Robin Teigland
​Tracking the transformation. “Something fundamental is happening in the way we organise and provide for ourselves,” says Professor Robin Teigland, who is conducting research into the way in which new technologies are transforming society."

“We are making our way towards a new world”

​We are facing the fourth industrial revolution. Digitalisation and new technologies will transform society and the way we live and work. Professor Robin Teigland, recently appointed by Chalmers University of Technology, is passionate about her research into the transformation that is under way, and sees both opportunities and difficult ethical dilemmas.
​Johnny Cash streams out of the loudspeakers. Teigland, who was born in Connecticut and grew up in Nashville, gives her inaugural lecture at Chalmers while playing ‘I walk the line’. It symbolises her own balancing act between theory and practice, and her belief in the importance of building bridges between technology and the development of society.
 
She says she is constantly looking for signs to try to understand where we are heading.
 
“Something fundamental is happening in the way we organise and provide for ourselves, how our resources are brought together to create value in society. We need to understand these new technologies, how we embrace them and how they affect society as a whole,” she says.
 
In late 2018, Teigland became Chalmers’ new professor in the field of Management of Digitalisation, based in the Department of Technology Management and Economics. One week after her inaugural lecture, she leans forward in the armchair in her new workplace and flings out her arms:
 
“I just love being here!”
 
In our lively discussion, Teigland reverts to English now and then, and a trace of a Norwegian accent testifies to the way in which her curiosity has taken her around the world. She completed her undergraduate studies at Stanford University, studied at the Wharton School and the University of Pennsylvania, and has also worked in the oil sector in Chile, with venture capital in Silicon Valley, as an entrepreneur in Norway and as a consultant in Sweden and Spain.
 
In 1996 – the same year that the gift of an internet connection was named the most popular Christmas present of the year in Sweden – Teigland returned to the world of research at the Stockholm School of Economics, where she earned her PhD and later became a professor. Over the years, she has developed her research interests in digitalisation, social networking and strategy, focusing on the way technologies such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence, blockchains and smart robotics are challenging the structures of society.
 
When she was offered a professorship at Chalmers in a field she loves, she could not turn it down. She sees immense opportunities here, both in the city and through the platform offered by the university.
 
“We are making our way towards a new world, where digitalisation is entering a new phase. This requires a strong bridge between the technology, industry and the public sector. Chalmers is at the forefront in this field and there is also leading Swedish industry here in Gothenburg. It’s incredibly exciting to be in the midst of everything going on here, with autonomous vehicles, smart cities and all the initiatives with AI,” she says.

“Each sector will change, and companies that fail to adapt will go under sooner or later.”

Robin Teigland, Chalmers

Teigland is interested in the intersection between strategy, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. A common thread in her research is how informal networks emerge and are facilitated by new technology. Her interest was aroused in earnest during her PhD studies, when she discovered how the programmers at the IT consultancy Icon Medialab preferred to contact their competitors over digital networks outside the company to brainstorm ideas and seek answers to questions.
 
“Today there are an incredible number of sources of information, and 70-80% of all work takes place in informal networks. But we are still focusing on formal organisations and processes, even though the boundaries of companies are being dissolved,” she says.
 
But change is on the way. According to Teigland, we are facing the fourth industrial revolution, in which business models and the traditional way of organising companies are being transformed. She sees a job market that will be increasingly characterised by temporary jobs, ‘digital nomads’ and networks, since technology development makes it possible to travel and work all around the world.
 
This will require greater flexibility on the part of companies – and a transformation from a hierarchy and centralisation to organisations characterised by decentralisation and autonomy.
 
“Each sector will change, and companies that fail to adapt will go under sooner or later. Everything that ties people down is problematical: locked roles, physical offices. Work will need to be more project-based, without fixed structures, and with bottom-up rather than top-down control. In the current rapid development of society, companies need to be more clearly based on the needs of society, and to operate more as ‘open source communities’ in their organisation,” she says.
 
Teigland talks about the way in which companies like Uber and Airbnb have disrupted traditional business models. She shows pictures of a Japanese hotel company which almost exclusively allows robots to look after the hotel. And she talks about Automattic, the billion-dollar company behind WordPress, which has 800 employees worldwide – but no offices. 
 
“Digitalisation and AI are changing how we look at work and the labour force. We have no idea where our jobs will be in 10-15 years. Therefore, it’s becoming increasingly important for people to be able to acquire new skills. We have to focus on lifelong learning and rethink our education system,” she says.
 
Teigland would like to see more practically based education and training, which challenges students and more clearly combines theory with practice. Her view is that it is largely about creating an entrepreneurial mindset.
 
“We can’t have an education system in which we tell students what to do. We need to teach them to recognise opportunities, to see the resources in a network. More on-line courses are needed with real problems to solve here and now, so that the skills can be applied directly. We need to allow students to get out into the real world,” she says.
 
After a short spell at her new workplace, she already has plenty of ideas. Teigland would like to see educational programmes with a focus on marine entrepreneurship, and hopes to be able to develop AI as a tool and research method in the department. She has also been invited to discussions with RISE and the University of Gothenburg about creating a centre of excellence in blockchain technology together with Chalmers. 



“Digitalisation and AI are changing how we look at work and the labour force. We have no idea where our jobs will be in 10-15 years.”

Robin Teigland, Chalmers

Teigland stresses that technological developments and their transformation of society offer many opportunities, but also challenges and difficult dilemmas. In a world that is becoming increasingly digitalised, our traceability is increasing, as is the possibility of monitoring and controlling citizens. And how are we to handle the ethical aspects of genetic modification, cloning or the issue of the boundary between humans and machines when we can insert a chip in the body?

“To what extent should technology be brought in, where we ourselves cannot operate? How and to what extent will we be controlled by algorithms? Many such issues will arise that we are not even aware of yet,” she says.
 
