Looking at society these days, it is clear that our lives are becoming more and more digitalised and connected. From banking to entertainment and shopping, everything we need is just a couple of clicks away. This has led to a growing fear that old-fashioned habits like reading a book or meeting face to face may be dying a slow death. Not so, says Thimon de Jong, founder and director of strategic foresight think tank Whetston, and expert in future human behaviour and societal change, who argues that we are heading toward a growing digital balance.
“We have already over-digitalised many parts of our lives but there are signs that some young people are starting to push back against digitalisation,” says de Jong.
One such example is the recent backlash against the paperless office, which looked like the only way forward just a few years ago. However, it turns out our laptops and iPads are not making us any more productive.
“In Silicon Valley there’s a trend right now for device-free meetings. In fact, studies show we retain more information when we take notes with a pen and paper,” he adds.
And there is more good news for the paper industry, with the book sale figures from the US reporting an 11% increase in sales for hard backs and a 17% increase for paperbacks over the last four years.
So why is it that, when everything in society appears to point one way, people sometimes start moving in the opposite direction?
“Historically, it has taken a few decades before we’ve been able fully to define the role of any new technology,” says de Jong, explaining that this was the case with the television, the calculator, and even the lift.
Embracing new tech
“When automatic lifts were first introduced in 1900, people refused to get in. They didn’t trust a lift without an operator,” says de Jong.
It wasn’t until 45 years later, when a lift-operator strike threatened to bring New York to a standstill that the automatic lift caught on. By then, stop buttons, alarm buttons, mirrors and elevator music had all been added to make people feel safer.
“The technology worked perfectly in 1900 but it took the addition of some emotional features before people were ready to embrace it,” he continues.
Consider the human factor
The same goes for many modern technologies. While we are all aware – on a rational level – that new innovations may reap rewards for our businesses, people may still not be ready to embrace them. De Jong believes that companies these days need to focus on the human factor, and not just on whether a technology makes good business sense.
“In the packaging industry, for example, there are significant gains to be made from blockchain technology and smart packaging,” he says. “But they may still require some ‘elevator music’ before society is ready for them.”
Looking into the future, there is no doubt that algorithms, robotics, AI and automation will alter the way we work. However, de Jong does not believe the change will be as dramatic as the media would have us believe.
Relationships and trust
“Smart businesses will make good use of the time freed up by increased automation and, instead, encourage employees to focus on human activities like meeting with customers and educating themselves,” he says.
“What will be increasingly important going forward is our ability to build relationships, build trust and retain talent,” continues de Jong adding that the pulp and paper industry has an edge particularly when it comes to the latter two.
“Sustainability is the number one life concern for the younger generation these days and pulp and paper is, by its very nature, a green industry,” he says. “So, while it may not be the most tech-forward of sectors, it has a huge opportunity to create a competitive advantage compared with other, less sustainable industries.”
Text: Isabelle Kliger