What are ‘Digital Sciences’?

by | 20.03.2019 | Digital Sciences

The Berlin University of Digital Sciences conveys them in her name: the “Digital Sciences”. But even if the term might provide the impression of being self-explanatory, it definitely is not. So what are digital sciences? Aren’t they everything that’s linked to digital? Well to a certain extent, yes. But this definition is by far too short.

Is everything in digital transformation?

In times in which digital technology is increasingly penetrating our living environment, one aspect of digital becomes particularly clear. Namely, rapid and continuous change. Our linguistic usage is also subject to this change. Many terms that are created in the digital context are spreading rapidly and are being used in any situation. The term “digital transformation” has become a buzzword. Everyone uses and interprets it deliberately. For some, it is mobile phones. For others, it’s wearables. Still others mean artificial intelligence, the cloud or data collection on a grand scale. Things that invade our world and change us. But one essential aspect is increasingly overlooked.

Whether in the corporate world, the educational landscape or the administration – digital transformation seems to be a big process which everyone must participate in. Or you have to react if you don’t want to miss the big thing. What is often overlooked is the fact that digital transformation has already taken place in most of our society. It is not something we are facing, but it is already behind us. The vast majority of our lives are already happening online or are at least supported by digital technology. No company out there that is not equipped with computers, e-mail or other kinds of digital technology and thus shapes the everyday working lives of its employees. So we definitely can talk about digitality. The challenge for the areas mentioned at the beginning of this section is now to optimally deal with this digitality.

It’s been on the rise for years….

Because the perception of digitization is predominantly located at the level of technology, this is the very area in which we usually think, argue and judge. This digital thing must be introduced everywhere. Companies are therefore pushing ahead with the adaption of digital technology. Computer rooms are being installed in schools, programming courses are being offered and electrotechnology companies are being started. But is this digitalization? Universities recognize that the economy has a great need for specialists in the engineering disciplines. So they react by growing up in these areas. The administration organises educational trips to Estonia. And then they rave about how this small country has managed to become an administrative digital pioneer in Europe. Cynically, it could now be said that this is precisely the fallacy. Digitizing a small country like Estonia may take just a software suite normally intended for medium-sized companies. For countries the organisational size of Germany, the challenges are quite different. But that’s another issue. In general we’re patronizing what already has been on the rise for years. And at the same time we hope to establish digital sovereignty.

Let’s look at the subject of ‘MINT’. This term covers mathematics, computer science, natural sciences and technology. These are the pillars that ultimately made digital progress possible. Therefore, it makes sense to promote precisely these areas more intensively, regardless of whether they are schools, business or administration. And that is exactly what is happening. But isn’t there something fundamental being overlooked? A first hint appears when we look at the areas where innovation is taking place. After all, innovations in the digital age are rarely breakthroughs in individual special areas. Well quantum computers could represent such a breakthrough. But they are not common.

MINT and it’s structural challenges within.

Innovation is usually an overarching process. When different areas are cleverly combined, new applications emerge. These may quickly catch up and sometimes even have a massively disruptive effect. Examples are the online marketplace Amazon or a technology giant like the iPhone with its entire supporting infrastructure. Here the fostering factors were not the technological developments, but the understanding of the relationships between technology, the human world and the markets. It’s about structural thinking and the understanding associated with it.

Back to the term ‘MINT’. In the German debate we increasaingly find the term structural sciences, which is intended to be introduced into the MINT disciplines. In this context, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker introduced terms such as cybernetics, information theory, systems theory and game theory. Now these terms are part of the standard repertoire in mathematics, computer science, natural science and engineering. It is rather difficult to find a clear distinction. But taking a look into the English debate we find the acronym “STEM”. This is short for “Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”. The term ‘computer science’ as such is missing here. And that is good, because computer science can be understood as the unifying science of the STEM disciplines. (A note at this point: the discussion around the terms ‘structural science’, ‘MINT’ and ‘STEM’, among others, does not claim to be complete and ultimately correct. It’s only trying to make the complex facts easily understandable.)

Digital Sciences support computer science in developing its broader connective potential.

Understood as a unifying science, computer science has an intense formative quality in the development of technology and our communication. It thus functions as a structuring instance of digital technology, so that the step towards a structural science is no longer a major one. To put it another way, computer science should not be regarded as a distinct discipline alongside the MINT subjects. But instead as a kind of superordinate, integrating discipline. Computer science surely cannot exist without the other fields mentioned above. But at the same time it challenges and promotes the structural essence of our digital progress. Thus the reasons for a digital basic education become clear and their necessity for our further intellectual-digital development understandable.

What is currently happening in business, education and administration seems to be shortsighted regarding the backgrounds described above. It is no longer skilled workers who are needed here to take the necessary steps. It is structural thinkers who understand the interrelationships. In addition to technology, theory and human-related aspects they have one thing to master particularly: interdisciplinarity. Directly connected to that are skills in flexible, contemporary leadership. By keeping people in focus, it always stresses the serving aspects of technology for society. What consequences this will have for the structure of the labour market, entrepreneurship and, in response, for higher education, should be the subject of another debate.

Train structural thinking in real-world projects.

Digital sciences take these remarks into account to the extent that they foster this overarching understanding and structural thinking. It cannot be the claim of a university to produce more skilled workers whose perspective in a rapidly changing work envoronment is limited to a very narrow niche. Universities should promote the individual development of personality and lead to free and responsible participation in society. And only a broadly based and structurally comprehensive school of thought can correspond to this idea. Essential for successful development in this sense are experiences that take personal inclinations into account. The content concept of the Berlin University of Digital Sciences follows this idea by integrating numerous real projects during the course of studies to promote the skills of comprehensive thinking and acting. Skills in communication, project management, leadership and entrepreneurship are trained early on, put to the test and further developed.

This presentation is intended to provide an initial perspective on the digital sciences from the perspective of Berlin University of Digital Sciences. In another step, the implications for further branches of the humanities and social sciences will be discussed. These also benefit from structurally consistent research and teaching in the digital sciences and at the same time have a major influence on their orientation in terms of content. This fundamental understanding of the digital sciences is one of the essential building blocks of successful education in the digital age. This is not limited to the university, but extends into the basic educational areas as well as into the world of vocational education and training. It is now up to people to summon up the willingness to question the foundations of our previous educational concept and to make the right decisions. Technology, machine learning and the “smartest” algorithms alone are not in a position to do this. –FF–