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Construction sites of the future ‘will be people-free’

Construction sites of the future ‘will be people-free’

Construction to date stands as one of the largest industries in the world and the MENA region is no exception.  Many governments especially of its most affluent petrol-exporting countries struggled and still are due to a shortage of skilled workers, weak productivity growth, and waste. Construction sites of the future ‘will be people-free’ were already thought about back in 2014, when experts in construction processes were advancing ideas on developments being foreseeable soon through BIM-based Automated Construction. But unlike what happened in manufacturing in the developed world with all their adopted automated processes, the construction world has witnessed little progress, standing as one of the least digitized industries worldwide despite the recently proven potential of robots, drones, and printed buildings.

Construction sites of the future ‘will be people-free’

The construction sector is on the cusp of a technological transformation which will drive sustainability considerations to the forefront of decision-making, according to experts who will be debating key challenges associated with construction megatrends at an event this month. Robots are predicted to replace humans as the sector becomes increasingly automated over the next 30 years, supporting the drive for carbon-neutral development while radically improving health and safety on building sites. Dr Will Cavendish, global leader digital services, Arup; Aref Boualwan, senior manager digital transformation & strategy, CCC; Peter Jones, technical & operational efficiency director, Skanska; and Sherief Elabd, director of industry strategy, Oracle Construction and Engineering, will be among speakers at the Construction Technology Forum 2019, on September 24 and 25 September at  Address, Dubai Marina, Dubai. According to Arup’s Cavendish, firms wishing to stay at the forefront of the construction sector must make both technology and sustainability considerations a priority or they risk being left behind. He says: “With the world becoming more polluted and fossil fuel use needing to fall, the transformation to carbon-neutral infrastructure, buildings, transportation and grid will become paramount to being able to live and operate in the Middle East.” Skanska’s Jones shares this vision for the future of the construction sector, adding: “Sites will deliver net-zero carbon through the use of electric vehicles, and plant and machinery powered from renewable resources.”  By 2050, Jones predicts construction sites will look more like assembly plants dominated by robots. He says: “There will be very little build completed on site, except for foundations and earthworks. It will be more like an outside factory, with various sub-assembled components being delivered to site to be assembled by robots or automated vehicles. Ninety per cent will be manufactured off-site and only brought to site for final assembly.” CCC’s Boualwan also foresees connected systems and robots permeating future construction sites, creating a major shift in the required workforce skills. He believes a big advantage of this will be improved health and safety: “One of the main reasons why robots are increasingly deployed is their ability to replace workers in dangerous and hazardous construction zones, thus helping to improve safety measures.” Boualwan envisages significant opportunities in the construction sector for start-ups to help drive digitalisation. He believes this could help eradicate the days of construction delays and spiralling budgets: “The sector has lagged when it comes to technological advancements. Partnering with construction technology start-ups could help put an end to the expansion of construction schedules, and the continuous increase in labour and material costs. I believe the GCC construction scene is on the cusp of a new, ever-evolving era of engaging construction technology start-ups.” Middle East construction firms need to respond to advances in the sector in order to maintain their competitive advantage, and Arup’s Cavendish recommends they do this by prioritising considerations such as: sourcing sustainable materials; integrating with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; considering the “circular economy” to understand what happens at the end of a building’s lifecycle; and integrating smart technologies into buildings from design and through the lifecycle to deliver carbon-neutral operations. Oracle’s Elabd also endorses the need for prompt action in order to keep up with the rapid pace of change associated with tools such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), Building Information Modelling (BIM) and drones.  He adds: “Companies need to be taking technology trends seriously now by investing their resources in quality research and development, and most importantly by focusing on process re-engineering and integration within their business culture and markets. Without a clear process which supports collaboration and adoption, there is no pathway to successful digital transformation.” “AI is the big game-changer in construction as everything is now revolved around improving productivity, especially labour, in a market that is more competitive than ever.” “Sustainability will become inherited and integral to any new construction, with constant improvements in performance driven by AI and automation, as well as the use of sustainable materials which promote less energy and water consumption.” With governments in the region laying the foundations for data-driven economies, the Construction Technology Forum is designed to provide insights into how adopting technology can reduce operational costs, boost productivity and enhance overall quality across all elements of the industry supply-chain. The Construction Technology Forum is organised by Ventures Connect, a partnership between b2b Connect and Ventures Middle East; two businesses committed to empowering companies across the Middle East and Africa Region while enabling critical connections with key stakeholders and decision-makers across various industries. 

