in your trusted network.” Responding to this, Cerf noted that “if we want an online environment in which we feel safe and secure, we may very well need both national and international agreements in order to enforce that condition… I think there’s also an important role for top-down kinds of decision making.”

Looking ahead, Cerf commented that “there is plenty of work to be done to take advantage of the technology that has been developed… In some sense, our legal systems and our social systems have got to catch up to technologies that are already upon us… I have news for everybody. There’s an Internet in your future. Resistance is futile!

Vint Cerf is Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. Widely known as one of the “Fathers of the Internet”, Cerf was a co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and architecture of the Internet. Cerf is the former Senior Vice President for Technology Strategy at MCI and former Vice President of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives. Cerf also served as Chairman of the Board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. In 1997, Cerf and his colleague Robert E. Kahn received the US National Medal of Technology; in 2004, Kahn and Cerf were awarded the ACM Alan M. Turing Award.

Mei Lin Fung is Co-Founder of People Centered Internet. As a tech pioneer, Fung co-designed the first customer relationship management system (“OASIS”) in 1989. Later, Fung served as the socio-technical lead for the US Department of Defense’s Federal Health Futures Initiative. Fung is also the Vice-Chair for Internet Inclusion for the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers, and works with the World Economic Forum (WEF) Steering Committee for Internet for All. In 2018, Fung was a finalist for the Woman of the Year in Silicon Valley.

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk is the Executive Director of the Marconi Society, with a long track record of experience in digital inclusion and awareness about digital connectivity. Schartman-Cycyk is the Founder and CEO of Connected Insights, and the Research Director of the Connect Your Community Institute.

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