Acceptance of digital technologies worldwide – Digital literacy is key

Publish Date

23 JAN 2023


Kai Beckmann


With the International Day of Education on January 24, the United Nations is underscoring the importance of lifelong learning to the continuous development of individuals and sustainable development of societies.

This also includes promoting digital and technological expertise from a very young age and embedding it in school curricula. This would raise acceptance of new technologies, which is important first and foremost in the established technology nations of the western world. Why? Because we see that the popularity of and openness towards innovations are increasingly diverging in different regions of the world.

The Tech Divide Report, a survey by the Vodafone Institut on the acceptance of new technologies, shows that the popularity of and openness towards technological innovations are diverging greatly in different regions of the world. While well over 80% of those surveyed in countries such as China and Japan have positive expectations of digitalization and new technologies, only 54% do in the United States, the birthplace of the digital revolution. In European countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom, even less than half of those surveyed have favorable opinions of the subject.

There is a lot of urgent catching up to do when it comes to the acceptance of new digital technologies. Their contributions to our prosperity can and should be conveyed more clearly. Yet risks must also be addressed openly. This should begin at an early age – it’s essential to clearly promote digital literacy.

Promoting digital literacy

The extent to which people are open to changes arising from digitalization depends crucially on whether they see themselves as being capable of applying and living with digitalization. Numerous studies also point to this, not just the Vodafone survey.

Therefore, the primary aim must be to help people to build trust in their own digital competence, something I already discussed in my blog on digital literacy. To achieve this, it is crucial to gear the entire education system to digital requirements right from the start – and that means both the curricula and the methods by which it is taught. This allows young people to become familiar with new technologies and embrace them at an early stage. And later on, this also applies at all educational levels – from primary school to vocational schools and universities to continuing education for adults and teachers.

Easing technology fears in the workplace

Another finding of the Tech Divide study is that the fear of digital progress destroying jobs is particularly pronounced in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. By contrast, this fear is much less prevalent in many parts of Asia. According to the report, digitalization is responsible for having created many jobs for the new middle class. The upswing is running parallel to the establishment of digital technologies, which have become a hallmark of social and economic participation.

We have to take the fears of people in western industrialized nations seriously. In fact, digital competence is increasingly becoming an indispensable prerequisite for participating in social and professional life. More and more manual tasks are being automated and the number of manual labor jobs is declining as a result. Instead, digital technologies are creating new job profiles with different, more complex requirements.

We are also seeing this in our own industry. According to a survey conducted by the German Chemical Industry Employers' Association (BAVC), 10% of jobs in the industry have already become more digital than was the case just a few years ago.

The economy must also invest intensively in the digital literacy of the labor force. To this end, Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany is also strengthening vocational and advanced training possibilities in the company. This starts with the elective qualification “Digitalization and networked production” in the vocational training of chemical technicians. And our new Learning Center at the Darmstadt site, in which we’re investing € 70 million, will also offer a broad range of training opportunities, especially in the area of digital skills.

Digitalization has heightened the demand for competencies such as self-management, flexibility, communication and team skills as well as innovative spirit to new levels. Through life-long learning, employees can secure their marketability. Employees who take ownership of their actions and companies that embrace sustainability are equally crucial here.

Shining the spotlight on the societal and ecological value added by new technologies

The results of the Tech Divide study are also revealing in terms of the openness towards the contribution of digital technologies to society. Here too, Asian countries are most enthusiastic and score highest whereas in the United States only 47% and in Germany just 34% of those surveyed have positive expectations of this aspect.

This shows that in public discourse, the potential of the new technologies from a social and ecological perspective should be conveyed far more clearly than in the past. We should be more active in holding open and honest debates about the benefits of technology with politicians, civil society and companies, also through the media.

Dealing transparently with risks

Not concealing the dangers and risks is also important. Risks are seen even in countries where the acceptance of technology is significantly higher than in Europe and the United States. Globally, more than half of those surveyed in the Vodafone study expressed the fear that in the future, machines and not people will be making decisions.

We should take these fears seriously and address them together with all the relevant players in society. At Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, we orient ourselves towards clearly defined policies on ethical issues in connection with our research and our business activities. Our Digital Ethics Code is standard-setting in comparison with standards in Asia and the United States. Established in 2021, our Digital Ethics Advisory Panel, supports the work of the Ethics Advisory Panel for Science and Technology, which was set up back in 2010.

Our declared aim is to develop and apply new digital technologies responsibly. We want to identify and address ethical issues that arise from data- and algorithm-driven applications as early as possible. This, too, is an important way to help ensure that the unstoppable digital progress in all the countries in which we operate worldwide is based on a broad foundation of trust among the population.

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