The digital age holds significant promise for communities, but only if leaders are purposeful about the development, implementation, and management of emerging technologies.

For many years, leaders in the community digitalization space have been focused on the adoption of new technologies – sensors, autonomous vehicles, and 5G, to name a few – to deliver economic, social, and environmental value. Now we’ve come to the point where realizing the promise of these emerging technologies requires collaboration, strategy, and vision. 

The arrival of this new phase of digital evolution inspired Bas Boorsma, professor of practice at Thunderbird, to revise his book, A New Digital Deal. For the revision, he interviewed community leaders whose comments point to the need for an expanded digital deal to deliver the potential value and meet the challenges associated with emerging technologies.

The Promise of Community Digitalization and the Impact of COVID-19 

“Community digitalization holds unprecedented promise,” said Boorsma. “The tools, values, and organizational paradigms that constitute and follow from digitalization enable human enterprise to be organized better, differently.” 

Digitalization (also called digitization) has become increasingly important through the COVID-19 pandemic as people rely even more heavily on digital technologies to stay connected, informed, and safe. The pandemic has also highlighted how vulnerable many systems are across society. Even in wealthy nations like the US, many communities, governments, hospitals, and schools were underprepared to leverage technology to deal with the pandemic.

This has exacerbated the need for what Boorsma calls a “New Digital Deal” which, he said, we need sooner rather than later. “Not digitalization for the sake of digitalization, but to help us mitigate the current crisis as well as the ones that will follow, and to ensure the societal resilience and well-being of tomorrow.”  

“COVID-19 has highlighted how much we rely on digital tools, but also how vulnerable many of our systems are.”- CLICK TO TWEET 

Digitalization Doesn’t Just Happen – And It Could Make Things Worse 

The unprecedented promise of digitalization won’t be realized automatically. “It will require a massive collaboration across societal stakeholders, producing a new consensus on what digitalization affords and how to frame and facilitate it, in order to harvest its potential in full,” said Boormsa. 

In fact, without such a consensus, digitalization could make things worse. “If we do not arrive at a New Digital Deal, digital divides will expand, digital disruption will just disrupt, innovation will largely be governed by incrementalism, and societal challenges will remain under-addressed,” Boorsma said. 

Other industry experts, like the former Cisco CEO John Chambers, share this concern. Chambers said, “My hope is that digitization will dramatically improve the lives of 7.5 billion people in the world – to be truly inclusive, create GDP, and create jobs. My biggest fear is that we miss this tremendous opportunity and the digital divide will worsen.” 

“The promise of digitalization won’t be realized automatically; it will require a massive collaboration across societal stakeholders.” – Bas Boorsma - CLICK TO TWEET

We Can’t Afford “Blind” Digital Disruption

If we are going to close the digital divide and realize the potential of digitalization, leaders must be purposeful about what they want to achieve, while also taking into consideration ethical implications. “No one can afford to call for ‘blind’ digital disruption any longer,” said Boorsma. “Society and its multiple stakeholders need to firmly frame what is expected from the next wave of technology-driven change – in terms of costs, outcomes, side effects, and ethics.” 

“No one can afford to call for ‘blind’ digital disruption any longer.”– Bas Boorsma - CLICK TO TWEET 

Community digitalization has come a long way, no doubt. But in order to propel forward and evolve, leaders need to focus on collaboration, strategy, and vision – and forge the rudiments of a New Digital Deal. 

Related insights