TradeArabia News Service

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The region’s Digital Startups and Fintechs grow and prosper

The region’s Digital Startups and Fintechs grow and prosper

In MENA’s Maturing Ecosystem dated September 3, 2019, author Chloe DOMAT says that “as the region’s digital startups and fintechs grow and prosper, they must learn to scale, despite a highly fragmented economy.”

The region’s Digital Startups and Fintechs grow and prosper

Once again this year, the digital economy of the Middle East and North Africa is set to break records. The first half saw $471 million in total funding and 238 deals, according to the latest report from Magnitt, a Dubai-based entrepreneurs’ network. That’s a 66% increase over the dollar volume in the first half of 2018 and 28% more deals.

Digital startups barely existed in the MENA region a decade ago. Now, fintech is a thriving sector embracing hundreds of new companies, jobs and investors. As the ecosystem expands with tens of newcomers each year, funding tickets get bigger and bigger.

“If we look back a few years, a deal at $2 million or $3 million would have made the headlines; today, we have multiple $10 million-plus deals,” says Omar Christidis, founder and CEO of Arabnet, a Beirut-based events and research company specializing in the region’s digital economy. “This is an indicator of the increasing maturity of the market.”

Major deals so far this year have included a $100 million capital injection in Dubai-based Emerging Markets Property Group (EMPG); a $65 million Series A round for Yellow Door Energy, also in Dubai; and $42 million for Egypt’s Swvl, a transportation app.

There is still a disconnect, however, between the growing demand for funds at all levels and the capital currently available to satisfy it, industry insiders say. Money is expected to keep pouring in, as an increasing number of international institutions enter the region. Big names like Endeavor Catalyst (US), Vostok New Ventures (Sweden), MSA Capital (China), Global Founders Capital (Germany) and Kingsway Capital (UK) already make up a third of the Middle East’s investor list.

Aiming to attract even more foreign capital, countries including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also started establishing funds of funds.


CompanyActivityCountryFunding ($ Mil.)
EPMGReal EstateUAE100
Yellow Door EnergyEnergyUAE65
SwvlTransportEgypt42
AWOKe-commerceJordan30
Mawdoo3e-commerceJordan23.5
Jamalone-commerceJordan10
Noon Academye-learningSaudi Arabia8.6
Spriie-commerceUAE8.5
JustCleanServicesKuwait8
yallacompareFintechUAE8
 

For the first time, numbers of local companies are successfully reaching the end of the startup lifecycle and exiting through mergers or acquisitions. In March, Uber bought Careem, a Dubai-based ride-hailing application, for $3.1 billion, in a deal that marked the region’s first unicorn exit.

The pace has only picked up. At least 15 Middle Eastern startups have performed exits since January, including digital fashion platform Namshi, sold to Dubai’s Emaar Malls in February; the purchase by Majid al Futtaim, a Dubai-based shopping mall and retail operator, of Saudi Arabian online grocery store Wadi in May; and EMPG’s purchase of Jumia House, a property portal for Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, in June.

These exits leave a new generation of former staff members with a lot of means. After Careem’s exit, 75 ex-staffers cashed out over $1 million each. That financial capital, as well as the beneficiaries’ acquired knowledge and expertise, will allow a number of them to start new business ventures.

The Imperative to Scale

While tech companies grow larger, entrepreneurs face new challenges.

“As mature startups move to larger funding rounds and raise interest for acquisitions, they need to scale operations, whether vertically with new business lines or geographically,” says Philip Bahoshy, CEO and founder of Magnitt.

Navigating across the region’s approximately 22 countries, each with its own complexities, is not easy, however. From Morocco to Iraq, Arab states differ dramatically from one another in size, population, wealth, laws, digital infrastructure and business culture.

“Seeing the MENA region as one big market is to a certain extent a misrepresentation because our markets are superfragmented,” says Christidis. “A company that wants to grow from Lebanon into Jordan into Iraq into Kuwait into Saudi Arabia has to enter five separate markets.”

