Overcoming challenges in a digital world

  • Education
  • Sunday, 02 Feb 2020

DIGITAL technologies have revolutionised our lives beyond our wildest expectations. The way we find information, book our travel, do our shopping and find our destinations when driving has completely changed over the past two decades. This trend is expected to continue; more of our activities and devices are not only digitally connected via the Internet, but also have enough computational power to “think” for themselves. Imagine your refrigerator being able to tell that you are running low on milk and taking the initiative to order two cartons of your favourite brand online for it to be delivered to your doorstep. This is but one aspect of what is dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This essentially digital revolution will continue to have a profound impact on our lives. While this will be mostly positive, there will be some adverse effects, as it is the case with every new revolutionary technology, that we need to be able to address. Two main challenges that need to be considered urgently and widely are the issues of lost human jobs and the impact the new technology has on human behaviour and relationships between people.

I wish to focus on the latter challenge. With the freedom and convenience that digital technology provides, the notion of privacy is threatened. Our digital presence is increasingly becoming as important as our physical one. This is good to show our achievements and widen our impact, but it brings with it the opportunity for antisocial behavior such as cyberbullying and digital personal attacks. Cyberbullying is considered by some experts to be more vicious than face-to-face bullying, because it is able to take place 24/7.

In a commencement address delivered by Apple CEO Tim Cook at Stanford University in June 2019, he chose to tackle the challenge of digital privacy saying “If we accept as unavoidable that everything in our lives can be aggregated, sold or even leaked in the event of a hack, then we lose the freedom to be human.”

“In a world without digital privacy, even if you have done nothing wrong other than think differently, you begin to censor yourself.”

As we face the grand challenges of our age, such as the issues surrounding the environment, health and energy, we cannot afford to censor ourselves and silence our urge to think differently. We need all the creativity that we can muster. A world in which the fear of digital hacking, lack of privacy, cyberbullying and other side effects of our latest technological progress force us to change our nature is neither desirable nor inevitable.

So, how can we prepare ourselves to navigate this brave new world?

Humans bring to any endeavour three dimensions of labour, physical, cognitive and emotional. Education has, for centuries, focused mainly on developing and enhancing cognitive labour, because this was what was needed to succeed in the age of the first Industrial Revolution. As machines get smarter and more connected in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, developing emotional labour and enhancing emotional intelligence should take centrestage. Emotional intelligence is about being self-aware, able to manage oneself, having empathy with others and possessing resilience and the ability to build trust and nurture productive relationships with other people.

Systematically developing emotionally intelligent graduates is possible through adopting Positive Education, an approach to education that focuses on building positive character strengths in parallel with a focus on academic excellence. Heriot-Watt University adopted Positive Education to prepare graduates to be able to thrive in a challenging world. The cornerstone for emotional intelligence and self-awareness is a keen sense of purpose, and a scientific understanding of how the brain works. Every member of our community, students and staff, develops an “Impact Statement” outlining how they want to use their life, professional knowledge and special skills to make the world a better place. Research has shown that people who are clear about their purpose are happier, more successful and able to motivate others.

Gratitude is also an important aspect. We encourage our staff and students to express gratitude to others and remember daily the positive things in their lives and be grateful for them. We call this “Brain Rewiring” because gratitude is found to physically rewire the brain encouraging optimistic and positive thought patterns.

It will not only produce resilient graduates who are able to deal with the challenges of digital world, but also wiser professionals and policymakers who will create a better version of this world for all of us.


Provost and CEO

Heriot-Watt University Malaysia

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