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The Big Reboot, Part 1 – Rethinking Education and Employment in an Automated Era

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, Alexandra Whittington, Helena Calle, and April Koury
In the face of widespread and accelerating automation, how can we reskill society and create new job opportunities?
Creating Businesses and Employment in a Turbulent Economy

The Big Reboot is a two-part exploration of how we prepare society for the potential impacts of technological disruption, job automation, and the continuing shifts taking place in the global economy. In this first discussion we look at practical strategies for i) raising skills and digital literacy across society, and ii) generating the new ventures and job openings required to fill the employment gap left by those that are displaced by technology.

We are reaching peak hysteria in the debate about the potential impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation on tasks, roles, jobs, employment, and incomes. On an almost weekly basis, we see projections of wholesale job devastation through automation. These doom-laden forecasts vie with outlandishly optimistic forecasts from AI vendors and consultants suggesting that millions of new roles will be created because of our smart new tech toys. In practice, we are simply too early in its evolution to have any sense of the likely outcomes of this Fourth Industrial Revolution—the latest wave of change driven by exponentially advancing technologies.

Automation and the Economy—Five Key Uncertainties

Right now, the world is legitimately clueless about five key factors:

  • How far and how deep will these technologies actually penetrate over the next five to twenty years?
  • What level of opportunities could be generated in the new sectors and businesses that might emerge?
  • How might the nature of work, roles, jobs, and workplaces evolve over time?
  • How might governments, businesses, and individuals respond and what is the potential for innovative job generation solutions to emerge?
  • What might the net impact of these accelerating waves of technological change be on employment and the economic prospects for the individual?

So, getting beyond the debate and the hype, as futurists we believe we should be redirecting our energies across government, business, and society, challenging old assumptions and limiting paradigms to conduct previously unthinkable experiments to help us prepare for the next two decades. Hence, our focus is on designing and testing solutions for a range of possible “next futures” and for the scenarios of what might follow them. Why? In our view, it seems naive and dangerous to rely on the alternative strategy of simply betting on the hope that growth and innovation will save us.

Thinking the Unthinkable

We argue that now is the time to be thinking the unthinkable about: 1) preparing the workforce for an uncertain future; 2) creating new jobs and businesses; 3) providing for the unemployed in a fair, dignified, and straightforward manner that supports their search for opportunities; and 4) funding the transitions from today’s economy to future ones. To help stimulate action, with this chapter we build on some of the concepts presented in our recent books Beyond Genuine Stupidity—Ensuring AI Serves Humanity and The Future Reinvented—Reimagining Life, Society, and Business to present a range of experimental ideas in the first two of those domains—education and job creation.

We caveat these ideas with the acknowledgment that they too might only be temporary solutions in a fast-changing world. Some believe that we might be seeing the beginning of the end of jobs as the primary means of feeding our families and that, within 20 years, AI may have transformed the notions of work and employment as we know them. Others are suggesting that the economy will be reinvented by exponential technologies such as AI, 3D/4D printing, synthetic biology, lab grown food, vertical farming, autonomous vehicles, hyperloop transport, and smart materials. The belief is that these technologies are creating a level of societal abundance that eliminates the need to work and breaks the link between our physical earnings and our access to goods and services. All this may be true and will be the subject of future explorations. For now, we want to focus on the next 10-20 years and a world where work, employment, and incomes are still likely to be central tenets of economic management. So, what are some of the core experiments we could be pursuing in the fields of adult education and job creation?

Educating Society

What’s becoming abundantly clear is that at the national, business, and individual level, what will determine our ability to survive and thrive in a rapidly evolving landscape are our levels of education and big picture awareness. Our capacity to navigate a turbulent landscape will be driven by a number of factors: 1) our understanding of how the world is changing; 2) our capacity to think, reason, and solve problems; 3) our ability to learn new skills and approaches quickly; 4) our mastery of life skills such as collaboration, scenario thinking, coping with uncertainty, and handling complexity; and 5) our digital literacy. On the latter, countries like Finland are leading the way with their innovative free online offering designed to teach the entire nation about AI.

Collectively, these skills will help us move from role to role in a world where job tenures are shortening but lifespans could be increasing. They will also help us start our own businesses and take greater responsibility for our own livelihoods. This is something that could become an increasing priority as medium to large organizations slim down their workforces through competitive pressures and automation. We can see a growing onus on small to medium enterprises to provide the bulk of employment across the economy. Hence, some of the key policy experiments we are advocating are outlined below.

