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Promise in the Gloom – How the Bleak Future Scenarios for Employment Might Save the Environment

By Rohit Talwar, Alexandra Whittington, April Koury, and Maria Romero
How might future changes in the structure of business and the nature of work impact the environment?
An Ecological Upside to Job Automation?

While governments around the world are wrestling with the potential for massive on-rushing technological disruption of work and the jobs market, few are extending the telescope to explore what the knock-on impacts might be for the planet. Here we explore some dimensions of the issue.

The Ecological footprint of Robots and AI

Replacing humans with robots clearly has a dystopian flavor. However, what potential positives are there from successive waves of artificial intelligence (AI) and other exponentially developing technologies displacing jobs ranging from banker to construction worker? Our consumption of resources and emissions footprint are clearly impacted by the number of people working, the implications for commuting, the environmental of how roles are conducted, our resulting income-related domestic lifestyle choices. However, while everyone wants to know the impact of smart automation, the reality is that we are all clueless as to the outcome over the next twenty years, as this fourth industrial revolution has only just started.

There is a dramatic variation in views on the extent to which automation technologies such as AI, robotics and 3D / 4D printing will replace humans or enable wholly new roles. For example, A 2016 McKinsey automation study reported that, with current technologies, about a third of most job activities are technologically automatable, affecting 49% of the world economy, an estimated 1.1 billion employees and $12.7 trillion in wages. China, India, Japan, and USA account for more than half of these totals. The report concluded it would be more than two decades before automation reaches 50% of current activities.

More dramatically, The World Economic Forum’s 2016 Future of Jobs study predicts 3.5 times more jobs lost than created between 2015 and 2020 through labor market disruption – suggesting potential reductions in the associated resource and emissions impacts. The study also estimates that 65% of children entering primary school today would work in job types that don’t yet exist. This implies an as yet unknowable ecological footprint for the more environmentally conscious generations coming into the world of work.

Rethinking the Notion of Jobs

Automation seems likely to herald tidal waves of automation and change – which will in turn drive a reframing of the concepts of jobs and work itself. In the next few years we will be challenged to ask ourselves fundamental questions about the foundational role of paid employment in society. What is a job? Is it a series of tasks for getting things done? Is it a marker of socio-economic distinction? Is it the only means of making a living? Though the answers to these questions seem obvious today, there is good reason to think that – by the time today’s 7-11 year olds enters the workforce in around 2029 and beyond—they are terms that may be on the path to becoming obsolete relics of the last few centuries.

As smart new tools encroach on our knowledge, skills, and functions as workers and producers, we can begin to expect the future to be radically different from the past. Indeed, some observers go as far as suggesting the notion of jobs and incomes may all but disappear in western societies over the next 15-20 years – replaced by infinite leisure time, the pursuit of individual purpose, and the receipt of guaranteed basic incomes (GBI) and services (GBS).

Leaving aside these social, moral and ethical considerations, workplace automation should bring significant ecological benefits. A smart office, with few humans, widespread use of AI and online ‘cloud-based’ solutions should reduce requirements for space, energy, resource, lighting, heating, ventilation, sanitation, waste, and commuting. Reducing all of these would have positive impacts on carbon footprint, sustainability, and the bottom line. These cost savings might then be channeled into paying for some form of automation taxes or robot levy that would be required to fund the provision of GBI and GBS.

New Sustainable Behaviours

New human possibilities could also emerge as the environmental outlook improves, for example slowing carbon output enough to offset rising temperatures and heat waves. We could see renewed interest and opportunities in outdoor activities ranging from ecological farm work to personal trainers and customized tour operators.

Highly personalised services might create jobs that AI will struggle with for some time to come. These are likely to be jobs involving deeper human contact and engagement, interpreting subtle verbal and behavioral cues, and using the insights to create highly personalised services. Of course, eventually almost any entrepreneurially-minded soul will be able to access extremely advanced AI cheaply or for free. The technology will also get smarter – further eroding the human-machine boundary e.g. providing tailored dietary advice, fitness regimes, and meditation routines.

