In our initial Delphi survey, experts were asked about what impacts automation of the future workforce might bring and how we can construct a digital economy that it is open to all, sustainable and secure.

The brave new world (or some might say dystopia) that can be brought about through the automation of jobs is beginning to stand out as one of the biggest challenges facing society, governments and individuals.  Worklessness, underemployment and low-level employment have become the undesirable features of developed economies.  The introduction of technology has attracted much of the blame for this situation but are insecure jobs, stalled wages and living standards the result of automation, robotics and artificial intelligence or because just about everything is being digitised? Furthermore, should we sidestep old debates about technology replacing jobs so we can focus on working out exactly who is losing their jobs, who is working for nothing, who is working in the sharing economy or the gig economy and how this affects their sense of belonging and self-worth, and importantly how we can avoid the adoption of populist/nationalist discourses?

Experts raise the issue that many people who traditionally had working class jobs have now lost or are at risk of losing that work, being demoted to casual work or long-term unemployment.   If more and more people are pushed into this so-called underclass, then this creates a danger to social cohesiveness. To an extent, this has already occurred:  new forms of labour and work are automated or outsourced to economies where terms and conditions are nowhere close to the countries whose needs they serve. We were told that much can be learnt from the US-Mexico border area, where there is a massive rise in Maquiladoras: manufacturing operations where materials and equipment is imported on a duty-free and tariff-free basis for assembly and processing into finished products for export, often straight back to the raw materials’ country of origin. Understanding the precise role of digital technology in the creation of undesirable economic effects or otherwise is particularly crucial where excluded workers with poor terms and conditions are serving the needs of wealthier neoliberal economies.

Robots are back in the news, although they have been having a massive impact on productivity since they were introduced way back in the seventies. With the introduction of new technologies such as cloud computing, the ‘Internet of Things’ and artificial intelligence, robots have reached a stage of development that promises to make products nearer to market – while the introduction of more and more robots will mean that labour costs are no longer the chief driver of location decisions.  Reshoring manufacturing might be good news but it is unlikely to create many jobs, and because robots are essentially ICT systems, these systems are also compromising jobs undertaken by white collar workers and knowledge workers.

However, the ubiquitous nature of technologies and what they can do has focused employers’ attention on what machines find more difficult, e.g. the softer human skills that complement technological advances and which are increasingly seen in all sectors as highly valuable. Will a digitised economy remove drudge jobs and free up more time for leisure? Can digital make untapped value accessible (see this recent ESRC study)?

New digital platform based business models tend to be disruptive, supplanting traditional ways of working, bringing change and new ways of working that are typically reported negatively. Despite this, there are many benefits and experts would like to see attention given to:

  • What exactly are the main threats to the economy and sustainability in the digital age?
  • How can these threats be mitigated?
  • What are the emerging issues and related challenges for economic theory and policy?
  • What are the roles of activism, trade unions, charities, and the third sector in the negotiation of new economic models and realities?

Experts raise the issue of blurring and overlap between this and other domains because the digital divide, security, the cloud, data storage and environmental sustainability all feature strongly in this domain. We were also reminded that continuous attention must be paid to developing digital education: the learning and skills that are already fundamental to new digital ways of working.  In alignment with skills development, continued attention and investment must be given to ensure that physical digital infrastructure (including high speed broadband, 5G, and even satellites) is up to the job.

In summary, more questions than answers have been raised here. We would be grateful for your views on which questions should be prioritised. Further, if you are involved in research that throws light and understanding on any of the issues raised here, or others, then let us know.  Find out how to contact us here.

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