Changes due to digital are on the way in all sectors. But if France is to be able to compete with other European countries, both public and private institutions need to open up to the opportunities that digital offers.

Interview with Gilles Babinet, Digital Champion for France vis-à-vis the European Commission and Chairman of data optimisation coaching provider Captain Dash, following his master class hosted by LearnAssembly at the new computer school ‘42’ to mark the publication of his book L’ère numérique, nouvel âge de l’humanité (‘The Digital Era, a New Age for Humanity’).

In your book you write about a digital revolution which is going to transform the world. Can you tell us more about it?

In the book I talk about a revolution that I believe will have a greater impact than the industrial revolution had. It’s going to trigger profound change in five areas which are intrinsically linked to digital, five areas where changes will alter the world. These areas are knowledge, education, health, production and the State. I wrote the book with corporates in mind, whether private sector or state-owned companies. To the extent that I talk a great deal about regulation and public policy, the book is addressed to those who are behind the regulation.

Is it true to say that these institutions and regulations today constitute barriers to the implementation of initiatives in these five evolving areas?

Yes, it’s true. Especially in France, innovation has been captured by large companies and the institutions, which are all in the business of incremental innovation rather than disruptive innovation. Quite apart from the administration, it’s regulation in general that’s putting the brakes on the digital revolution. Incumbent private sector players are actually behind all this regulation, just as much as the state institutions are. Every time there’s a digital change in the offing, there’s an outcry from the incumbents, who try to prevent change happening. This is just what has been happening recently with the Vocational Training Corporations and what is happening in the hotel sector with Airbnb.

In my view this same phenomenon will be repeated in the future in all areas, in all segments of the economy. For example, in the health sector in France, we see that healthcare staff other than doctors are not allowed to use certain items of diagnostic equipment such as scanners. But we know full well that not only are less qualified people able to use this equipment properly, but sometimes even entirely unqualified people as well, which would allow self-diagnosis. I think that even in the short term, one could do one’s own ultrasound using a spray attachment plugged into a smartphone. But that’s an idea which is really difficult to get across in the present climate.

To take another example, today trials are being carried out with a view to replacing train drivers by robots, which cause fewer accidents than human drivers. These robots can detect signals outside the train as well as humans and sometimes even better. And right now automobile manufacturer Roll-Royce is working on super-tankers which can travel under water, without a captain or any crew on board. There’s no doubt however that we’ll see people get up to shout these projects down.

Do you think public policy has a role to play, that it should be more focused on digital?

Yes, absolutely. Public policy ought to be supporting this kind of trend in a smart way. But for that to happen, our politicians need to understand what’s happening and what it’s all about. This is not the case today: our politicians haven’t yet grasped the reality of digital. [French President] François Hollande took a first step when he went to San Francisco to meet the players in the ecosystem over there. It was nicely symbolic but now we need action and that will take a lot of effort as we’re only just at the beginning. For sectors such as health, for example, digital offers the only effective way to reform the system that we currently have. Politicians don’t seem to realise that digital is a powerful tool for reform. Digital is unfortunately still very under-rated.

Let’s talk about the private sector. Do you think private companies are open enough to digital?

At the moment, digital technology is directly linked to cost reductions. So I’m afraid that the cost-cutting exercise will make people forget to ask the important questions and that in five years’ time we’ll still be faced with the same problems. If one company makes less money than others that might be because its costs are higher, but it could also be because it’s getting less value from its inputs as it has failed to modernise. You have to modernise production systems by moving to new business models where the platform and the data are central elements of the business. Every time I run a ‘Captain Dash’ session in a company I see that if the company implements an aggressive strategy focusing on digital, it can do amazing things.

But to be fair, there isn’t really a single company that isn’t making profound changes because of digital. It’s the new challenge. The most effective way for a company to go forward is to widen its opportunities, that’s to say match supply and demand. To do this you need to be smart. To put this approach in place a company no longer needs people with special skills, but people who can learn how to learn. Our society is no longer about inventing, it’s about know-how. English-speaking countries have understood what has happened and are looking to use it to best effect.

You say that English-speaking countries are more clued up about digital than France. What has brought this about? Are we an isolated example in Europe?

English-speaking countries are ahead in the shift to digital but I don’t think that will necessarily last forever. France has all the necessary potential to catch up, but in order to do so, there has to be clear reasoning underpinning this revolution. I believe that everything that is happening in the United States today stems from a single person: Al Gore, US Vice-President from 1993 to 2001 under Bill Clinton. As soon as he took office he began talking about information highways and he decided to push the development of the Internet for the general public. And it worked out really well! Over the last twenty years the United States has become a leading country in the digital field.

I think that if we were to embark on an initiative on this scale now, we would be able to close a large part  of the gap in just a few years. On the other hand, I think it’s quite difficult to assess France in relation to the rest of Europe. The digital revolution is taking hold in Europe. In Italy, for example, they’re implementing a whole system of public procurement based on digital; in Portugal they’ve set up electronic medical records; in Lithuania they now have e-administration. Nonetheless, France is for instance one of the few countries where you can pay your taxes over the Internet. We have high standards of training, and good infrastructure, although we have very little experience of participative democracy using digital. In short, there are pluses and minuses, but what I’m more interested in than the current tally is the direction we ought to be taking.