Real World Futures

Governments awake: a cruel change is coming

Date: 02 November 2016

ONE of Australia’s leading businessmen has counselled governments to pay more attention to the impact digital technologies will have on the future of work and the risks to society from job losses.

David Thodey, former CEO of Telstra and now chair of the CSIRO, said Australia needed a more co-ordinated approach to the challenges to future work, given the forecast scale of job losses from technology.

Mr Thodey was speaking at the recent Recent Real World Futures conference, Disruptive Influences – And What To Do With Them.

He shared a panel with one of the world’s leading thinkers and authors on digital disruption, Boston-based Professor Thomas Davenport.

He said business leaders were increasingly engaged with the impact of digital technology at a competitive level, as a means of cost reduction and, in fewer cases, as a means of revenue growth.

“At a government policy level, I really think they don’t know how to deal with it,” he said.

“If these predictions (the regularly quoted loss of up to 40% of jobs) are true, that’s a big change to our society and we need to look at what that means.”

Professor Davenport told the audience that the United States, like Australia, was not taking a co-ordinated approach to planning for how the future workforce would be structured.

Mr Thodey now chairs Jobs For NSW, a state government-created organisation charged with creating 1 million jobs in that state.

But he said past practices of states competing for jobs was no longer relevant and they instead needed a co-ordinated approach to creating new jobs in a new economy. “It’s just a myopic way of thinking and it’s wrong,” he said.

His organisation had identified that most new jobs in NSW had come from small-to-medium enterprises, mainly from “gazelle” businesses that sprang from nowhere and grew quickly. But an overwhelming number of them were domestically oriented at a time when the economy needed to be internationally focussed.

He said this was where governments could have a role because such organisations found it difficult to secure funding even though their prospects were in the faster growing parts of the world economy.

Professor Davenport, whose most recent book Only Humans Need Apply sets out the steps individuals need to take to weather disruption, said his research had found most successful adapters were motivated by their own entrepreneurial vent rather than any orchestrated approach to future proofing.

 His book spells out five options for workers in the so-called knowledge industries which were once considered the “high ground” safe from technology change. They are:

  1. Stepping Up – moving above automated systems to develop more big-picture insights and decisions too unstructured for computers or robots to make;
  2. Stepping Aside – Moving to non-decision work that computers aren’t good at (such as selling or motivation);
  3. Stepping In - Engaging with the automated decision to understand, monitor and improve them;
  4. Stepping Narrowly - Finding a specialty area of your profession so narrow that no one is trying to automate it;
  5. Stepping Forward – Developing the new systems and technologies that support intelligent machine decisions.

Professor Davenport is an advocate of the role of augmentation, rather than automation, an believes machines and humans will work more closely together but the rapid, wholesale elimination of human work is unlikely.

Real World Futures is a QUT program which focuses on the future of working, thinking and living in a digitally transformed world.

Its previous events have included upclose looks at the predictions of future employment, how different thinking approaches can support knowledge workers and focusses on specific industry technology issues, including driverless cars, wearable health technology, social media, food and the role of entrepreneurship.

Mr Thodey said new technology would demand new skills and the work needed to be done now if the workforce was to be equipped with them by 2025.

“We need people to step up or step in and we do need governments to get the policy settings right,” he said.

“We need to get better collaboration going. I’m concerned. I think if we don’t do it, it will suddenly catch us out and we have the opportunity to get ahead of the game.”

You can see David Thodey's presentation here. You can see Tom Davenport's presentation here. And you can see them in conversation here.

Content sourced from QUT News Web Service.


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