Our next session starts with Phil Brown from Cardiff University talking about the reality underlying the rhetoric of automation. Claims about the impending reality of mass unemployment driven by automation circulate widely, with a significant risk of exaggeration. Nonetheless, the general direction of travel is clear and there will be a declining demand for labour, posing problems of how we divide up the fruits of that labour in terms of productivity and wealth.The real problem we have today is not skill scarcity, explains Brown. It is a jobs mismatch rather than a skills mismatch which will create social problems as automation proceeds. The decision made (or not) today already shape the future and there is a real risk they will concentrate diminishing rewards from labour in the hands of the few. Rather than the digital economy being a bounded phenomenon, it represents a transformation in the whole policy process. The only way we can address this by being clear about what our institutions are for and what they stand for. If we can’t address these fundamental questions then we will inevitably address these problems in a piecemeal way. He ends with a fascinating argument about the potential of analytics for an active industrial policy, no longer reliant on asking employers what they want. It is a powerful idea with some exciting consequences.
The second speaker is Jacqueline O’Reilly from the University of Sussex Business School. She recently completed a major work, Work in the Digital Age, offering a comparative outlook of digital development across Europe. O’Reilly went on to do discuss the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) ranking that “summarises relevant indicators on Europe’s digital performance and tracks the evolution of EU member states in digital competitiveness”. On this measure, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands have the most advanced digital economies in the Europe. Looking to these and other measures through a comparative framework helps open up a range of crucial policy questions, cutting through the clutter which usually gets in the way of our conversations about about practical responses. For instance the UK does well on digital skills but evidence suggests that employers are not taking up these skills, inviting analysis of why this is the case. O’Reilly ended with a discussion of how to produce something akin to a DESI ranking that extended beyond Europe and what this would mean for our capacity to address the global challenges which digitalisation is producing.
The final speaker is Xander Mahoney who is a Policy Advisor at Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport talking about the longer term challenge of automation. While it is unlikely that we are seeing the ‘end of work’ and we need to be realistic about how advanced technology is going to become. Nonetheless, the rate of development of technology is ever-increasing and this means we are going to be left with different jobs but the same workers. What support should be offered to the workers who have been made technologically redundant in the workforce? They will need training and welfare, directed towards opportunities which are difficult to predict in advance.