i4j at The House of Lords in London

Driving towards 100% employment

Last Thursday I was excited to be part of the i4j Forum, the organisation chaired by Vint Cerf (one of the fathers of the internet and Vice President of Google) and David Nordfors (of Stanford and the World Economic Forum). The day was hosted by Lord Jim Knight and Katz Kiely, supported by an incredibly dedicated group of people on a mission. The mission? Work on novel solutions to achieve 100% employment.

The background to this is the realisation that the pace of acceleration of change brought about by technology has outstripped the model of continuous workforce recycling (understood under traditional economic theory as taught by Hazlitt et al). In other words, in the current model of thinking, technological progress destroys outmoded jobs but at (nearly) the same time creates new jobs. One example was the destruction of farming through mechanisation being offset by rise of factory jobs to build machines. Another example is the rise of e-commerce, which destroys retail jobs but creates coding jobs. Clearly those put out of work aren’t necessarily the ones who get the new jobs. But on balance, the theory says, overall employment in a society remains steady.

However, we live in an age where technology is changing so fast that retraining alone is no longer sufficient for society to keep up. At the end of the last century we moved from the idea that a job was for life to one where it was expected that workers might have to retrain once or twice. I’m old enough to remember when being laid off at 47 was probably the end of a person’s working life. In some areas of the UK it still is a complete disaster when a city’s main industry closes. But policy has changed so that in order to collect unemployment benefit, retraining must be considered and undertaken. Working patterns more recently seem to flow in blocks of ten years, not fifty. And that kaleidoscope is shifting more and more quickly. In the UK it is pretty much inconceivable for swathes of workers to know what they will be doing for a living in five years time, let alone ten.

And technology is advancing rapidly, not least because there are now workforces available whose expectation is that they can participate in exciting change. The advance of technology in itself has become a career expectation, and there are entire districts of (for example) London and Birmingham designed around creating rapid revolutionary technological change. The same has already happened in India, the west coast of the US, parts of eastern Europe, Scandinavia, China and so on. And this pace of change has the potential to far outstrip the capacity to retrain people to do the new jobs that will be liberated by the new technology when their existing jobs become redundant. The gig economy is upon us.

So that was the context for the day. For me it was my first time at the House of Lords. It’s an incredible place to be. Look up and you see beams set in place in 1097. It is a pretty awe-inspiring set of buildings, whatever your politics. And an amazing place to gather some of the most forward-thinking people on the planet, many of whom flew in from the US, Israel, Scandinavia and elsewhere.

Twenty-eight of us spent the day in a session designed by Jim Knight, formerly Minister for both Schools and Employment, Katz Kiely, who created the first social media strategy for the United Nations, and journalist Martin Bright. The structure was superb, with a repeating pattern of briefing, reflection, brainstorming, discussion and design. We split into four groups with a mixture of heavyweight practitioners from different disciplines and industries. And the mix of people was fascinating: students, an artist, banking group head of innovation, heads of not for profits, deep learning technologists, west coast tech giants, European ministers, bleeding edge scientists, broadcasters, policy heads and so on, among which a scattering of Burning Man folk. An incredible group of people assembled from all over the world.

The energy in the room, marshalled by Kiely and superbly facilitated by Naomi Fein and her team, was incredible. At one point a dozen people were on their knees scribbling on huge pieces of paper in the marble corridor outside the Archbishop’s Room. It was very slightly surreal, watching people with very serious jobs getting thoroughly stuck into a process that was, it has to be said, both immense fun and crackling with electricity. At various times each of the four groups presented to the others. Progress was made, splinter groups were formed and merged with others and some genuinely innovative solutions started to emerge. Along the way some passionate discussions took place, with philosophical and idealogical disagreements manifesting themselves. But at no point was there ever any disagreement about the purpose of the think tank, and nobody let their differences delay the rapid progress being achieved.

The group I worked with developed robust ideas, and the eventual output of the team was a presentation about a tech solution designed around hyper-fragmentation of the working day, matching multiple skills and abilities offered by individual workers within a collaborative working community. Other groups looked at specific regional job creation activities using the internet to mobilise new global social enterprises; social responsibility as the platform for a new way of looking at economics; and new approaches to personal ownership and control over public accessible data to model new solutions to societal problems. It was thinking on a grand scale.

My own career has centred around start-ups, specifically as CEO of a number of highly innovative digital marketing firms. I have a tendency towards developing strategies then turning those into commercial outputs for companies like Virgin, News Corp, Procter & Gamble and ESPN. Since 1994 I’ve been both innovator and reductionist, always focusing on practicality. I use digital as a way to resolve complex problems for profit. For me the day was a lesson in taking commercial thinking and adapting it for public benefit.

Here the group’s output was framed as a fairly simple (in concept!) platform to enable employment to be assigned based on the skills and aptitudes, tested through work and feedback, of individual workers. There are a number of implications in such a platform, by no means limited to:

  • How to protect privacy and data ownership
  • Scalability
  • How to create an open market for assignable jobs
  • How to validate the employable skills of the worker
  • How to manage time on a productive basis
  • And how to incorporate social responsibility.

Some of this work has already been addressed. David Nordfors has an interesting proposal for handling the personal data ownership issue for example (see VeeMe), which if we added current privacy thinking as described by Yale’s Frank Pasquale, might yield challenging but revolutionary practical ways forward.

Many of the other issues could be addressed in practice by creating clusters of employment, in much the same way as cities are organised. At the smallest scale this might look like a co-working space using a skills database (think IBM’s Blue Pages concept) and a job trafficking system. This could grow to be a district or city-wide jobs management ecosystem. In fact Matthew Taylor (CEO of the UK’s Royal Society of Arts) suggested to Kiely and me, in passing the other day, that local and hyperlocal management of employment markets might be a sensible way to look at building new economic powerhouses. Clustered employment markets – what economist Jeremy Rifkin calls the “collaborative commons” – might then be organised by location, special interests, or competitive differentiation. In turn, by managing these employment markets on a small scale, 100% employment becomes a target that can actually be achieved. Scalability becomes an issue of bottom-up cluster management rather than top-down generalist economic policy.

There is some interesting thinking being done by author and coach Tony Llewellyn around the subject of managing corporations that are based on organic agile systems (as opposed to the old corporation-as-machine model). His interest lies in how traditional modes of management style need to be inverted to create innovative, high-productivity entities in an age where the absolute requirement for digital transformation is becoming apparent even for the safest of old economy businesses. This will need to be addressed and incorporated into any model for employment that is driven by micro- rather than macro-communities.

However, given my experience accelerating theory into results by ‘just getting on with it,’ I believe there is room right now to take these ideas and do something real. In fact I believe with the quality of thinking that was evidenced at the House of Lords, it would be a critical mistake not to try. There are sufficient technologies already in existence that can be acquired, assembled and developed to meet the challenge: from job mapping tech to machine learning algorithms, and small-scale startups that can be adapted for grand scale deployment, to technology-oriented employee engagement consultancies whose expertise can be repurposed to encourage adoption of mid-scale trials. The model is there. It needs refining. It needs investment to get it off the ground, but probably no more than £20-30m. And the addressable market is ultimately every single worker on the planet.

In other words the potential rewards are there. And I don’t just mean the rewards for the private sector that invests in the platform to supply five billion users and hundreds of millions of employers. I mean the rewards in terms of the goal that i4j has set: 100% employment. And the rewards that come from that are literally game changing: massively increased productivity, on a global scale – and rewarding work for all.

Felix Velarde

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Felix Velarde