Expert opinions, TECHNOLOGY

Democratization of technology: A dream come true?

The development of technology transforms all spheres of human life; its penetration is so broad and comprehensive that we are now witnessing something termed the democratization of technology – a phenomenon that changes the very nature of society.

The democratization of technology implies wider access to specialized knowledge and opportunities, as well as to modern business tools without the need for extensive (and often expensive) training. At the end of 2019, Gartner released a report that described the main technology trends for the next few years. One of them is the democratization of technology, which enables people outside the technology industry to access and use high-tech products and services. As a result, we transition to new ways of communicating, shopping, as well as receiving, processing and transmitting information. We also adopt a different approach to acquiring new knowledge and skills, and to building work processes.

These innovative processes are most noticeable in areas such as software development, data and information systems management, various types of design and marketing activities. In fact, a new system of doing business and of public relations is being formed, which predictably involves new participants – self-trained and independent data processing and analysis specialists, programmers, marketing experts, designers and representatives of other professions. It may be assumed that applications for digital technologies will further expand, and this “techno-democratization” will affect even more areas of activity in the near future, removing geographical boundaries, and enabling those who used to be outside the technical industry for various reasons to find their niche.

Considering this tendency in a broader sense, we can safely say that technology’s impact on human nature and society is at least as strong as that of the state or culture. This creates a new social agenda – for example, ‘digital workers’ need to be integrated into the labor and social processes. After all, the process we are witnessing is wider than automation of business processes and is partly driven by the emergence and spread of the digital workforce – software solutions for automating processes such as processing large volumes of data, preparing reports and various reconciliation checks. In this situation, human participants in the transforming market, freed from the need to perform labor-intensive and repetitive tasks, can focus on more interesting business tasks. They can program the digital workers, explore new tools to optimize processes, and perform various creative tasks in marketing. Also on the agenda is the development of a legal framework and an ethical code regulating human interaction with their “digital colleagues.”

Accessibility of the internet and related technology has drastically changed the world and created conditions for everybody and everything to connect and interact. Technical progress did not only provide access to a huge amount of information and communication tools. It is not something new or valuable as it is – on the contrary, for many decades, people have been bombarded with multi-level information flows that are unavailable for perception. What is important is that digital revolution is creating practical tools for distributing knowledge to everybody.

Every day, more and more people are improving their level of digital literacy and getting opportunities for technology-based practical activity, and this phenomenon is supposed to fight the fears of ordinary people and representatives of conventional businesses that fast-paced and explosive innovation will make humans useless. On the contrary, development and democratization of technology are to serve society and help everybody, including those previously on the curb, to participate in public and business processes. In these conditions technology will bring benefit not only to the few chosen ones but will become tools of social mobility or at least a platform of equal opportunity without censorship.

Once again, it should be noted that democratization of technology is not simply a socioeconomic phenomenon. It is also sociopolitical. One could argue whether it is society that has crucial effect on technology development today or if it is technology that is primarily mapping out social development. The fact remains: the world is undergoing a transformation and society must focus on defining and adapting the course of technological changes to achieve balanced development and sustainable future for all.

Technology democratization and increasing digital literacy allow substantially expanding the public’s ability to participate in political processes and ensuring transparency of government work. This is particularly relevant in the conditions of endemic decline of trust in the governments, the backside of technology becoming more complicated as manipulation and dissemination of fake and provocative news online, via social media and messengers are influencing politics and culture more than meticulously collected facts and analytics. Therefore, democratization of technology requires special attention when it comes to building and continuously fine-tuning trilateral links and partnerships between every citizen, society and the state.

Here are several specific examples of how technology democratization is manifesting itself and changing conventional systems. This phenomenon stimulated development of an open source culture which means that any product can be freely distributed without license restrictions. Initially, the term referred to open software but gradually, it turned into an ideology and a public movement whose participants (representatives of various industries, including design, healthcare, online education, etc.) provide open access to their developments. Researchers publish their materials and research results for free, designers post various templates. Ozon Director of Platform Engineering Anton Stepanenko claims that open source is not only an important foundation for technological development but also a tool for productive cooperation of professionals from different countries.

