As we enter a new Industrial Revolution, automation and digital devices are up-ending jobs, from cashiers to automotive assembly lines. Globally, career taxi drivers now compete for passengers with Lyft and Uber drivers, and new industries, like solar energy, employ more people than coal. Smart devices, ubiquitous data, and mobile technologies are dramatically changing industries and societies.
The MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) believes that while technology can jettison existing jobs, it’s also constantly creating new jobs, services, and conveniences never considered before. Bitcoin and Blockchain may ease financial transactions across national borders and regions. As noted by Forum for the Future, “smart ways of connecting our behaviours to the physical realms we interact with could improve the efficiency of systems such as energy, healthcare, and transportation, and our quality of life.”
The grand challenge we face is how to accelerate the pace of job-creating innovation and the reinvention of sustainable work, while easing the transition for those whose jobs are lost in the process.
At the IDE, we’ve given a lot of thought to the future of work. We believe that the way forward is not to preserve the jobs of the past, but to create new paths for more people to share in the prosperity that digital technology creates. Last year, to put these beliefs into action, we launched the first Inclusive Innovation Challenge (IIC) to show that technology can build a future that works for more people—and it’s that the future is already underway.
Awarding over $1 million in prizes, the IIC celebrates global organizations that are using technology to ensure greater economic opportunity. These organizations are addressing key questions such as, what skills will be needed in the future, and how do employees find jobs once they are properly trained? How can more people around the globe access and participate in the digital economy? We found that mobile devices and social media are linking global and rural communities as never before. Apps are helping farmers get better meteorology forecasts, artisans to sell their wares on global markets, and small businesses to access loans and financial assistance. Only a few may become data scientists, but thousands of young people will be trained in coding basics techniques so they can take part in the digital economy.
For our 2017 challenge, we have identified four basic areas where technology and jobs must better intersect. These comprise the categories for our Inclusive Innovators:
1. Job Creation & Income Growth
Simply put, we need to use technology to create new jobs that pay better wages. What might that look like? IIC 2016 Grand Prize Winner, Iora Health, has created an entirely new job category – health coach – for people who support patients directly and work as liaisons to medical professionals. The model simultaneously drives down costs. Using a proprietary medical record technology platform to gauge patient progress and success, Iora is providing job opportunities that merge human compassion with data-driven management. In 2017, the IIC is looking for more organizations like Iora that enable entirely new industries and jobs to flourish in the digital economy.
2. Skills Development & Opportunity Matching
It’s critical to prepare people to succeed in rapidly growing job categories like robotics, coding, AI, and renewable energy. Moreover, once people develop these skills, they have to connect with appropriate job opportunities. Another IIC Grand Prize Winner, Laboratoria, works specifically with low-income women in Latin America to train and match workers and jobs. Once the women master critical digital skills, and are equipped as developers, they are matched with jobs in the tech sector. Digital boot-camps like Laboratoria, technology-driven approaches to scaling up education, hiring platforms that reduce unconscious bias, and labor markets that safeguard fair wages, are just a few of the technology-driven ways working people can succeed in and access emerging work opportunities.
3. Technology Access
In our increasingly digital economy, those with access to technology will prosper at the expense of those without access. Yet many people who are willing and able to work simply cannot ‘plug in’ to the digital economy. According to a 2016 Federal Communications Commission study, 39% of Americans are unable to access any broadband Internet services; surely a reason that rural America’s economy has been so hard hit. Globally, a study of 32 emerging or developing countries showed that only 44% of the population accessed the Internet at all.
Innovative approaches are emerging that will empower people to engage more fully in the digital economy. For example, last year’s IIC Winner, Jana, allows people from around the world to download specific apps on their smart phones. As compensation, Jana provides Internet access via smartphones getting millions of people and businesses online and on the job.
4. Financial Inclusion
Often, even with a job and an income, a family’s financial stability can be tenuous. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, 27% of American households do not have bank accounts or have inadequate services. Two billion people worldwide are “underbanked” or “unbanked” and must conduct their transactions in cash―which can be difficult to manage and presents safety issues. As the economy incorporates more contract workers —fully 20-30% of the working age population in the U.S. and EU are independent workers —they usually have limited access to protections like unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and disability insurance, according to a McKinsey study.
Technology can change this, however. Last year’s IIC Winner, Destacame, developed an algorithm to allow individuals demonstrate their credit-worthiness by using alternative data, gathered from credit-like services such as utilities, telecoms, and suppliers. Other exciting new applications for blockchain, the technology underlying the digital currency Bitcoin, are being employed to provide a secure, reliable digital record-keeping system that can help the poor access financial services and bring them into the formal economy.
Societies can’t go backward or stop the evolution and redefinition of work in the digital age. But we can encourage and support new mechanisms for job creation, skills development, technology access, and financial inclusion that will provide safety nets and sustainable paths for workers to adjust to the new realities ahead.
Devin Wardell Cook is Executive Producer of the MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge.
The MIT Inclusive Innovation Challenge is now open and accepting registrations through June 7, 2017. Visit MITinclusiveinnovation.com to learn more about last year’s winners and this year’s challenge.