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The prospects and limitations of digitalization

Alex Steffen[1] makes enterprises future-proof. He is an expert for business strategy and innovation. He is also a no.1 Best-Selling Author and Speaker. His mission by 2025 is to empower 150,000 business leaders to future-proof their enterprise with ease. How? Alex turns business leaders into entrepreneurs. Alex Steffen was named Management Thought Leader 2019 by Change X and his book “Die Orbit Organisation” was nominated for the getAbstract International Book Award. His Keynotes “The Atlas of Innovation” and “Unstoppable Human” are international hits. Learn about Alex at


Alex Steffen

JUnQ: What is digital citizenship? Should there be a basic education in responsible handling of digital tools in (early) schools?

Alex T. Steffen: Let’s pick a narrow definition. I understand digital citizenship as a human’s ability to be a more rounded part of society thanks to information technology. The truth is: technology often simply emphasizes the existing design.

Digital schooling isn’t better schooling, as long as schools fail to teach us the central skills required in the modern world: thinking for ourselves. In my opinion, that’s what the society and workplace of the future needs. We’re trying to stitch digital onto an outdated paradigm, which tells us that memorizing facts is fundamental to a successful career. And then we’re surprised to find that machines take away jobs.

The truth: a rounded human, well-equipped to play his or her part in society combines a unique blend of complex skills. Uniqueness is an advantage, not a disadvantage. I see micro degrees, potent mentoring, and real exposure to the world as essential ingredients of education towards digital citizenship. We don’t need any more homogenous machine workers. The new standard for humans and businesses is hyper-customization. A smart country isn’t a country that has advanced to digital citizen services only.

A smart country is a society where its citizens can create a career and life on their own terms using highly customizable (education) resources. That will make them uniquely trained and attractive according to their strengths and inclinations. Look around, the top talents are already living this very design. Now it’s our responsibility to take it from niche to commonplace.

JUnQ: What are the general problems and dangers that arise with (global) digitalization and what are possible solutions?

Alex T. Steffen: This begs the exploration of the new relationship between digital processes and human habits. Let’s first crush a myth: our problem isn’t the technology disrupting our lives. Humans will create what’s possible. They always have. The problem lies in our own comfort to reconsider what we see as “normal”, “customary” and “acceptable”. Our problem is: we think that most of what we look at is permanent when in fact, the world is in constant change.

We underestimate our need for validation and our inability to accept outside perspectives. Those are the real causes of resistance. I am convinced that if we could measure the real damage of business as usual, it would vastly outweigh the so-called threats of digitization. I would like to see an approach where anything new is met with a cool-headed evaluation. Reactive resistance contra change based on individual discomfort stands in the way of realizing beneficial trends.

These trends often end up as part of our lives anyway, built by others, who were open-minded in the first place. And, equally important, a lack of engagement with trends prevents us from making them safe and aligned with our values. I suggest training leaders on emotional intelligence and on staying curious. As soft as this sounds to our logical minds, it’s the vastly underestimated skill that nourishes our ability to be competitive. Innovation starts with the very subject in question: rethinking (innovating) the way we train our leaders, so that change can be embraced .

JUnQ: Data processing, communication, and research have become impossible without digital tools, especially in the field of technology and science. A regression has become unthinkable. Are there limitations to further digital progress?

Alex T. Steffen: Every society comfortable enough to explore this philosophical question faces a dilemma between two seemingly exclusive ideas.

Idea 1: we’ve arrived at the pinnacle of innovation. Further innovation seems unthinkable or unethical. Further innovation causes more harm than good.

Idea 2: awe-inspiring science fiction scenarios that look completely absurd but encapsulate even more human optimization potential.

The two ideas are not exclusive. Rather, they lie on opposite poles of a scale. I’m always curious where a person or society sits on that scale. In other words, how much of each idea do they express. My take is that we often ignore the bigger picture. History can provide data for a more realistic standpoint, namely that humans will continue innovating indefinitely. It’s like that because with new capabilities come ever new desires. These trigger our ingenuity anew.

This begs the question: will we be able to find a healthy balance between a paralyzing public debate about the implications of change on the one hand and co-creating the inevitable changes, so that they end up in favor of future generations? Let’s look at an example: In Sweden the question of female equality at work has largely been resolved for a few years. “We focus on doing rather than talking” an executive at Volvo shared with me. In Germany, after years of debate this is still a hot topic.

JUnQ: How will the future digital workplace look like?

