Category Archives: Futurist

Digital Economy Series: In a fully digital economy will you still be needing the same things you do today?

We produce goods and services and we trade in those goods and services because we either want them or need them. There is a market for them. But in the decades ahead, in a market of bits rather than of atoms, will we still be using the same things we do today? From a final consumer perspective, will the digital economy of the future be unrecognizable compared to today’s economy?

crowd of people walking inside store
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Consider the retail sector. Where its all about the creation and trade in products for the home, for our relaxation, for our sustenance. Or the business sector, where that same dynamic of creation and exchange can be used to drive innovation, to improve operational efficiency, or to maintain a market profile. Or even the public and the not-for-profit sectors, where those same market mechanics apply. That is, in order to provide services, products are purchased. And where nascent product creators are supported.

Reflect too on the structure of this global production and trade system. At over $80trillion dollars, the global economy is broadly comprised of agriculture (primary activity) at 3%, industry (secondary) at 30%, and services (tertiary) at 60%. An important factor in all of this are the sources of government taxation. A third of government revenue is from income, profits and capital gains and a third from taxes on goods and services.

Assuming ceteris paribus, in the coming decades you and I will still have need for shelter, for food, for companionship and relaxation. The same argument can be made for business, for government and the third sector comparing the needs of today and tomorrow. Of note, however, is the form through which the need is satisfied.

We no longer desire, for example, to take our family in a horse drawn buggy on a holiday to the sea-side, or to join with family and others to around a wireless set listening to the latest play. Nor do businesses require a typing pool for the efficient production of company memos and customer missives.

But nowadays digital channels of communication are usurping long establishing temporal forms of connections. Nowadays, micro-targeting of marketing messages are more effective at driving trade in goods and services than legacy mass media. Nowadays, there is a greater level of involvement and transparency with those that are served by the public and third sectors compared to times past.

And tomorrow? Through a utopian lens we could see life being further enhanced by digital technology. It could be argued that just like today, where a life stage for an adolescent is marked by receiving a smartphone, that same transition for a teenager in 2050 could be celebrated by receiving their own life-enriching wearable AI tech. A world, for this teenager, where the uncanny valley is no longer a limitation in media and entertainment channels. A world, as teenagers look at the career paths of their parents, that is dominated by the output of firms that have put a high priority on employees with first rate people skills and thinking skills.

Likewise, through a dystopian lens, life for that teenager in 2050 could be one that is further controlled by digital technology. AI implants mark the adolescent life transition. Options for entertainment and other daily choices are slanted toward optimal social outcomes. Beckoning career paths are with firms that are aligned with forms of surveillance capitalism.

The threads that are common to both scenarios are the changes in social structure and the innate desire to make things easier for ourselves. Over time our social institutions change and the people to which we ascribe status. It could be argued that in recent history major sport clubs and/or political parties have supplanted religious groups as our common social institutions. It could be that the realm of the AI and quantum computing scientist and engineer becomes the new sanctum. A new standard of social acceptance that leads to the erasure of the barrier to all forms personalised AI tech.

Regarding the desire for making things easier, the so-called “efficient transaction hypothesis”, witness the smartphone. We embraced it because it made complex or time-consuming tasks (personal transactions) more efficient. It made communication easier, information gathering easier and entertaining easier. A significant factor of human nature that will drive the future acceptance of technologies that we perceive today as pervasive and distasteful.

In a fully digital economy we won’t be needing the same things as today, but we will be needing the same types of things. The world of atoms meets our needs today, the world of bits will meet our needs tomorrow.

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Digital Economy Series: In a fully digital economy will the dollar still be king?

We trade in what we value. Whether it be a young child trading a small coin for a sweet at a corner store, the consistent portion of a wage over many years in exchange for a house, or the complexity of financial transactions to fund a manufacturers expansion. If we value something we will participate in a fair exchange with the seller.

money coins finance cash
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We are all aware of the barter economy, of an era long past, where that form of trade was the primary mechanism to establish fair exchange between parties. Over the course of time it was hard currency that first supplanted this ancient mechanism, then promissory notes, until now where digital representations of cash are the means through which value is exchanged fairly.

Also today, it is a sovereign currency, the dollar (or Euro, Renminbi or Yen) if you will, that is king. It is this fiat currency, this legal tender of value backed by an issuing government that is implicitly trusted so that we can fairly exchange value. Whether its that young child at the corner shop, or the insurance company guaranteeing the importation of that machinery, we all implicitly trust that issuing authority.

We pay, and governments collect, taxes based on that trust. Businesses leverage the inherent strengths of the banking system to invest in growth, based on that trust. Governments trust other governments based on that trust.

