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Brexit and the growing digital divide

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Brexit and the growing digital divide
A business meeting at Artipelag in Stockholm. Photo: Henrik Trygg/mediabank.visitstockholm.com
14:21 CEST+02:00
Modern tech hubs like Stockholm are thriving while smaller regions struggle. We need to close this gap and we need to do it quickly, argues Leif Rehnström, CEO of the Skellefteå-based Hello Future!
”This was never a referendum on the EU. It was a referendum on the modern world.” @pennyred wrote on June 24th. I couldn't agree more.
 
But what is this modern world of which people are opting out?
 
It's a world where our cars are self-driving, where work is increasingly automated, where experiences are valued more than price, where transactions happen peer to peer, where borders and geography become increasingly redundant, where our society is built by code instead of concrete, where small startups take on whole industries, where every citizen can voice an opinion and where our homes adapt to our moods and modes.
 
So why isn't this a thrilling future for all?
 
Firstly, because it threatens our jobs and livelihood. Jobs that used to be considered safe career choices are now topping lists of jobs that will be automated shortly. These include many of the current jobs in banking and insurance, most production jobs, cashiers, drivers and so on. Recent research has suggested that about half of the jobs we know today will be automated in a decade or two. This has of course happened before, but never at this pace.
 
Secondly - the future is not evenly distributed as the author William Gibson has said repeatedly. Many of the modern-world jobs that will replace what we know today are based in urban areas such as London, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris, Tel Aviv, Melbourne, San Francisco, Austin and Moscow. 
 
These tech ecosystems are rich with tech talent from local universities, funding from local venture capital funds, successful serial entrepreneurs and usually ambitious government initiatives. These hubs are attracting global talent to the digital economy. 
 
But smaller regions have a hard time catching up since they have to make up for 15 years of lost time and are missing key ingredients of the ecosystems such as funding, tech universities, government initiatives and talent density. 
 
This creates a society with winners and losers of the digital economy where the already strong urbanization trend adds additional strength to the ecosystems of the tech hubs.
 
So it's no wonder that if you're not part of the winning team of the modern digital world, you will feel threatened, afraid, angry, frustrated or resigned. This is also true for both winners and losers of the industrial world and it explains why we see workers joining up with the far-right to "take their countries back”. Both groupings are threatened by the new rules and behaviors of the modern digital world. This is a perfect environment for xenophobia, populism and extremism.
 
So are we really surprised that frustrated people will use their power to punish the establishment and the winners of the new digital economy?
 
The only way to battle this fear and make sure we embrace our future instead of resisting it is to give all people and organizations everywhere access to knowledge and opportunities of the digital economy. Bring as many people as possible to the winning team and create a new digital savvy modern middle class. 
 
Help as many existing industrial companies as possible survive the transformation to digital business models. This will mean that we have to redesign national education, re-distribute funding, create new support systems, inspire and train local workers, entrepreneurs and policy makers. It's no quick fix, but it can't wait. We have to do it and we have to do it now.
 
At my company, Hello Future, we have made it our primary mission to help bridge this divide by coaching small and medium sized companies outside of big cities, by running training programs for executives and workers, by setting up distributed teams of digital experts in unlikely places, by supporting startup ecosystems in small cities, by helping the public sector launch local funding initiatives and by providing research and knowledge about how to get going with digital transformation. It's a massive mission, but we will try very hard to make a meaningful contribution. 
 
Many other initiatives are already underway in some European countries, such as teaching kids to code in school but we will not see the effects of that for another 10 - 15 years. 
 
So, digital training for people and organizations who are still playing by the old rules is essential. 
 
I wasn't surprised by Brexit and I will not be surprised if Donald Trump wins the US election later this year, but we can't let that get in the way of the most important mission - giving ordinary people access to the benefits of a digital world!
 
Leif Rehnström is the chief executive of the digital transformation consultancy Hello Future! The company is based in Skellefteå and also has offices in Stockholm. 
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