The UAE is clearly driving the game. In the first half of 2019, the Emirates received 66% of the money invested in all MENA startups and captured 26% of the deals, according to the Magnitt report. Dubai has by far the most developed ecosystem, with a concentration of global firms’ regional headquarters, major funding institutions and accelerators.

The UAE, and Dubai itself, have worked to build an advantage. In 2017, the UAE became one of the first countries in the world to appoint a minister of artificial intelligence. Dubai’s Crown Prince Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum has promised that the government will go 100% paperless by 2021.

“The UAE has been leading from the front,” says Amol Bahuguna, head of payments and cash management at Commercial Bank of Dubai (CBD), which just launched a new e-invoicing service. “Everything that has to do with the government is going digital. You have a real top-down approach to innovation and things move fast.”

Much will hinge on how the UAE, and Dubai in particular, manage their response to the current economic slowdown. Recent government data show that real estate, financial services and tourism—the pillars of the economy—are in a slump. In 2018, Dubai also recorded its biggest net loss of jobs since the global financial crisis.

The Emirates have competition, too, from Saudi Arabia, the biggest emerging market in the region with over 34 million people and high purchasing power. The authorities there are keen to diversify their oil-based economy, including promotion of the digital sector.

Riyadh set up a fund of funds to attract foreign investors to support startups. Saudi authorities will invest dollar-for-dollar as a limited partner in any new fund that commits to investing in the kingdom. They have also promised to streamline the licensing process for foreign startups so that they can settle in Saudi Arabia easily.

New Saudi-based funds such as Saudi Telecom’s $500 million ST Ventures, Vision Ventures and Hala Ventures, that have emerged in the past three years, are becoming large players in the regional venture capital game, leading $10 million-plus investment rounds.

On the other side of the MENA map, North Africa is also showing strong digital growth potential. Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt are investing heavily in the development of their own high-tech ecosystems, aiming to become the bridge to Europe and the gateway to sub-Saharan Africa. Tunisia recently passed laws supporting tech innovation; and in September, Tunis will welcome Afric’Up, a large pan-African startup-pitch competition.

Fintech’s “Gold Mine”

Although it hardly shows in this year’s top deals, fintech remains the fastest growing sector within MENA digital economy. In the first half of this year, fintech accounted for 17% of all deals, up 9% from 2018. Interestingly, almost 90% of the total $24 million funding went to early stage startups, underscoring that the sector is still in its infancy.

The data also reveals enormous potential. Arab countries are home to over 380 million people, half of them under age 26. Financial inclusion is among the lowest in the world, with only 52% of men and 35% of women owning a bank account as of 2017. The vast majority of those with bank accounts, however, own a mobile phone (86% of men and 75% of women).

By mid-2018, the whole MENA region, including North Africa, had 381 million unique mobile subscribers, according to GSMA Intelligence, a mobile industry trade body. Smartphones accounted for 52% of all connections and are expected to grow to 74% by 2025.

“These figures highlight the tremendous opportunity,” says Nameer Khan, founding board member of the newly established UAE-based MENA Fintech Association. “The region is literally a gold mine.” The lure for fintech investors and entrepreneurs is the chance to enter an untapped market in which hundreds of millions of users could leapfrog from the cash economy to the digital.

Fintech subsectors widely thought to hold growth potential include insuretech, robo-advisory wealth management and sharia-compliant services. But payment services, not surprisingly, stand out prominently for both the number of startups and the value of deals. Mobile payment, money transfer and lending platforms remain the main focus; while more-sophisticated technologies such as blockchain, the cloud and artificial intelligence still lag.

Egypt’s Fawry is one of the biggest success stories in payments. Launched in 2008, the company raised $122 million; its initial public offering on August 8 sold 36% of its share capital for $97 million.  Also attracting notice in the sector are PayTabs, a Saudi Arabian online payment facility that announced in August that it had raised $20 million to support its expansion in the region and into Southeast Asia, India, Africa and Europe; and the Dubai-based peer-to-peer lending platform Beehive, with a total capital injection of $15.5 million as of March 4.

The payment landscape looks to change rapidly, however, as larger players seek their share of the fintech market. Careem, for instance, claims over 30 million users in the region and is currently rolling out its Careem Pay e-wallet. If the service succeeds, Uber-owned Careem could become one of the biggest MENA fintechs.

