The COVID-19 pandemic brought a significant boost to digital economies across Europe. One of the leading management-consulting firms, McKinsey & Company, estimates that between the first five months of 2020, the digital economy in the Central and Eastern European region grew by more than 14 percent — double the increase of that in the previous two years.
However, this development has not been shared equally across all states: the Czech digital economy grew at only 8.8 percentage points, a mere 1.7 increase from the previous two years (2017-2019). Europe’s digital gap is widening, and this holds true for digital technologies with important growth potential such as artificial intelligence. A number of European countries have already taken measures in AI that could make them the AI engines for Europe, as suggested by McKinsey’s AI Readiness Index. Will Czechia harness its potential and join them — or continue trailing behind?
Such was the context of this year’s McKinsey Solve It 2020 competition presented by Dan Svoboda, managing partner of the McKinsey Prague office, as he commenced the weekend of the final round of this year’s edition.
Engaging young minds in IT studies
Solve It is an annual two-round competition where students and young professionals get to take on the role of McKinsey consultants tasked with helping a real-life organisation solve its strategic and operational challenges. This year, teams and individuals from Czechia and Slovakia signed up to help us with our mission of transforming Prague into a global AI superhub.
“In Czechia, we don’t have OpenAI – but we have GoodAI. We don’t have Google – but we have Avast. We do things differently, but we do them well, and we are innovators,” continued Michal Pěchouček, co-founder of prg.ai and CTO of Avast. By emphasising that the three major industries in Czechia — manufacturing, IT and life sciences — all carry significant potential to benefit from AI technologies, Mr Pěchouček shed light on the importance of the task faced by participants.
In the first round, we challenged our consultants to devise a strategy to help increase the overall number of applications for IT related degrees at Czech universities, with emphasis on female applicants.
A focus on education is integral to our vision at prg.ai as it is necessary to fundamentally develop research, embed AI into mainstream curricula and raise awareness of artificial intelligence among the general public if we want to be successful in our feat.
The finalist teams presented ideas that stood out in their relevance and originality. Some teams emphasised the importance of focusing teachers — and female teachers in particular, as they are some of the most influential role models in students’ decisions. Other teams outlined the benefits of presenting IT subjects in their full multidisciplinary nature as promoting non-programming fields can attract many prospective students and defy the stereotypes that still prevail.
Bringing AI to everyone
Six of the best teams and five outstanding individuals from the first round were selected to compete against each other in the second and final round.
The participants worked resolutely under tight deadlines as they tackled our second challenge: to devise a strategic plan for a volunteer network that would enable us to effectively embed our AI learning materials into high schools and introduce an AI course for the general public.
The teams presented complex and imaginative solutions, the strongest of which were based on thorough research and out-of-the-box thinking. Some suggestions included the use of CRM tools and referral systems to recruit and retain volunteers or blueprints that intelligently addressed the individual stakeholders with embedded risk mitigation strategies. Other solutions placed emphasis on creative communication, such as a YouTube channel, school competitions and the use of mobile apps, as a necessary element to reaching young people.
“prg.ai’s vision to transform Prague into a European AI superhub is an ambitious one, and we always knew that we wouldn’t be able to achieve our goals alone,” said Michal Pěchouček. “I’m glad that many private companies participate in our efforts, more so that McKinsey Prague is a global authority in consultancy,” he added. “Education is prg.ai’s absolute priority, and both the participants and McKinsey made us look at the issues at hand from another perspective.”
Transcending borders for a purpose
Under exceptional circumstances brought by COVID-19, the competition took place virtually. Many participants took advantage of this as they joined us remotely from various parts of the world, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the United States.
The enthusiasm and commitment demonstrated by the 34 finalists was nothing short of extraordinary. The outputs from both rounds were inspiring and stimulating, and the synthesis of all solutions will be integral to the success of prg.ai’s plans. Thank you to all participants for their contributions and congratulations to the winning team!
Last but not least, our kudos also goes to the entire McKinsey team: from employing their know-how and consulting mindset in helping us hone the two cases, through flawlessly adapting to a fully-virtual event, all the way to the dedication they gave to the participants in order to make their management consulting experience as authentic as possible (including a fun pub quiz to decompress after two demanding days). It was an absolute joy and honour to be able to witness McKinsey in action over the two months of our intensive cooperation.
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