The development of technologies that increase the efficiency of business activity also contributes to entrepreneurship democratization because they create business tools that do not require significant investment for their deployment. On a larger scale, one can mention such a key issue of the digital agenda as a digital platform. The appearance of these technologies and the creation of business models based on them, providing multilateral interaction between producers and consumers, has not only created the infrastructure for doing business under new rules. It also allowed many people to get involved in business activity and find their own niche, increase their profits and even make this activity their main job. Another example is free or accessible tools for improving business productivity, as well as website builders or chatbots that streamline the communication with clients at a low price.

The development of technology forces us to search for new approaches to education and training. Given that the new era requires new competences, employees should have on-the-job education and training during their entire active life. Democratization in this area manifests itself in the trend towards differentiation and customization of education in order to raise standards and quality and to create a trustworthy system against the backdrop of information accessibility. The development of technology directs the education system and its separate development elements towards decentralization and flexibility, and also abandons the traditional hard and fast rules. This new philosophy radically changes the entire system; for instance, we are already witnessing the integration of the online and offline environments through the augmented and virtual reality technology.

Even today, educational programs are often digital or hybrid and integrate various formats making the physical presence of students in an education facility unnecessary. It is obvious that these opportunities create conditions for educating all interested and motivated people at affordable prices or even for free. The Coursera international educational platform, which offers online courses by the world’s leading schools and universities, is a successful example of putting these ideas into practice. However, this trend is not only related to theoretical education and training. It also promotes the development of the business and production corporate culture, which is based on the exchange of opinions, knowledge and innovative ideas and is oriented towards joint creative work. This culture overcomes hierarchical restrictions and makes businesses more sustainable and flexible, while its employees receive an opportunity to develop their skills and feel themselves valuable members of the work process.

The advantages of democratization of many processes related to digital technology can be seen everywhere. In addition to such key issues as the creation of ecosystems in the form of digital platforms, the appearance of an entire philosophy of open data, and the transformation of the system of knowledge management, there are significant changes in our everyday life. Development and distribution of applications for communication, data transfer and cloud technologies, as well as an unprecedented increase in personal computers and gadgets’ performance have allowed for adequate conditions for many people to efficiently work flexible hours from home or any other convenient location. Payment systems and numerous non-cash payment technologies, which used to scare users away, eventually proved useful and became commonly used.

Democratization is also manifested by the fact that today business has to meet clients’ needs but also must engage the stakeholders community in communication and learn to create high value products and services. Both clients and employees become full-fledged participants in business processes and receive an opportunity for having an impact on managerial decisions of companies that they cooperate with in some way or other.  

Technological development today – and in the long run – may bring us flexibility and freedom, as well as new knowledge and opportunities. The main issue with technology democratization is nothing new: what has to be done to make all citizens act responsibly by avoiding excessive use of opportunities? So far, there is no universal answer or solution for everyone, and it is not yet clear whether the progress will top the collateral damage from the universal access to technologies or the latter will prevail. It should be noted once more that we observe and make use of technology democratization effects virtually everywhere: open-source software, digital platforms, free or accessible internet, new quality of working process and education, and finally, a different life routine.

Let’s not forget that any phenomenon can be ubiquitous and ambiguous in its effects. Any weapon can be used both for defense and for attacking. Technological development can do us both good and wrong. What is unprecedented about the current situation is the scalabity and availability of tools offered by digital technology. For instance, social engineering technologies allow making an impact on millions of people across the globe by spreading fake news via social networks and messengers. In such conditions, democratization of technology is a highly important indicator of political, economic and public changes, with trust being the key aspect.

Social responsibility is becoming a key factor for individuals, the society and the state, and of, course, for companies that develop and offer democratized technology products. It should be considered that democratization of technology is an ambivalent phenomenon and poses massive risks that can have destructive effect on the society. Yet, if we apply a clever and reasonable approach, we can use democratization to offer brand new definitions of key public and cultural values and facilitate overcoming the risks of collapse in confidence, which are a major threat brought about by technology. Paying attention to current and prospective processes of technology democratization and curbing negative effects of digital transformation is a priority task aimed to secure sustainable development of certain spheres of business as well as the entire society.        

By Oleg Gurov, CEO, Center for the Development of Business Competencies, Professor, RANEPA Institute of Industry Management

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