Digital Banking Multiples

Banks and financial institutions view the fintech surge as an opportunity to outsource innovation and digitization. From simple online banking and mobile applications to investment platforms and e-wallets, most MENA lenders are seeking partnerships with startups. Some have even rolled out fully fledged, branchless digital neobanks, including Emirates NBD’s Liv., Mashreq Neo, and Gulf International Bank’s Meem.

These operate under a conventional lender’s license, however. Since they were developed by traditional banks, they are not industry disruptors, like startups Revolut and N26; rather, they act like new-business verticals, intended to seduce tech-savvy youth and target the unbanked. For a digital banking startup to seriously challenge the major players would be a monumental task.

“Banks in the Middle East are very large; what we are seeing recently is market consolidation, so they are getting even bigger,” says Arabnet’s Christidis. “I don’t think any of the startups really want to take them on, head to head. I’m not sure either that there would be investors ready to bankroll that kind of an investment. Furthermore, I question what kind of industry lobbying bite the banks would put on if they really started seeing that kind of thing emerge.” Christidis believes only an already established player from outside the region would have the financial muscle to give it a chance to compete.

Such a competitor might come from outside the financial sector entirely, however. Abu Dhabi Global Market, a key Emirati financial center, announced in July that it is ready to issue digital-banking licenses to nonbanking firms “with innovative value propositions.”

As this suggests, while the MENA digital economy is developing faster than ever, legal and regulatory frameworks need to adapt for growth to be sustained. Procedures to register a company, licensing and liability laws in case of business failure or bankruptcy are among the key differentiators governments will have to consider as they look to make themselves more competitive.

“Governments are showing concerted interest in building digital ecosystems for their countries,” says Magnitt CEO and founder Bahoshy. “There are still challenges to be overcome, but we can expect success stories to be more frequent, have higher value and have more impact in the coming years.”

Tech can empower refugee communities

Tech can empower refugee communities

Tech can empower refugee communities – if they’re allowed to design how it works.

By Reem Talhouk, Newcastle University; Andy Garbett, Newcastle University, and Kyle Montague, Newcastle University.

In Lebanon, around 350,000 Syrian refugees don’t have access to enough safe and nutritious food. To stem the crisis, the World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations introduced an electronic voucher system to distribute food aid. People are given debit cards loaded with “e-vouchers” that they can use in certain shops to buy food.

But we found that Syrian refugees living in rural Lebanon often have to make difficult choices when buying essential items at the expense of food. Their e-vouchers can only be used in exchange for food, not other essentials like nappies.

Refugees have to engage in “grey-area transactions” that work around the e-voucher system, by asking shop owners to sell them the nappies and instead record on the system that they bought food. This places refugees in a vulnerable position – shop owners often charge higher prices for scanning non-food items as food, but refugees have no choice but to depend on shop owners to cooperate.

Using dialogue cards, Syrian refugees mapped out their experiences of food insecurity and their interactions with shop owners. Reem Talhouk, Author provided

Collective purchasing allows refugees to pool their cash and e-vouchers so that one person can buy non-food items for another and be repaid with food. This allows people a degree of autonomy – they don’t have to rely on shop owners to allow them to buy non-food items using their vouchers. Instead, the community can manage their resources and needs among themselves.

Unfortunately, the e-voucher system prevents refugees from buying goods in bulk. Shop owners are advised by the WFP that purchases by refugees should be typical of buying food for a family. If refugees want to buy enough rice for their community and benefit from a wholesale discount, then the shop owner can refuse the transaction. This makes collective purchasing – something refugees often prefer to do when they have cash available – more difficult.

The WFP is currently piloting blockchain technology to replace this e-voucher system in Jordan and Pakistan. This is an exciting opportunity to alleviate these problems and help to empower both refugees and the shop owners, but only if the refugees themselves are involved.


Food aid designed by refugees

Rather than using a debit card, under this new system refugees would have a digital wallet that is similar to a bank account that you can access online. And instead of it being hosted by a bank, it’s part of the blockchain.

A blockchain is a shared log of transactions, with each user being able to track how much money and goods have been exchanged. This is constantly updated as transactions of food aid and money transfers are agreed between the customer and the shop owner. Each transaction forms a block of new information. The digital ledger is an expanding chain of interconnected blocks of information – hence the name, blockchain.