But in a fully digital economy, what entity will be the foundation of that trust? The case could be made that a single global currency could become king. Where, over the coming decades, a currency founded on blockchain principles could supplant the many sovereign currencies in existence today. The case could also be made for a return to the barter system. Where, again over the coming decades, the nascent peer-to-peer sharing economy becomes the most trusted mechanism for the fair exchange of value.

For I don’t believe that we can safely assume the future of financial transactions is just a more efficient version of what we experience today. Where sovereign entities of trust anchor computerised exchanges of value at retail, commercial and government levels. What if the world moves to a type of universal basic income or universal basic services model? Where the accumulation of wealth is a foreign concept to most and bartering is de rigueur. Or, what if the digital economy transforms into the intelligence economy? Where real value is no longer held in varying compositions of bits, but in prized abstractions of knowledge stored in quantum computing machines.

But I do believe that human nature will fundamentally remain unaltered in the coming decades. In a fully digitised economy there will continue to be shining examples of our “better angels” and likewise examples of those with more sinister intent. And, because of our human nature we will still form systems of governance and administrative oversight. We will still need the ability to enforce exclusion upon those who are a danger to society. We will still participate in fair exchanges of value. And don’t forget, people will still be people. At our core we’ll be motivated by the desire to either work toward goals, to work with people, or to work to accumulate power.

Given all this, and as we look far over the time horizon, will the dollar still be king in a fully digital economy? More than likely, the literal dollar won’t be king but the metaphorical dollar will be. Even though human nature is not likely to change, the mechanism for the fair exchange will continue to change. For each of us will continue to have something of value that is worthy of trading.

Digital Economy Series: “In a fully digital economy will you still be needed to work in a factory or sit at an office-desk?”

vehicles on road between high rise buildings
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Work. Whether we sit in an office, walk in a manufacturing facility, or perform some other task, those of us who work are living examples basic economic theory. We are all playing our part in turning an input into an output. We could be making sales calls to increase demand for an output, driving a truck to deliver raw materials, or even developing software to make the process better. Whether our organisation produces goods or services, we are all being paid to perform our part somewhere along the value chain.

The economy of tomorrow, the time when teenagers of today have teenage grandchildren, is more than likely to be a fully digital economy. For we can see evidence of this transition already. The value chain of decades ago was all about atoms, all about making and using physical goods. Today it is a mix of atoms and bits, it is an economy where value is created in the digital sphere as well as the physical sphere. Tomorrow the value chain may well be dominated by that which is digital.

Consider primary industries. Aren’t mines and farms becoming more automated? What about the secondary industries of manufacturing and construction, isn’t automation taking hold there as well? Even for higher value sectors such as finance, health and professional services we are witnessing inroads being made by either automated or intelligence-laden digital processes.

Thus it can be argued that there will be less employment in industry sectors that create value out of atoms. Indeed, even though the value of these sectors is growing across the OECD, related employment is largely stagnant.

But where is value created in the digital economy and what part do workers play in it? Value in the digital economy is created in the manufacture of ICT hardware, in the creation of software and services that use software, and in the collecting, processing and disseminating of data and information.

Regarding the manufacture of ICT hardware, it is not too hard to see full automation in production and logistics. But in the research, development and design phases we humans will still be critical for success.

Regarding the creation of software and software-based services, is it not too far fetched to contemplate software writing software? Where designers set the input and output requirements for new software or a new service, and the computer creates and tests the complete set of algorithms and interfaces.

Finally, regarding the management of data and information. Apart from employees performing regulatory oversight, it is possible to imagine the only other scenario in which human involvement is necessary is where faulty data collection sensors need to be replaced.

So, in this fully digital economy will you still be needed to work in a factory or sit at a desk in the office?

The answer is a qualified yes. While there are many factors that should be taken into consideration the foundational truth is that an economy is there to serve the society. For we grow things, we produce things, we teach things, we regulate things and so on for our individual and collective benefit.

Even though you may accept the propositions that 1. we are moving to an economy that is dominated by bits and, 2. just like production involving atoms has become more automated so too will bits-based production. We will still be human. Thus, even though what we value and how we pay for it will more than likely change, there will still be economic production to serve the needs of the population.

So yes, the factory will still be around to produce physical goods, but the types of work that are open to humans are those that are less automated. And yes, the office-desk job will still be around, but it too will involve non-automated people and thinking skills.

Therefore, even though what will be available and how it is produced will be different from today, basic economic theory will still apply. No matter the industry sector, in a fully digital economy people will still have roles as productive links somewhere in the value chain.