A successful Visionary Seminar about how humans accept technology got us thinking about the bigger issues
Mark Engels & Els Deboutte chairing the Visionary Seminar about how humans can accept technology in industry
Last Tuesday, 3 March 2020, the imec auditorium once again opened itself to visionaries. Speakers and participants willing to look further than the near future, further than the predictable terrain of technology. With doors open at 15:30, the stage was set for the first Visionary Seminar of 2020 presented by Leuven MindGate and imec. Chaired by Flanders Make COO Mark Engels and Make Me Fly Founder Els Deboutte, the seminar focused on the human side of Industry 4.0: “How humans (could) embrace smart factories.”
A different focus for a Visionary Seminar
Participants — a comfortably heterogeneous mix of researchers and students, venture capitalists, and companies including Umicore, Cronos, Vlerick Business School, KU Leuven, Atlas Copco, Samsonite, Janssen Pharmeceutica, Terumo, Deloitte, and VLAIO — enjoyed a slightly atypical seminar. Usually, the seminars meticulously focus on the future of technology in its own right, in the lab and the data. This time, the focus centered on the social and communal effects technology could have. Specifically, it focused on how industry can make sure its employees accept technology meant to streamline and automate.
[This] visionary seminar aimed to show various solutions to the societal changes that come with digitization and the adoption of new technologies to the plant floor.Leuven MindGate Event and Project Manager Letitia Gelep
This shift in emphasis was not a coincidence based on the availability of speakers. The organizing committee of the Visionary Seminars (our own CEO Dieter Therssen sits on the committee) has for the last year worked to better incorporate tangential aspects of technological developments in the seminars. It’s one thing to ask what the technological possibilities are for Industry 4.0. It’s quite another to ask how people will accept technology developed for the new IoT world. Both are important, and both will inform the future of the topic.
Tuesday it was AI-on-the-work-floor’s turn. We know that factories are automating. Programme Manager for Industry Bjorn Van de Vondel is hard at work on projects like S3FOOD and SmartX, that seek to bring more digital technology – not least of which is AI – to the food and textiles industries, respectively. But what does this mean for employees of the companies implementing the technology? And how does that extrapolate to the entire sector? These were the questions Engels and Deboutte put to the speakers.
A varied lineup
Furthermore, event coordinator Letitia Gelep explained in an email that the seminar’s speaker lineup was a conscious mix meant to tackle the various issues at work. “We focused on demystification (Jim Stolze – AI/creating awareness/national AI course), human-centered design (Achilles Design – product development & design/research through design) and organizational design (self steering teams). We also had a KU Leuven researcher talk about an academic model (basically, trust between Man and Machine collaboration).”
Lukas Van Campenhout, senior industrial designer at Achilles Design, a DSP Valley member, talks about designing with acceptance in mind
Before the coffee break, Seth Maenen of Workitects (formerly Flanders Syngergy) dove into the psychology of employees and technology as seen from the company point of view. Namely, organizational design to optimize technology acceptance. Self-steering teams offer better opportunity to allow employees to find their groove, as it were, with regard to new technologies. While strict hierarchies might make roll-out easier, they can impede the freedom and adjustment needed to allow everyone to work with new technology in a way that makes them comfortable.
Finally, Geert Ostyn of Picanol Weaving Group rounded out the presentations with the evening’s only business case, and he did so with aplomb. Quoting Gelep again: “The man literally was spot on: It’s not about how much you invest in new technology, but [about] getting your people [to go] along with it. Introduce them to all these technologies, let them mess around a bit, ask for their feedback, and mingle people from all levels so that the C-level knows and acknowledges that factory workers do have a hard job.”
More questions to pose
Ultimately, the seminar concluded that, so far, industry seems to be doing a decent job of getting employers and employees to think about the human side of AI and technology advances. This is not self-evident, but is rather the result of planning and design. It also doesn’t necessarily translate to other sectors or the wider community. How do other sectors, like smart city application development, deal with the challenges of making Artificial Intelligence an Accepted Intelligence? And how do those of us in the industry get the general public on board? These are questions still worth asking, especially in broader contexts.
Do you have thoughts or opinions on making AI an accepted technology? Does your company have differing experiences to those showcased during the Visionary Seminar? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!