The challenges of embracing the digital era are bringing us into a perfect storm of change. Old systems designed for a pre-Internet world are reaching their limit, overwhelmed by massive economic, financial and political uncertainty, increasing complexity, major environmental pressures, and dramatic, disruptive developments across multiple fields of science and technology. As a result, business cycles are accelerating and shortening, governments are under growing pressure to respond and adapt, and individuals are facing disruption in every aspect of their lives, from job security and financial uncertainty to the reshaping of education and healthcare.
As an example of this drama at a personal level, we are already experiencing massive advances in human brain and body capabilities through implants, drugs and genetic enhancements that will extend life expectancy and create a different race of people, effectively half-computer, half-human. Within our own lifetimes, average life spans could well stretch to 100 or 120 years and life quality may be improved by a range of genetic treatments including, for example, eliminating rage or obesity. At the same time, life and employment prospects could be increased by chemicals that enhance our concentration and implants that expand our memory and cognitive capabilities.
Against this backdrop of radical change, literally every industry is being transformed by new technologies and business models. Embedded sensors are enveloping us and will form part of every conceivable object – generating an avalanche of data and creating the Internet of all Things. Manufacturing and commerce will be reshaped by robotics, synthetic biology 3D and 4D printing, autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, and entirely new payment and charging systems.
Take synthetic biology, producing new materials, compounds, and potentially even new life forms through the creation and manipulation of matter at the level of genes and their constituent proteins. Bio-engineering could create new biological entities that could consume waste, turning it into useful new by-products; or absorb our currently dangerous atmospheric emissions in a form of environmental clean-up; or create new energy sources, replacement body parts or new plants and foods. Everything and anything may be possible. The opportunities opened up by synthetic biology, and indeed all new technologies, are breathtaking – as indeed are the potential risks and downsides for different sections of society.
Simply put, we don’t know what the mid- to long-term consequences of many of these new developments might be. Some suggest we are entering a period of abundance that could solve all our challenges through the exponential development rates and convergence of activity in the fields of nanotechnology, biology, information technology and the cognitive science. Others argue that we are creating unprecedented sources of existential risk. The social and ethical implications are immense and require enormous commitment and consideration from the scientific community, based around the principle that just because we can do something in science doesn’t mean we should. For governments, businesses and individuals, the challenge is to prepare ourselves for a society, and a world of work, that is going to be radically different from anything we have previously seen.
It’s evident, for example, that we probably can’t rely on big business for employment in the way we used to. Technology has already eliminated huge swathes of manufacturing and service jobs, and is now beginning to use robotics and advanced software to replace humans even in professional areas such as legal services, accounting and journalism. Current qualifications and job skills will be increasingly inadequate or irrelevant, and with the active workforce potentially including people of up to 100 years of age, we need to start preparing now for a radically different near-future.
We might not know today what jobs will be done or skills needed in 10-50 years from now, but we – governments, business and society – can start equipping ourselves with the basics. Learning how to learn, problem-solving, accelerated learning, pattern recognition, understanding complexity, design learning and scenario thinking are the types of underlying skills that will enable us to keep adding relevant skills, acquiring new knowledge, and preparing for a new era of multiple jobs and careers within an extended working life.
Encouraging entrepreneurship and providing training in setting up and running businesses will be vital to tomorrow’s economy. A vibrant small to medium enterprise (SME) sector will drive innovation, create jobs and keep society moving through the buying and selling of goods and services. It is a big challenge for governments to ensure greater numbers and more diverse groups of people are comfortable taking the risk of starting their own business, and creating new products, services and employment. This calls for investment in training at every level of entrepreneurship and for effective support mechanisms in areas such as marketing, human resources and financial skills. This also calls for ongoing long-term thinking on adult education focused on encouraging and facilitating genuinely life-long learning. Governments must act in a spirit of enlightened self-interest by investing now in education solutions for the future workplace – or face the potentially disastrous social, economic and personal consequences of long-term, large-scale unemployment.
This will form the core of my message to governments, regulators and industry leaders at ITU Telecom World 2014’s Leadership Summit on the Future – prepare for our future by investing in education now.