Future Immersion Intensives—It is now common for business executives to attend immersive study tours to meet new ventures in emerging sectors or take part in transformative one- to two-week courses at institutions like Singularity University. These are designed to accelerate “mindset change” in these organizations by providing a crash course in the ideas shaping the future and the technologies that might deliver them. A similar, lower cost, society wide option would be to create a range of such programs ranging in length from a weekend to a month. They would combine business visits, lectures, projects, and discussions with innovators, change agents, and entrepreneurs. The programs would be aimed at those in work, the unemployed, students, parents, teachers, and those who realize their business has to change. The faculty could be drawn from business, academia, and those in the local community who are retired or unemployed but have a desire to serve and grow at the same time.

Acknowledging the Shift to a Graduate Level Workforce—Automation seems highly likely to reduce the number of lower and mid-level skilled jobs in the economy. We can see a scenario where, within five to ten years, 80% of the new jobs created will require a graduate level education or equivalent. This means a cornerstone of any employment policy has to be to ensure we are readjusting the skills and knowledge base in the country at every level. In particular, this means encouraging and incentivizing adults to enter into continuing education while still in employment. Equally it means confidence building programs for the unemployed, basic literacy support for those who have been left behind, and a massive expansion of access schemes to allow those with few or no formal qualifications to transition into higher education.

Expanding Access—Funding will always be an issue—but the cost of inaction and a poorly educated workforce could far outweigh a large-scale expansion in provision. This could be delivered in innovative ways—including encouraging firms to sponsor local education programs either through direct funding, providing tutors, or allowing the use of their unused meeting and training room facilities during the day, in the evenings, and at weekends. Vacant facilities in schools, colleges, and universities could also be used in the same way.

A key part of the learning agenda here would be to take people into new and emerging businesses to help them understand the changing nature of work and workplaces and learn about the skills they require now and in the future. Support systems could be provided for communities to self-organize education and skills programs, sourcing tutors locally, and using attendee ratings and feedback to determine who best serves the needs of local communities. Clearly, pump priming might be required for areas where no such local tutoring talent exists. The key is to try a range of experiments, share the experiences, and scale the best practice models for different types and size of local community.

Abolishing Student Debt and Tuition Fees—In the UK, students are typically finishing higher education with debts of £30,000—£60,000 and, in many cases, poor job prospects and relatively low morale. This is the very group that needs to be inspired to create new ideas, services, and businesses for a changing world. Hence, a cancellation of student debt and individually paid tuition fees might help make it more attractive to go into higher education—especially if meaningful student grants were re-introduced.

Training and Education Salaries—For those who are made redundant or struggling to find work in their current sector, an option might be to retrain for a new career or sector. Here, a government funded salary could be payable for the duration of a training program or degree course.

Associations and Guilds with Training Salaries—To help deliver on the above retraining requirements, new salaried models of vocational training could be developed by evolving existing professional bodies and creating new ones. Their primary purpose would be to help develop the skills and personal competencies required for the new world of work. These programs would combine work-specific training, work placements, and the development of general work, business, and social skills. A training salary would be paid throughout the retraining period to take away the associated stress of taking time out to learn new skills.

Incentivizing Learning—Continuing professional development might have to become compulsory or be incentivized through the tax system to encourage individuals to keep acquiring skills to help them move from job to job.

Investment in Job Creation

Alongside reskilling the nation and changing mindsets, a parallel process is required to help stimulate new jobs, and to grow the businesses and industry sectors that will provide them. A number of potential experiments are described below.

Start-Up Salaries—Those starting new businesses could be offered a government top-up to ensure that employer and worker salaries are payable at a reasonable level for the first few years, enabling these firms to focus on their growth and development through a crucial period.

Investment in Future Sectors—The scale of competition between nations is intensifying and there is a clear belief that technologies like AI, blockchain, the Internet of Things, synthetic biology, and quantum computing will be the key battlegrounds. Hence, a major expansion in public funding for research and development across a range of domains is required to ensure the country is identifying and creating jobs in the key science, technology, and innovation sectors of the future. The scale of public investment will need to keep pace with global leaders to ensure the nation can compete in the future.

