Digital Labour

Harnessing the Digital Revolution for Inclusive Prosperity

I had the pleasure of attending the Digital Development Summit 2017 on 13 March 2017 where digital interest groups from around the world gathered together to discuss the future of work in the digital economy. Hosted by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in collaboration with the World Wide Web Foundation and Nesta in London, the Summit featured thought leaders from think tanks, government, the private sector and academia, and offered new perspectives, actionable takeaways, and access to a phenomenal and diverse network of like-minded digital evangelists.

The overall theme of the Summit was based around the future of work in a digitised world where advances in digital technologies threaten to disrupt labour markets around the world. Some of the big questions deliberated at the Summit were – What would be the impact of technology in the next 10-15 years? And how could we ensure that no one was left behind in the digital economy?

 It is believed that the huge technological change brought about by the digital revolution could spawn mass unemployment especially in developing countries. It is difficult to comprehend that 2/3 of jobs may be under threat due to automation in developing countries and likely to be more disruptive than in the developed world. Interestingly, though there is huge emphasis on Decent Work and Economic Growth in the newly established UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is no mention of digital technologies in work-related outcomes.

New technologies are bringing opportunities and challenges to working lives in the global South. However, significant and urgent changes are needed to prepare for the impacts, whether intended or unintended, brought about by automation and digitisation. A key discussion that struck me at the Summit was the dilemma of automation and artificial intelligence and its consequences.  As Ben Ramalingam of IDS put it, it could lead to people being accountable to “robo bosses”.  Duncan Green from Oxfam also pointed out that AI will enable lots of consumers but no human producers.

Yet, with innovations moving at a faster pace than regulation, and policies being put into place, how well-prepared are developing countries – envisaged to receive the greatest impacts from these new technological developments – to cope with these future impacts?

The Summit allowed for deeper discussions on these aspects by incorporating a few practical and interactive exercises using grids and the World Café method that allowed all delegates to engage in discussions on the future of work in developing countries. Using real-life examples from research carried out in emerging economies the first exercise explored how different jobs fare within the digital economy, keeping in mind the adaptive capacity (high or low) and exposure (high or low) to digital technologies by each individual. Using a four quadrant grid, this exercise helped elevate thinking into the current scenario of workers, whether they are in full-time jobs, entrepreneurs or freelancing in the gig economy. It opened up conversations on the complexity of issues related to the impact of digitisation on individual working lives.

Exercise 2 (World Café) then led to deeper thinking on the actions that would be required by different stakeholders to help build prosperity and resilience in the face of the digital economy. This interactive discussion resulted in an interesting and extensive input of ideas and perspectives through several conversational rounds from delegates from diverse backgrounds – from transnational interactions and conversations required by developed and developing countries’ governments to establishing universal minimum wages, bringing in new standards and regulations and training for those with low digital capacity and low exposure, among others, being proposed. Of course, it was noted that different countries have different priorities and needs, which need to be considered as well.

Such on-going multi-stakeholder gatherings bring out diverse discussions and help shape the futures of vulnerable people in developing (and developed) economies through conversations that matter. Of course most at the Summit had a very optimistic view (including myself) about the future of the digital economy but as we all left the Summit it was evident that there was much to be done in terms of securing the future of work in developing countries and an ingrained understanding that there is a need for all stakeholders … including and not limited to – the government,  private sector, academics, unions, think tanks, NGOs, etc… to put people at the forefront and to work together to ensure decent work for all.


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