Another challenge is how AI, automation and digitalisation will change the job market in our globalised world, and lead to the disappearance of many jobs.
 
“What will happen is that wages will be driven down as robots cost less than employees. Self-driving vehicles are changing the transport sector, and in the USA, we now see the development of Amazon and how Walmart and many shopping centres are disappearing – along with many of the jobs associated with them,” she says.
 
Teigland sees a growing gulf between those who keep up with technology developments and manage to make the transition – and those who get left behind.
 
Recently she came across a clear example – and her desire to do something about the issue has now taken her on the route to becoming a social entrepreneur. The spark was lit in Peniche, Portugal, where Teigland went to surf the waves. She saw first-hand the decline of the once prosperous fishing village, in which overfishing, a polluted sea and competition with large-scale fishing activity had undermined the entire fishing industry and left the population without any hope for the future.
 
Teigland saw the potential, all the untapped resources, the solidarity and willingness of the population to start afresh. And how technology could help to bring about a change.
 
She has now launched ‘Peniche Ocean Watch’, a marine technology hub intended to help the fishing community get back on its feet again. Parts of her family are involved in the project, which builds networks with local communities, a nearby university and authorities, as well as tourists and ‘digital nomads’ in the area. The goal is to jointly find innovative solutions to societal challenges and become the ‘Silicon Valley of Ocean Tech’. A number of activities are already under way. For example, fishing boats are to be given a new lease of life by cleaning waste from the seabed with the aid of underwater drones.
 
“We have to see what resources and skills are available that we can build upon. I would like to enhance digital skills, and inspire an entrepreneurial mindset in Peniche. We have no idea where this will lead us, but we have to start somewhere,” she says.

Teigland seems to find opportunities and collaboration everywhere. Students she talks to in the Lobby at Chalmers become involved in her research projects. A conversation with the Portuguese operator of the self-driving bus in the Chalmers area led to him becoming interested in working on her start-up project in Portugal.
 
“I believe in always being open to new people and encounters. You never know who you will meet,” she says.

Teigland knows the value of fighting for what she believes in, even when it is an uphill struggle. She has been challenged on many occasions. Few at the Stockholm School of Economics understood her area of research when she started out, and her thesis was cut to pieces by a senior researcher.
 
Today her research is more relevant than ever. In 2017 and 2018, the business magazine Veckans Affärer listed her as one of Sweden’s most influential women in technology. She is a sought-after global speaker and has been called ‘a world leader in strategy and digitalisation’.
 
Why? Teigland considers the question for a while and comes back to what she so often points out: the important bridge she wants to build between technology, companies and the development of society, ‘to make the world a better place’.
 
“I try to see the bigger picture, to put things in context and understand what the development will entail. We don’t know what the themes of tomorrow will be, what will arise in the future. Therefore, we need to be open as researchers. Otherwise we will come to a standstill.”
 
Text: Ulrika Ernström
Photo: Ulrika Ernström and Hiba Fawaz

About Robin Teigland

Born: 1964 in Connecticut
Lives: Gothenburg, Stockholm, Oslo and Peniche (Portugal)
Current post: Professor of Management of Digitalisation at Chalmers since November 2018
Family: Five children in Sweden and a partner in Norway
Leisure interests: Surfing and stand-up paddle boarding, her children’s basketball games
Ongoing research: Currently studying the impact of AI on corporate governance
Current teaching duties: As part of the Management of Digitalisation course, she has tasked her 130 students to develop innovations to help Lysekil Municipality with digitalisation. The assignment, which has been named ‘The Lysekil Challenge’, has many similarities with her project in Peniche, Portugal, which is aimed at helping the Portuguese fishing community to get back on its feet again with the help of new technology and innovative solutions.

Robin Teigland on...

Not locking up knowledge
 “I often say: ‘If you love knowledge, set it free’. Freedom is a prerequisite for innovation, and knowledge is something that must be available to everyone. It is unsustainable to sit and hold on to copyrights and patents. We would have solved the cancer conundrum if we hadn’t had all these companies holding on to their patents.”
 
Her upbringing and how it affected her
“I am a product of an integration between my mother’s and my father’s interests. My father is a professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt University, and he taught me to always ask the question, ‘What happens if?’ As early as the end of the 1970s, he predicted that everyone would have home computers in the future, and as a child I used to accompany him to the computer centre at the university and play with punch cards. I used to connect up to the university’s network and play on-line games, and actually got an ‘on-line date’ in the early 1980s. I inherited an interest in business economics and education from my mother. She thought it was important for us to govern businesses according to society's aims and objectives.
 
“I think I was influenced by the fact that my family had a long educational tradition. My paternal grandmother was one of the first women of her generation to take a masters at the University in Virginia, in the 1920s.”
 
Understanding by testing yourself
“We need to understand the technology, test it out ourselves to get an idea of its potential. This was why I bought bitcoins in 2013. A few years ago, I bought a 3D printer, downloaded software and pressed print – and 20 minutes later I had an egg cup. And that was several years ago – think about the potential in 20-30 years’ time. All this technology is already available! It’s now a question of how we link it all up.”
 
Future de-urbanisation
“I believe in de-urbanisation. We no longer need to work in cities, and with AI and digitalisation, many traditional jobs will disappear. I believe in strong regional development, and I think that in 20-30 years’ time we will see many self-sufficient societies.”
 
Her interest in the sea’s potential
“I think that most land-based jobs will be automated because they have become so routine. The new jobs will be created in the marine space because there is still so much that is uncertain and unknown there. It’s where we will obtain energy, food, water and even new residential areas and cities – and because everything is new, new jobs will evolve.”

Published: Tue 30 Jun 2020.