The machines are coming for our jobs. This is a dystopian vision of the future of work popularized by the media and perpetuated in boardrooms across the globe.
South Africa is not immune from this misperception and here it has created a climate of fear and paralysis. Leaders, both civic and corporate, hesitate to encourage and incentivise the very digitalization needed to sustain and grow our economies out of a misguided fear of job losses and the ensuing civil backlash.
Ironically, the exact efforts to protect jobs from technology may end up being the biggest cause of job losses in the future. Because, without a shift to a Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) mindset, businesses will progressively become less competitive against their global peers, eroding their economic relevance and the jobs they sustain.
Decision makers, therefore, need the courage to embrace the paradox that while jobs might be subsumed by technology, only technology will be able to create new ones.
Yes, automation and cognitive technologies will eliminate jobs; mostly in search of improved efficiencies and productivity, and to some extent to reduce reliance on expensive, rare and specialised skills. It is futile and economically reckless to think otherwise.
The good news is that these same technologies will create demand for new skills and new jobs. The World Economic Forum (WEF) conducted an extensive study, leveraging insights from business leaders cumulatively responsible for 15 million people across a variety of sectors, skills and seniority levels globally. The study concluded that for every job that is lost to 4IR popularized technologies, 1.7 jobs will be created.
The consequent economic knock-on effects of these new jobs, although not quantified, would undoubtedly be significant and further contribute to net employment.
Unfortunately, the net new jobs will mostly remain in the domain of the educated and available to those with the means to access and afford the cost of sourcing new 4IR-related skills.
There are, however, green shoots of positive developments, led by a new breed of digitally literate entrepreneurs. They have not “invented” the technology, but instead leverage technology platforms to create self-employment and economic sustainability. These digitally literate entrepreneurs, many of them running micro-businesses, are creating employment and economic activity in lower income level segments in the following key areas:
1. Distributed value chains
Distributed value chains involve a category of people who are generally unemployed or under-employed and are able to fulfil a last-mile service gap by trading in their skills or available time. These platforms link people with capacity and/or skills constraints to people with the time and skills needed. This is done in a way that is dignified, safe, peer-reviewed for quality of service, and enables higher wages compared to traditional constructs. These platforms have been effective at creating jobs in developed, low-unemployment economies. Their contribution to employment is proven, significant and immediately tangible.
2. Collaborative consumption
It is often impossible for small organisations or individuals to justify the ownership of an asset because of affordability, or the ability to use the full capacity of the asset. The converse applies in which access to the asset through a sharing mechanism enables the same benefit as asset ownership. For example, digital platforms, such as Nigerian start-up Hello Tractor, that provide access to key equipment on a pay-per-use basis allow companies and individuals to reap economic benefits from utilising technology without the associated costs of owning the equipment.
This in turn enhances efficiencies and competitiveness of small organizations and levels the playing field for them in relation to large ones. Collaborative consumption has many forms and different levels of sophistication. At the extremes of technology, companies like 3D Hubs enable the collaborative consumption of 3D printers, allowing the 3D printer to become a shareable asset within its community.
3. Digital economic catalysts
Digital platforms increase levels of transparency, which combined with the network effect of connecting communities and frictionless transaction flow, is reviving sectors that have lost their appeal due to a lack of transparency, reduced levels of trust and relevance to specific demographic groups, and tedious or complex manual processes. These sectors are being revived by digital platforms that economically empower micro-entrepreneurs – or allow them to further empower other micro-entrepreneurs. StokFella and Livestock Invest are good examples of platforms that have shaken up entrenched concepts.
Digital technologies present both risks and potential. The way forward is not fixed nor will it be easy, but with the right leaders, and a mindset of urgency, curiosity and a preparedness to challenge existing paradigms, we have a good chance of achieving an abundant future.
We also need citizens and entrepreneurs that see opportunity in this new era open to doing things that have never been done before – in ways not previously considered, leveraging technology never before available.
– Valter Adão is the Chief Digital and Innovation Officer, Deloitte Africa