Healthier design decisions to make the workplace desirable, sustainable, and comfortable could also be facilitated by AI – e.g. automating office layouts based on individual preferences for natural light and privacy. Such personalisation would require us to compromise privacy – for example, constant surveillance would allow an AI to make smart suggestions on modifying human behaviors to minimize carbon footprint. Is this desirable?

Using GBI / GBS to Drive Sustainable Provision

With millions of workers potentially displaced from their jobs in cities, some form of GBI / GBS seems inevitable. Governments around the world in countries such as Finland and Canada are already conducting experiments to understand the mechanisms and second and third order effects of such provisions. Indeed, greater government procurement of services could help to enforce tougher environmental standards and GBS could be used to incentivize the purchase of products with stronger ecological and sustainability credentials.

Urbanization trends may also reverse in a net job reduction scenario – since the potentially lower cost of living in rural areas could give people the opportunity to do more with less. This effect would be magnified if the changes gave a boost to growth of decentralized networks of local economies. The combinatorial effects of new technologies such as 3D printing and drone transport could enable the localization of most activities – further reducing the ecological footprint of manufacturing and transport.

Technology as a Tool for Good

We are clearly at a crucial point in history. Disruptive technology is in and of itself neutral – it has no intention or meaning until humans make decisions about why and how to use it. Hence, society can take the opportunity to think sustainably and use technology as a tool for good, in terms of creating new outlets for human talent and helping control our impact on ecological systems. Making such choices and developing the skills required to ensure survival, stewardship, and sustainability of the planet are domains that, for the foreseeable future, AI can only supplement, not drive. We believe humans must be behind the wheel.

Sustainability Training

Educating people to bring a sustainable mindset to new jobs may become another source of invigoration for the employment outlook. For example, internships and job training programs for green industries would provide teaching, training, coaching, and mentoring opportunities for experts in a number of areas. Clearly, it will take careful training and emotional support to help lawyers retrain as organic farmers or landscape gardeners and for displaced retail workers to be able to take jobs in nature sanctuaries, as the wildlife once endangered by office and retail development is restored to a safer habitat.

Green and Automated Jobs

While today’s workers largely unconsciously create an ecological sustainability burden, it’s possible that the changing nature of the workplace and tomorrow’s jobs could help us harmonize more with nature. It’s an ironic scenario—workplace automation leading to ecological nirvana – and destruction of jobs enabling survival of the planet. At present, the AI we know from sci-fi movies seems cold and impersonal, and very far from nature. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the shrinking of the workforce via AI automation may in fact generate new excitement for jobs with environmental purpose and an economic system able to sustain (instead of just exploit) natural resources. The jobs of the future might be extremely automated and green.

Sustainable Consumption, Production, and Automation

Values are the drivers behind our social behavior and patterns of consumption. Currently, most societies are governed by “modern” values like competition and achievement. These ideas have fed the paradigm of the pursuit of infinite growth and consumerism as a driving assumption for business strategies and a policy cornerstone for governments. However, there is a growing sense that a shift in social values is on its way, with greater interest in “enoughness”, sustainability, transparency, and collaboration.

This shift could increasingly change both the decisions made by consumers, and also the choices about where a person works and under what conditions. Thanks to automation and AI, the future workforce is likely to be smaller in numbers, but equipped with greater information, insight, knowledge and an enhanced capacity to act effectively and in an ecologically sound manner. By bringing foresight to the entire issue of technological change, we can ensure that the outcomes serve both humanity and the environment in more sustainable ways.


  • How is your organization looking the potential ecological impacts of its automation efforts?
  • How can we prepare society for the possibility of the long term decline in employment levels?
  • How can we encourage people to invest leisure time into environmentally friendly pursuits?

This article was published in FutureScapes. To subscribe, click here.


A version of this article originally appeared in IEMA Transform.


Images: by comfreak


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