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Technological Disruption – A Survival Guide

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, and Alexandra Whittington
How can individuals, governments, and businesses prepare for the inevitable technological disruptions of the next twenty years?

Technology and the ways we use it promise to disrupt society and business in dramatic ways. Should we wait for future shocks before we respond—or are there practical steps we can take to prepare us for a range of possible outcomes and increase our resilience in the face of uncertainty? This article explores practical steps we can take now to prepare for the inevitable surprises.

Fundamental changes are taking place in the way organizations are using technology. Many are embarking on radical digital overhauls to enable them to deliver new offerings, enhance service, improve efficiency, and increase cost competitiveness. The process of digital transformation is likely to spread across the business world, and the harsh reality is that wide-scale automation will inevitably lead to job reductions across everything from mining and retail to education and the accounting sector.

In parallel, new sectors are of course emerging and creating opportunities—but no one yet knows if they will generate enough jobs to replace those displaced by technology. Some estimates suggest that over the next 20 years up to 80% of all current jobs could be digitized; others estimate that for every new job created, three to four could be eliminated elsewhere. The truth is that it’s impossible to know how the situation will play out in the next two to three years let alone with the waves of change shaping the next 20. A good example of this is the uncertainty over Brexit for the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU). The situation is changing literally by the day and so it becomes almost impossible to think about what the longer term outcome might be.

The future could be a very exciting place where we tackle a lot  of current challenges in society and create new opportunities. New industry sectors such as laboratory grown food, vertical farming, autonomous vehicles, clean water technologies, renewable energy, and synthetic materials all hold out great possibilities for humanity. However, these businesses will be highly automated from the outset, and will require very different capabilities and a highly skilled work- force. The transition to these new roles will not be smooth for the production worker, shift manager, warehouse assistant, sales person, truck driver, or even lawyer whose jobs are at risk.

While there might be a temptation and tendency to “wait and see” because the challenges seem so immense—this could be calamitously risky. The change, when it happens, will cascade and accelerate rapidly, leaving unprepared governments, businesses, societies, and individuals overwhelmed and paralyzed. We believe it is far better to anticipate impending shocks and risks and act now to start putting society on a more sustainable footing, thus ensuring it is resilient enough to cope with the risk of large-scale technological unemployment.

We believe there are five fundamental actions that forward-looking governments should be taking right now.

1. Experimenting with Guaranteed Basic Incomes and Services – The firms undertaking job automation need customers to buy their goods and services. Hence, we see many in Silicon Valley arguing for some form of automation tax to fund the provision of universal guaranteed basic incomes (UBI) and services (UBS) to everyone in society. Some governments refuse to countenance the idea on ideo- logical grounds because they think it reeks of communism. However, others are recognizing that something needs to be done to avoid large-scale social decline and potential citizen unrest. Hence, many countries including Finland, Germany, and Canada are undertaking UBI experiments to understand the concept, assess the social impact, measure the costs, and prepare themselves while they still have time.

2. A Massive Expansion of Support for Start-Up – Creation People will inevitably have to take more control of their own destiny. One way is to create their own job or small business that is far more immune to risks of technology replacing humans. A massive expansion of support for start-up creation would both generate jobs for the mentors and accelerate the rate at which people can build new businesses and create new jobs.

3. Research and Development in Key Knowledge Sectors – A competitive economy demands cutting edge innovation. A safe society requires research and development on the materials and processes that will enable that innovation to happen without adverse social consequences. Not all R&D lends itself to assessment based on the return on investment—some just has to be undertaken for the betterment of society. Hence, expanding research funding and the number of research institutions and posts are important enablers of tomorrow’s job creation.

4. Rethinking Education at Every Level – Success in the future will require a smart, adaptable, and highly educated workforce. Indeed, many commentators and some governments anticipate that within a decade, most new jobs will require a graduate level of education as a minimum. How that is acquired may well look very different to today.

To survive and thrive we think and believe everyone will need to understand both the technologies and the mindsets shaping the future. There are lots of technological competitors to Uber and Airbnb: For the latter, their true point of difference is their mindset, a radically different way of thinking about how you deliver on customer desires without owning any assets or employing any of the service delivery staff. We also need to help people develop higher-level skills that will help them learn rapidly and transition into and between jobs that don’t even exist today. These skills include collaboration, problem solving, navigating complexity, scenario thinking, and accelerated learning.

Therefore, we believe we need a massive increase in the provision of free adult education using existing facilities at schools and higher education institutions for delivery—most of the teaching spaces are unused in the evening. We also need to reduce pupil-teacher ratios at school level to help with personalized support because the evidence is clear on the impact. This also means looking at the charges imposed on students pursuing higher education: We need a well-educated workforce to propel the country forward. Many other nations are providing free degree level education—globally, we need sustainable solutions that don’t leave future generations demotivated, disillusioned, and saddled with debts that they cannot repay.

5. Addressing the Mental Health Challeng – Across society, the scale and severity of mental health issues is rising. Large-scale job displacement will only increase that. An enlightened approach would be to provide far richer workplace support for those suffering mental health challenges, and to fund people to train as therapists while still working today so that they will be ready to help when the challenge becomes a major problem in two to four years’ time.

There’s clearly a cost associated with enabling all these activities, but we have to ask ourselves what the risks and potential costs of inaction might be. A short term saving on costs could lead to a very long-term increase in the cost of funding unemployment benefits and policing a society that feels let down.

  •  What could be the long term societal and economic impacts of near term inaction?
  • How should we prioritize what needs to be done? Where should we start?
  • How can we shift the prevailing paradigm from return on investment to betterment of society?

This article is excerpted from Beyond Genuine Stupidity – Ensuring AI Serves Humanity. You can order the book here.

 

Image: https://pixabay.com/images/id-4344632/ by kellepics

 

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