Alex T. Steffen: I love this question and yet I’ll keep my answer deliberately vague. Nobody can predict the future with 100% accuracy. I sincerely hope that for most people the future workplace will be driven by vitality, intuition, and self-actualization. This will mean better health and quality of life for the individual as well as higher competitiveness for business. [1]

JUnQ: In Germany, digitalization appears to proceed more slowly than in other industrial countries. What are possible troubles and how can we overcome this gap?

Alex T. Steffen: All innovation starts in the mind. History is full of examples where German ingenuity put us in the pole position, only to be halted by doubt and cumbersome processes. We wake up and find ourselves late in the game. No question, their intention is good. But after some time of business as usual, further resistance to creative destruction creates more harm than good. In 2019 German car giant Volkswagen came out with its car for the future. Unfortunately the car is not an exponential innovation at all. It’s traditional car with an electric engine. Major improvements still require a garage.

Tesla Motors on the other hand, has shown us what a disruption of the automotive industry really looks like. Tesla has built a digital platform on which major improvements are performed over the internet via digital upgrades. The result: the need for a garage drops drastically. So does the dependency on a complex web of stakeholders, turning Tesla Motors into the more flexible player. This example shows that Germany’s industry still loves its traditions. They are safe. Planning and due diligence is our fetish. But safe does not make our designs future-proof. The key competitive edge for the future is flexibility. Sooner or later we need to start killing our legacy darlings and commit to real change.

JUnQ: How important do you see 5G in general?

Alex T. Steffen: Humans have great difficulty perceiving change that is happening right now. Change is always seen from the understanding of the past. For example, the first movies were recorded in the style of plays. Only after some time directors developed the unique movie style we know today. I see 5G as an essential building block of the future, both for business and private. The debate about the why is holding up the potential to work on the how.

JUnQ: What could be the next big step in digitalization after smart devices, AI and augmented reality?

Alex T. Steffen: I heard a fascinating statement the other day: In the last two years we have undergone more change than the previous ten. The discomfort of uncertainty makes us ask questions like this. Just like a cigarette drag they are just dangerous fixes that ignore the root problem: anxiety. We cannot trust any so-called futurists because nobody actually knows the future. Many experts’ predictions have been dramatic errors costing businesses large sums of money. Other predictions have never reached the mainstream, leaving everyone unprepared. Instead I suggest us all to take on a calm and confident attitude towards the future:

1. Being optimistic. Not all of the future is great but there’s more good than bad.

2. Embracing uncertainty. Accepting the fact that for the rest of our lives we’ll be newbies.

Build our very own ability to separate what’s important from the noise, based on concrete data points. Then decide for ourselves without taking dangerous shortcuts. To help with this I recommend three books: “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly, “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling, “The Rise of The Creative Class” by Richard Florida.3-5

JUnQ: The data flood is growing evermore, and coherencies seem to become impenetrable with every new discovery. How applicable is “fail fast, fail often” for the digital learning processes in terms of time and resources?

Alex T. Steffen: In the late 1800s, as economic activity grew, people were debating solutions for the drastic increase of horse dung in the streets. It was becoming a huge issue and no solutions in sight. The advent of the combustion engine solved that pressing issue within one decade. As humans evolve they design capabilities for pressing challenges. These days we’re addressing the issues caused by the combustion engine and other contributors to global heating.

In the same fashion, we’ll come up with technology that can manage and interpret existing and new data for our needs. Because of the increase of speed and complexity, prototyping in a fail fast, fail often fashion as we know it from startups remains highly relevant in my view.

JUnQ: Can you give future leaders a piece of advice to take along?

Alex T. Steffen: There’s only one, but it means everything: embrace discomfort. In order to go further we often need to tolerate some discomfort. A trampoline requires a downward strain in order to gain the force that can shoot a person up in the air. Without the down there’s no up. In most cases the internal resistance is much greater than the external struggle. In other words: it’s easier than we think. If we have a good reason to act we’ll do it. So here’s mine: if we want to leave a better world for our kids, we have to get better at embracing change.

JUnQ: Inspiring words, thank you very much for the interview, Mr. Steffen!

— Tatjana Daenzer

You can find some perspectives on how to design a future-proof workplace in Alex’ book “The Orbit Organisation” and on Alex’ blog ([1,2]

Read more:

[1] A.M. Schüller, A.T. Steffen, Die Orbit-Organisation, 2019, Gabal
[3] K. Kelly, The Inevitable, 2017, Penguin Books
[4] H. Rosling , O. Rosling, et al., Factfullness, 2018, Sceptre
[5] R. Florida, The Rise of The Creative Class, 2014, Basic Books