By Robert Hickson 27/03/2019

It’s hard to find a way through the forest of forecasts about the impact new technologies will have on work and life. Is it going to be terrible, awesome, same same, all of the above, or something else?

The answer is no one knows, or can really know. However, it’s useful to explore the issues and consider what policy options and business decisions could be appropriate to help shape the future.

The UK’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (known as The RSA) has just released “The four futures of work” which provides a useful contribution to these discussions. They, along with Arup’s foresight group,  developed a set of scenarios for the UK in 2035.

I would have left out “The” from their report title because I think these aren’t the only ones. But four is a useful set to stimulate thinking and discussion.

“Rather than make neat forecasts, we have argued that those in positions of power should consider multiple scenarios of the future and prepare workers for a wide range of possible outcomes.” The Four Futures of Work

They restricted themselves to considering the impact of a small, but influential, set of emerging technologies, the usual list of largely digital suspects:

  • Artificial intelligence
  • Robotics
  • Autonomous vehicles
  • Distributed ledgers (ie blockchains)
  • Additive manufacturing (3D printing)
  • The Internet of Things
  • Immersive technologies (augmented and virtual realities)

The scenarios

The four scenarios in the report are:

  • Big Tech Economy envisages mass automation and concentration of tech power
  • Precision Economy a world of hyper surveillance
  • Exodus Economy an economic crash combined with a flight from urban areas
  • Empathy Economy a reformed tech ecosystem where self-regulation becomes the watchword of the day, but there’s a downside to too much empathy

Usefully they don’t identify a “best” scenario, though people may favour some over others. The point isn’t to select a most preferred scenario but to explore a range of possibilities.

Foresight techniques when used well help avoid the “can’t see the wood for the trees” problem. A good set of scenarios help us avoid focusing on particular details. Instead they are intended to support developing a broader understanding of the emerging environment.

None of the scenarios in The RSA report are particularly surprising if you have followed other discussions on the future of work. However, the Empathy Economy one does take things a little bit further than usual.

The report goes on to describe some of the key questions and potential priority interventions that relate to each scenario. These are more discussion starters rather than recommendations.

Some of their suggestions would immediately be labeled too left wing in the UK, or “socialist” if they were raised in the US. Ideas like changing the tax system, and taking some of the shares from the big tech companies to create a sovereign wealth fund.

In my opinion, the report is weakest in the high level nature of the scenarios, and with some of the platitudes they use. Such as “Those who join this exodus, in both the literal and figurative senses, find themselves materially poorer but spiritually richer, with more time for leisure and caring for loved ones.” That’s now a common trope, and I’d like scenarios to explore this more carefully.

I’d prefer to have some grittier “day in the life of” or persona-style examples included to highlight particulars rather than just generalities. So it is useful to also look at the set of essays – A field guide to the future of work – that the RSA has also produced.

Recognising uncertainties and complexities

What I most like about the report is the effort they have put into summarizing the uncertainties associated with the adoption and impact of the technologies (and non-technological influencing factors), and outlining how they factored these into developing scenarios. It’s not often you see the workings of how scenarios were developed.

The report also helpfully describes four general ways these technologies may impact work:

  • Automation
  • Brokerage
  • Management
  • Digitisation

This inform discussions that can often just be a mantra about automation.

It also further breaks down automation into categories of substitution (where software or machines take over human tasks); augmentation (where people use machines to enhance their tasks); generation (where new types of work arise from the use of machines); and transference (where tasks are shifted from the workers to the customer, as with self-check outs in shops).

The Futures of Work in NZ

In NZ the government has instructed the Productivity Commission to look at “Technology and the future of work” too.

An issues paper is due out this April, with the final report expected in 2020. The report, according to its terms of reference, “should give a sense of the nature and relative scale of impacts in different scenarios.”

The report should provide useful information to inform discussions. It will be interesting to see how the Productivity Commission handles the issue in light of the current government’s shift towards a wellbeing approach, rather than just an increase in productivity.

The more difficult task will be the extent to which current and future governments and the business sector seek to shape policies and practices to achieve a more desirable future, rather than just reacting to events.

When looking toward the future scenarios shouldn’t be seen as the end point, but just one of the steps toward preparing for and creating better futures.

Featured image by Evan Dennis on Unsplash