The sustenance of job creation during a digital evolution epoch

Issue 1 2021 Editor's Choice

As the future pushes ahead unabated, the set of circumstances emerging spark a lot of imagination. We no longer just rely on linear cognitive capabilities that give rise to incremental change, but rather parallelised and intertwined capabilities that result in exponential progress. The world is filling up with opportunities waiting to be discovered.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterised by the onset of new capabilities stemming from exponential developments in a multiplicity of domain technologies including robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnologies, quantum computing, 3D printing, superfast telecommunications and the Internet of Things. While these can be leveraged independently of each other, real impact can be experienced through combining specific capabilities from these disciplines to create competencies that have attractive value propositions, expected to become big game changers disruptively.

Current organising trajectories

To realise this, it is imperative to start viewing the world from the vantage point of the customer and the producer, driven by what people need. The possibilities are limitless.

The era of the prosumer (someone who both produces and consumes), under the construct of platform businesses, is upon us. Never in our lives have we been faced with so many prospects to innovate and co-create.

This is notwithstanding the fact that large scale automation is anticipated to disintermediate human intervention, resulting in material job shifts. This is also likely to result in economic and political uncertainty that might claw into the very gains that would have been ascribed to the enabling technologies.

Framing the challenge

While technological developments would not have been introduced into the commercial space without having had several iterations over the decades, the current cycle comes with a multiplicity of manifestation whose impact is expected to be so huge that there are unending debates as to what the real impact would be to the man in the street.

The questions that arise in the debate include the following:

• Is the Fourth Industrial Revolution indeed worthy of concern?

• Is this drive to be resisted to prevent a looming disaster for jobs that so many postulate?

• Is this, like the other industrial revolutions before it, no cause for concern in the long term as technology enablement inherently improves human lives?

• How should governments and indeed societies deal with this phenomenon?

• How long is the cycle of introduction and what negative aspects are expected to be long lasting in nature?

Emergence in a complex world

The introduction of change in any complex world carries with it the risk of less predictable outcomes born out of the apparent (debatable) acausality. The extent to which the jobs landscape can be resilient will depend on how the change was anticipated and planned for. Organisations which developed hermeneutic capabilities to absorb and adopt the disruptive technologies will fare better in the retention of jobs. What will be inevitable in the long run, is the recalibration of the skills demand landscape as the new requirements emerge.

Negative impact will prevail in the short term while positive spin-offs will emerge in the long term. Ultimately, technological advancements always result in better life experiences as menial tasks are performed by the machines in the background.

Studies in economics have observed that people have an infinite number of needs. Key to the fulfilment of those needs is the process of transformation. Some input will be subjected to certain processes in order to generate an output in the form of a desired service or product. An output from a particular process can be an input into other. This therefore validates the notion that, considering the limitlessness of configuration options prevalent in the transformation paradigm, roles – manual and automated – will keep on emerging. New needs will be identified, and new roles will be created, resulting in the generation of new jobs.

Stewardship to drive a resolute stance

While the future can never be conjured up, it does require that a resolute stance be adopted towards pursuing a particular direction. A purposeful intent bent on the betterment of the quality of human existence, keeping an open mind, avoiding being entangled in existing mental models that fortuitously cast limits on what constitutes possibilities. The sustainability of the ecosphere will always have a need for some homeostatic activity for it to remain viable. Automation can never result in a definitive end state that will render input from human beings, the epitome of life itself, obsolete.

Governments, societies, organisations and individuals all have an integral role to play in the mitigation of inherent risks, such as the widening of the wealth gap, with those leveraging efficiencies from the technology deriving even bigger margins, and those that have been replaced by the technology by virtue of them having been involved in mundane tasks emerging poorer.

There are a few ingredients for a successful transformation agenda from the current skills into the digital age:

• A digitally fluent policy direction from government, led by highly capable, non-compromising and values-based domain thought leadership.

• A well-subscribed set of national imperatives, bought into by society as a whole.

• Sustainability-infused strategies from organisations, with long-term value creation sitting at the core.

• Grit, devoid of any sense of entitlement from individuals; ‘the future is in my own hands’ mentality.

• A proliferation of well kitted out physical and virtual facilities and facilitators, with financial and sweat capital contribution from the private sector, working in partnership with the public sector.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

While automation has also been cast in a bad light, perceived to be a potential lever to the circumvention of labour relations issues, consumers would benefit from lower input costs. The quality of products will be more sustainable from standardised processes as human intervention and discretion diminishes. Despite these positives, if the net wealth gains from the new economic paradigm are not anticipated and planned for properly, the situation could result in the hollowing out of the middle class as automation becomes a key driver of economic inequality.

It is always a matter of time before what was consciously occupying people’s minds with awe becomes run of the mill technological capabilities that very quickly lose their shine. The surfacing of new use cases, emanating from the possibilities created by the digital age, results in emerging skills. These, too, shall pass, paving a way for the next tranche of capabilities as we slide deeper into the future.

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