By ERIK P.M. VERMEULIN
How to Prepare for the Future of Work
“Developers will be at the center of solving the world’s most pressing challenges.”
The logic is obvious. In a digital age, there are more and more devices containing more and more code. They have to in order to offer the convenient and connected user experience that consumers now expect and demand. And this reliance on code puts developers at the center of everything.
A modern high-end car, for instance, currently features around 100 million lines of code. And this number is expected to grow to 200–300 million in the near future as the push towards greater vehicle autonomy continues. Our experience of “driving” is increasingly structured by the possibilities that the code “gives” to us.
More generally, we are moving towards a world in which code dominates our decision-making processes. Algorithms, for example, will decide what we buy, who gets hired, where we eat, where we go on vacation, and who to connect with, etc.
Code is everywhere.
Code provides the unseen and unnoticed “architecture” structuring our digital existence.The result? Developers are the architects of a new social infrastructure that organizes and determines how we all now live.
The “Future of Work”
My event last week focused on what this change means for the “future of work” and what we need to do now to prepare for this fast-emerging reality.
There was one thought that I heard several times. It is fairly straightforward and based on the idea that the digital revolution is not so different from previous periods of technological change:
- First, we need more programmers and software engineers to develop better programs and apps. We need to make sure that education focuses on attracting and training more “technologists.”
- Second, we need to make sure that everybody is able to use these new programs and apps. “Non-technologists” need to be given the necessary technological “literacy” to function effectively in a digital world.
- Finally, government, business, and other organizations all need to embrace the opportunities of a digital age. For instance, they must make use of social media, become more transparent, and build cloud-based systems for shared services.
In this way, everyone stands to reap the rewards of digital technologies.
As I sat listening to this kind of thinking, I became more and more convinced that something is missing in this argument. Things are different this time and we need a radically different approach if we want to avoid creating enormous social problems.
A New “Digital Divide”
Of course, I agree that technology should be high on any educational agenda in this increasingly digital world. That is obvious. In fact, mathematics is probably the best subject to study these days. Also, we should focus on developing the ICT knowledge and skills of all students. It is a constant source of surprise to me how many “millennial students” are still not really computer literate.
But a more fundamental change in education is also necessary. In fact, last week’s experience reminded me of Jack Ma’s comments at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos:
“If we do not change the way we teach, 30 years from now we’ll be in trouble. The things we teach our children are things from the past 200 years — it’s knowledge-based. And we cannot teach our kids to compete with machines, they are smarter.”
In Davos, Alibaba founder and Executive Chairman Jack Ma spoke openly and at length about some of the key challenges…www.weforum.org
If we only focus on creating more “technologists” and more “users” of digital technologies, we will create a new “digital divide” which will potentially hurt us.
The risk is that, on the one hand, the “non-technologists” simply won’t understand the technology at a deep enough level. Being a competent “user” is not enough when every aspect of our lives is built around and structured by code. In order to be fully-informed and responsible citizens, we need to know much more about the underlying technologies (and mathematics) driving our world.
And, on the other hand, the “technologists” (the coders, the programmers, and other developers) won’t have the necessary understanding of the current economic, social or legal environment for which the digital technology (the lines of code) is being developed.
It doesn’t need much imagination to see that an uncoordinated, fragmented, and disconnected development of new technologies could lead to unwanted and unforeseen results.
The risks are obvious already. Think lack of privacy, cybersecurity issues, digital stress, cryptocurrency scams, algorithm bias, human cloning ethics, etc.
Sometimes, I attend events where one tries to solve this disconnect by arguing that the current economic, social, and legal environment acts as a “natural” barrier to the adverse effects of digital technologies. These events discuss, for instance, the legal implications of blockchain or AI, arguing that regulations and legal practices may prohibit certain tech applications.
However, these events tend to ignore the speed of digital innovations, the continuously increasing “tech adoption rates,” the fact that digital technologies accelerate each other, and the disruptive potential of these technologies. New markets and organizations are being created and the current economic, social and legal models will simply not work in our new digital age/world.
In the current (4th) technological revolution, we have to listen to Jack Ma and radically change the way we think about education in a digital age.
So, What Should We Teach?
In Davos, Jack Ma was asked the same question. This was his answer:
“We should teach our kids sports, music, painting — the arts — to make sure that they are different. Everything we teach should make them different from machines.”
His focus was on “soft skills”, such as creative thinking, creative problem solving, assertiveness, resourcefulness, resilience, empathy — to name a few. In this, he is correct. But we have to put this into context to avoid that we only practice public speaking, communication, and interpersonal skills.
This year, I have experimented with what could be called a “universal digital training.” This training consists of three parts:
#1 — Understanding how digital technologies work
This part of the training could be compared to “applied mathematics.” The focus is on giving everyone (including “non-technologists”) a much better understanding of the mathematics behind digital technologies, such as machine learning, deep learning, and blockchain.
#2 — Applying digital technologies to social problems (both old and new)
The second part of the training is about teaching students a “new way of thinking” in a digital age. The focus is on developing, implementing, and applying “new” theories and models to the social problems of a digital society. Students assess and analyze whether and how new technologies can solve societal problems. They also address the question to what extent and how rules and regulations can be embedded in the technologies themselves.
#3 — Soft skills
The final part of the training is on developing “soft skills.” What’s the best way to communicate in a digital age? What does “big data analytics” tell you about the expectations of consumers? This part focuses on “storytelling” skills and is also about developing human skills that enable humans to live and work with each other and machines.
The Key Takeaway
Discussions about the “future of work” quickly turn into discussions about the “future of education.”
In the current digital environment, we need a transformation from “knowledge-based” education to “skills-based” training.
I’ve experimented with “universal digital training,” and the first results are very promising.
Students learn how to “connect,” “collaborate,” and “co-create.” I have written before about how these are the capacities and processes that maximize opportunities for socially-responsible technological innovation.
Having a shared “universal digital understanding” of this kind is a necessary condition to build the powerful communities between “technologists” and “non-technologists” that will design the future.
And it is in these communities that we can see the “future of work.”
About The Author Erik is a Professor of Business and Financial Law at Tilburg University and Tilburg Law and Economics Center in the Netherlands. He is also Head of Governance/Vice-President at Philips Lighting. Erik is best-described as a “global futurist” and “cross-cultural strategic consultant”. Erik is a regular contributor to Community Works Journal. He writes a blog “Hacker Noon” focused on his educational and personal interests.
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