The WFP is using blockchain technology to cut costs on currency exchange and bank transfers. But the blockchain still allows transactions between refugees and shop owners in the same manner as the e-voucher system. If this new and innovative technology mimics the model that came before, the restrictions on what refugees can do will continue and blockchain will mimic paternalistic aid models that focus on efficiently distributing aid, rather than empowering refugees to leverage their own ways of coping with food insecurity. But if aid is designed with input from refugee communities, the technology could give Syrian people in Lebanon more agency when buying the essentials they need to live.

A Syrian woman’s depiction of her community’s food insecurity. Reem Talhouk, Author provided

Blockchain can write smart contracts, which would allow people to buy items together. These are agreements whose terms are automatically enforced by an algorithm. Smart contracts act like a lock box with two keys that can be used to open it, one key is given for each party involved in the contract.

When the smart contract is created, both parties set the conditions that need to be met for them to be able to use the keys to open the lock box. Both keys need to be used for the lock box to open and for the money to transfer to complete the transaction. Before this can happen, both parties must agree that the conditions of the contract have been met. With this, refugee communities can negotiate collective purchases with shop owners and hold them accountable to the agreements they make.

Negotiating the terms of the smart contract means that refugees have more of a say over what they consider to be a fair deal. Once the smart contract is in place, the agreed sum of money for the purchase will be placed in a digital wallet – the lock box – that is bound by the terms of the smart contract. The value of items purchased by refugees is deducted once they’ve verified their identity with a retina scan, but the money will only be released to the shop owner if the refugees verify that they received the items.

We saw how these smart contracts could rebalance the power disparity between refugees and shop owners. Including refugees in the design process of humanitarian technologies and aid models can ensure they incorporate the values and practices of the people they’re supposed to help. Future innovations must be rooted in the daily lives of refugee communities. These technologies can empower people and make a real difference to their lives, but only if they’re allowed to design how they work.

Reem Talhouk, Researcher in Human Computer Interaction and Design, Newcastle University; Andy Garbett, Research Associate in Computing Science, Newcastle University, and Kyle Montague, Lecturer in Digital Civics, Newcastle University


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Read more: Beyond Bitcoin: how blockchains can empower communities to control their own energy supply

15m Facebook subscribers in the MENA region

15m Facebook subscribers in the MENA region

A new study shows 15m Facebook subscribers in the MENA region; a big increase in Arabic language users. In fact, it was found that not only this platform does help socialise but does also contribute above all to informing on the goings-on in any particular country and/or intercountry affairs.

MENA Facebook users top copies of newspapers

There are more subscribers to Facebook in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) than there are copies of newspapers circulated in the region, a new report has said.

MENA Facebook users top copies of newspapers

The study by Spot On Public Relations said Facebook has more than 15 million users in the region, while the total regional Arabic, English and French newspaper circulation stands at just under 14 million copies.

“Facebook doesn’t write the news, but the new figures show that Facebook’s reach now rivals that of the news press,” said Carrington Malin, managing director of Spot On Public Relations.

“The growth in Arabic language users has been very strong indeed: some 3.5 million Arabic language users began using Facebook during the past year, since the introduction of Arabic support and we can expect millions more Arabic language users to join the platform,” he added.

Five country markets in MENA now account for some 70 percent of Facebook users – Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the report added.

The study said only 37 percent of Facebook users in the Middle East are female compared with 56 percent in the US and 52 percent in the UK.

Egypt’s 3.5 million Facebook subscribers helped to make North Africa the largest Facebook community in MENA accounting for 7.7 million out of a total of 15 million MENA users.

It added that 33 percent of the UAE’s population uses Facebook and it also now stands as the country’s second most visited website after google.ae, according to websites ranked by Alexa.com.

Some 68 percent of Facebook users in the UAE are over 25 years old, flying in the face of perceptions that social media is a ‘generation Y’ phenomenon.

However, much of Facebook’s growth across the rest of the region has been driven by the under 25s, the report said.

Over 48 percent of Facebook subscribers in Saudi Arabia are under 25 years old, with an equal split between English and Arabic users.

However, about three times the number of Arabic users have joined Facebook in Saudi over the past year, compared with the number of English language users.For all the latest UAE news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.

