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  • Writer's pictureNick Turner

The future(s) of work and the knowledge economy

Making sense of the uncertainties that face us all...

Two insightful reports, published in March 2019, from the RSA/ARUP and Nesta

You may have missed it, due to the all-consuming political turmoil that has engulfed the "old world", but March was an interesting month for reports focusing on the impact of technology and the broader knowledge economy on the future of work.

Much has of course already been written on this topic. From scaremongering academic reports, estimating that 47% of U.S. jobs are at risk of automation, to pretty much every major consulting house, expressing their own point of view and predictions.

Firstly, the innovation foundation, Nesta, published "Democratising the knowledge economy". Nesta has an explicit political and social agenda; how to avoid a world dominated by technological elites, exacerbating the gap between "the have and have-nots". They are increasingly alarmed by a rapidly expanding majority, cut-off from the growth and benefits of a burgeoning knowledge economy. Key concerns include:

  1. Stagnant productivity: as the benefits of technology are not evenly distributed

  2. Inequality: a metropolitan elite, increasingly detached from the rest of society

  3. Political disenchantment: a natural consequence of the points above, the impact of which has already played out in recent plebiscites

In response, Nesta's report lays out practical steps that society and policy makers can take to "widen access to capital and productive opportunity, transforming models of ownership, addressing new concentrations of power, and democratising the direction of innovation".

The authors' recommendations are clear, and in some cases a touch revolutionary. Key points include:

  1. Dramatically increasing the skills and capacity of SME's to enable their participation in the knowledge economy

  2. Transforming industrial policy to respond to the new concentration of power

  3. Disaggregating property rights to allow a more diverse set of stakeholders to benefit from productive resources

  4. Reform education to prepare the next generation for the future and not our industrial past

  5. Introduce an updated social policy framework that can respond to the new patterns of work

  6. Reform government and democracy to encourage new levels of participation and effectiveness

Secondly, the RSA (Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) released in conjunction with their research partner, ARUP, "Four futures of work: coping with uncertainty in an age of radical technology".

As a scenario practitioner of 20 years standing, I was delighted to see such a rigorous approach taken to this very challenging topic. RSA's CEO, Matthew Taylor, never short of a provocative quote, is one of my favourite commentators on the future of Work. ARUP's Foresight team is still ably led (20 years and counting!), by my old friend, Chris Luebkeman.

Together, their respective teams created four different equally plausible futures that may play-out over the next 15 years. Highlighting the perils of prediction, they explored the key drivers of change, identified critical uncertainties and challenged popular assumptions about of the future of work may unfold. Four divergent scenarios (to 2035) resulted:

The Big Tech Economy: where technologies develop at a dizzying pace of change, a new machine age offers a dramatic improvement in the quality of products and services but workers and unions are caught by surprise, leaving them largely incapable of responding.

The Precision Economy: a future of more moderate technological progress but hyper surveillance, as the proliferation of sensors allows firms to create value by capturing and analysing more information on objects, people and the environment.

Exodus Economy: an economic slowdown, follows a crash on the scale of 2008. Innovation funding dries up, the UK is trapped in a low skilled, low productivity and low pay environment. Alternative economic models gather momentum, cooperatives and mutuals emerge in large number, while others discover ways to live more self- sufficiently, including by moving away from urban areas.

The Empathy Economy: a future of responsible stewardship, where public

awareness of the dangers of new digital advances, keeps pace with technological development. Automation takes places at a modest scale but is carefully managed in partnership with workers and unions. Disposable income flows into ‘empathy sectors’ like education, care and entertainment.

Key questions to address and priority interventions (by scenario), are also identified in, leading to high-level recommendations across six broad categories (many of which inevitably overlap with the conclusions of the Nesta report):

  • Richer debates: promote a higher quality of conversation about what technology is capable of and what it could mean for workers

  • Ethical technology: "steward" the creation of new technologies, so that problems are nipped in the bud in the developing stages

  • Robust lifelong learning: "upskill" the workforce on an ongoing basis, enabling them to evolve as their jobs evolve

  • A 21st century safety net: renew tax and welfare institutions so that the spoils of technological change are shared as widely as possible

  • Strong worker voice: give workers greater say over how technology is deployed in their workplace and the wider economy

  • Agile regulation: ensure regulators keep pace with a changing labour market and technological developments

Both these reports make compelling reading. Both draw similar conclusions. However, even without the current distraction of Brexit, whether politicians will ever have the foresight, time or quite frankly courage, to actually take notice or action, remains to be seen.

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