Laying the Foundations for the Future—The industries of the future are likely to be highly data intensive, global, and demanding of superfast broadband to help them stay connected and responsive in an always on world. To accelerate the attraction of these new sectors, governments will also need to ensure that they are delivering broadband infrastructures which match the best in the world.

New Models of Start-Up and Early Stage Venture Investment Funds—The new models would see government matching the investments made into these funds by individuals and business. Investment would be open to anyone globally who wanted to back start-ups through these funds, which would take a share in the equity of each business they invest in. Individual investments into the funds could range from £1 to £1 million with no special tax reliefs. To reduce administrative costs and speed up the process, the investments would be made using a standard model and contract structure, with high levels of technology support to manage the process and report to investors on the progress and needs of each business.

The investor community would help do the due diligence on the potential investments, and those investment opportunities with the greatest employment potential would be prioritized. A condition of receiving money is that the investee business would invest a proportion of future profits in such funds every year. Any profits received from the investee businesses and from the sale of such companies would be rolled up into the fund for the first few years until the funds are established as robust.

The administrative staff running the fund could be resourced using venture capital fund secondees provided as part of their firm’s corporate responsibility endeavors. The more junior staff could be provided by consultancy, legal, and accounting firms looking to provide innovative training experiences for their younger employees.

Compulsory Corporate Investment Funds—For a fixed period of time, while the economy is in transition, every business could be mandated to invest a fixed proportion of profits to help with start-up creation via the funds described above.

Investing Corporate Cash Surpluses—For those holding large cash surpluses, a similar approach would be to mandate those companies to invest a proportion of that cash into national investment funds. These would again back new ventures, early stages firms, and, in particular, more established businesses looking to grow. This could accelerate job creation on a massive scale and put corporate surpluses to use in the economy.

Total Employment Responsibility—Under this model, each firm would be responsible for ensuring a certain level of employment in the economy, calculated by AI systems based on the previous year’s revenue as a proportion of total private sector turnover. This might be delivered through direct employment, subcontractors, and suppliers who work solely for you, or the creation of jobs in new businesses which you support.

Employers’ Collectives—Firms could pool their total employment responsibility commitments into collectives—paying a fee per job to be created. The collectives would effectively take on the responsibility of starting and supporting start-ups, and providing grants, loans, and equity.

Deferred Redundancy—In this model, workers made redundant would remain on a firm’s payroll at full pay until they find a new job. This would incentivize firms to provide training and job finding support to those who they make redundant.

Public Service Expansion—Across the world, most public services such as education, healthcare, transport, environment management, and emergency services are struggling to meet their own responsibilities and public expectations. These services can all reasonably expect greater future service demand in a period of upheaval and transition. Improving the quality of public services could help raise morale across society. The focus of these new jobs could be targeted on public-facing activities. Staff would be on fixed term contracts with strong continuous learning opportunities that encourage the individuals to acquire higher-level capabilities and move on into the private sector.

Investment in the Arts and Social Sciences—In a world where technology could play a much bigger role in traditionally supported professions, we need to think laterally about where human roles will still be prevalent. The performing and creative arts are likely to remain sectors where we will want to see humans in action rather than robots. Equally, the social sciences require strong analytical and intuitive capabilities which are currently beyond the scope of AI. Furthermore, the addition of unique human perspectives is often what makes social science insights more profound and compelling. Hence, both these sectors could be key job creators if we can fund their expansion and the growth in the number of associated higher education places made available.

Embracing Experimentation

These are just a handful of the many ideas we have been exploring for how to address the challenges presented by a world in transition. There are no answers at present—only ideas that warrant investigation and experimentation to see how we can reskill society and create new job opportunities in a world where the individual is still expected to take responsibility for the wellbeing and shelter of their dependents.

The second part of this series will look at ideas for supporting the unemployed and will then go on to deal with the critical question of how all the various ideas and initiatives might be funded. For those who are particularly concerned about such issues and the impacts on debt and taxation, we would also ask them to consider what the cost of inaction might be. It is also worth bearing in mind that if a nation can pioneer innovative solutions in each of these areas, the results could be attractive to other nations—creating new service industry opportunities.


  • How do we persuade business leaders and politicians to debate the thinkable and the unthinkable openly?
  • What support might business seek from government to create a localized job creation ecosystem?
  • What approaches could be tested to help businesses engage in job creation?

This article is excerpted from A Very Human Future – Enriching Humanity in a Digitized World. You can order the book here.


Image: by geralt


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