The highest number of Internet users in the MENA

The highest number of Internet users in the MENA

Per a recent Report: Egypt is home to the highest number of internet users in the MENA; an article dated June 24, 2019, and written by an AMEinfo Staff, does illustrate rather well the prevailing situation in the country and the region.

AMEInfo Staff members report business news and views from across the Middle East and North Africa region, and analyse global events impacting the region today.
Report: Egypt is home to the highest number of internet users in the MENA

Over 50% of the population are active internet users, a number that is expected to rapidly increase by the year 2030, as per Admitad’s 2nd annual industry report outlining e-commerce trends in Egypt.

  • Though only 15% of online users in Egypt shop online, the populous is becoming progressively approachable in online communications
  • The e-commerce market in the MENA Region is expected to reach $28.5 billion by 2022
  • “Despite the low rate of internet users currently, we are seeing an exponential growth in the e-commerce market in Egypt” – Artem Rudyuk, Head of Admitad MENA

Admitad MENA, a branch of the Global Affiliate Network Admitad, has released its second annual industry report that has comprehensively researched the increasing growth of e-commerce and online users across Egypt. 
Although the internet is only used by half the population of Egypt, it is still developing at an exponential rate. In fact, by the number of users alone, Egypt ranks first in the whole MENA region. By the year 2030, the growth of e-commerce in the country is expected to be remarkable – the road map includes improved Internet Networks (5G) and the opening of more than 4000 post offices for logistical convenience to aid this active development. 

In a recent report by PHD Egypt, Nour Saleh evidently notes how the Egyptian government is getting involved at all levels to increase awareness of the vast opportunities that digitization can bring to the country overall. As Egypt ventures the translation of their public sector and economy towards a digital platform, the availability of data is voluminous. The country is making prominent efforts to simplify mundane tasks and provide a smooth pathway into a digital era, including encouraging businesses to equip this transformation.

An analysis by Bain & Company estimates that the e-commerce market in the MENA Region is expected to reach $28.5 billion by 2022. As this industry continues to rise, even the small pool of internet users in Egypt is impressively active. Today, a vast majority of Egyptian people rely on social media communities, Facebook being at the top to search for information on goods and where they can find the best deals. Though only 15% of online users in Egypt shop online, the populous is becoming progressively approachable in online communications and are therefore being profoundly influenced by recommendations. Through this conscious endeavour, Egypt is proving that today is the best time to be in the e-commerce market in the MENA Region and advertisers need to start getting ready for an era of digitization.

“Despite the low rate of internet users currently, we are seeing an exponential growth in the e-commerce market in Egypt. As governments get involved and aim to simplify these processes through the addition of updated logistics and easy bank processes, we are already seeing a rise in advertisers penetrating the Egyptian market and expect to see this continue. There is no doubt that more advertisers in Egypt will start to embrace digital transformation very soon and we are seeing many of them jump onto the bandwagon already!” – Artem Rudyuk, Head of Admitad MENA

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How young people really feel about digital technology

How young people really feel about digital technology

Revolt on the horizon? How young people really feel about digital technology. It is already happening but on the other side of the Mediterranean. The 2011 raucous events liberally labelled ‘Arab Spring’ surfing on the then available Social Media did take their respective establishments by surprise in Tunisia and Egypt. Lately, it is Algeria’s as well as Sudan’s that no doubt are undergoing the same treatment. The almost full and deep spread of Digital Technology is definitely for something in the simultaneous and coordinated gatherings, for instance in every single town and village of all and far-flung 48 provinces of Algeria. Moreover, the impact of social networks has given a specific decantation process via all social media seems to help in delineating issues and decide ways to pursue each and to which end. Inevitable progress and/or technological advances in the digital hardware in hand is making it hard to predict where all this is leading.

Meanwhile here are Dr Mike Cooray, Hult International Business School and Dr Rikke Duus, UCL with their views on the matter this side of the English Channel.

File 20190521 23823 1t9fa9p.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
DisobeyAr/Shutterstock

As digital technologies facilitate the growth of both new and incumbent organisations, we have started to see the darker sides of the digital economy unravel. In recent years, many unethical business practices have been exposed, including the capture and use of consumers’ data, anticompetitive activities and covert social experiments.

But what do young people who grew up with the internet think about this development? Our research with 400 digital natives – 19- to 24-year-olds – shows that this generation, dubbed “GenTech”, may be the one to turn the digital revolution on its head. Our findings point to a frustration and disillusionment with the way organisations have accumulated real-time information about consumers without their knowledge and often without their explicit consent.

Many from GenTech now understand that their online lives are of commercial value to an array of organisations that use this insight for the targeting and personalisation of products, services and experiences.

This era of accumulation and commercialisation of user data through real-time monitoring has been coined “surveillance capitalism” and signifies a new economic system.

Artificial intelligence

A central pillar of the modern digital economy is our interaction with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms. We found that 47% of GenTech do not want AI technology to monitor their lifestyle, purchases and financial situation in order to recommend them particular things to buy.

In fact, only 29% see this as a positive intervention. Instead, they wish to maintain a sense of autonomy in their decision making and have the opportunity to freely explore new products, services and experiences.

The agency pendulum swings between the individual and technology. Who will take control? boykung/Shutterstock

As individuals living in the digital age, we constantly negotiate with technology to let go of or retain control. This pendulum-like effect reflects the ongoing battle between the human and technology.

My life, my data?

Our research also reveals that 54% of GenTech are very concerned about the access organisations have to their data, while only 19% were not worried. Despite the EU General Data Protection Regulation being introduced in May 2018, this is still a major concern – grounded in a belief that too much of their data is in the possession of a small group of global companies, including Google, Amazon and Facebook. Some 70% felt this way.

In recent weeks, both Facebook and Google have vowed to make privacy a top priority in the way they interact with users. Both companies have faced public outcry for their lack of openness and transparency when it comes to how they collect and store user data. It isn’t long ago that a hidden microphone was found in one of Google’s home alarm products.

Google now plans to offer auto-deletion of users’ location history data, browsing and app activity as well as extend its “incognito mode” to Google Maps and search. This will enable users to turn off tracking.

At Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is keen to reposition the platform as a “privacy focused communications platform”, built on principles such as private interactions, encryption, safety, interoperability (communications across Facebook-owned apps and platforms) and secure data storage. This will be a tough turn around for the company that is fundamentally dependent on turning user data into opportunities for highly individualised advertising.

Facebook is trying to restore trust. PK Studio/Shuttestock

Privacy and transparency are critically important themes for organisations today – both for those that have “grown up” online as well as the incumbents. While GenTech want organisations to be more transparent and responsible, 64% also believe that they cannot do much to keep their data private. Being tracked and monitored online by organisations is seen as part and parcel of being a digital consumer.

Despite these views, there is a growing revolt simmering under the surface. GenTech want to take ownership of their own data. They see this as a valuable commodity, which they should be given the opportunity to trade with organisations. Some 50% would willingly share their data with companies if they got something in return, for example, a financial incentive.

Rewiring the power shift

GenTech are looking to enter into a transactional relationship with organisations. This reflects a significant change in attitudes from perceiving the free access to digital platforms as the “product” in itself (in exchange for user data), to now wishing to use that data to trade for explicit benefits.

This has created an opportunity for companies that seek to empower consumers and give them back control of their data. Several companies now offer consumers the opportunity to sell the data they are comfortable sharing or take part in research which they get paid for. More and more companies are joining this space, including People.io, Killi and Ocean Protocol.

Sir Tim Berners Lee, the creator of the world wide web, has also been working on a way to shift the power from organisations and institutions and back to citizens and consumers. The platform, Solid, offers users the opportunity to be in charge of where they store their data and who can access it. It is a form of re-decentralisation.

The Solid POD (Personal Online Data storage) is a secure place on a hosted server or the individual’s own server. Users can grant apps access to their POD as a person’s data is stored centrally and not by an app developer or on an organisation’s server. We see this as potentially being a way to let people take back control from technology and other companies.

GenTech have woken up to a reality where a life lived “plugged in” has significant consequences for their individual privacy, and are starting to push back, questioning those organisations that have shown limited concern and continue to exercise exploitative practices.

It’s no wonder that we see these signs of revolt. GenTech is the generation with the most to lose. They face a life ahead intertwined with digital technology as part of their personal and private lives. With continued pressure on organisations to become more transparent, the time is now for young people to make their move.

Dr Mike Cooray, Professor of Practice, Hult International Business School and Dr Rikke Duus, Research Associate and Senior Teaching Fellow, UCL

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.