Category Archives: Strategic Foresight

Digital Economy Series: “Is there only an upside to your life, your job, your community in a digital economy?”

Tomorrow’s teenage grandchildren

Just like those in their retirement years today have witnessed so much change since their teenage years, so will today’s teenagers when they reach their autumn years and help raise teenage grandchildren.

For those currently in the latter seasons of life, what have they witnessed over the course of their adult dyf - future possibilityyears? Consider the geopolitical tensions pushing history to unfold in uncertain directions (ie. Cuban missile crisis), the scientific developments ushering in hope (penicillin) and despair (nuclear fission), and popular music performers swaying the life choices of fans across the globe (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix) are among the many changes witnessed.

 We now know how all of this unfolded, for it is today’s lived reality. Looking back over these decades we view this historical path as the “business as usual” path. The scenario that happened and that we now experience, study and use as reference points for what may happen in the decades ahead.

 But what of other possibilities, of other scenarios, of other ways that things could work out. Just like our current reality could have turned out differently, what paths could history take for today’s teenagers? Specifically, what could unfold in our context of focus – the digital economy.

 Its relatively easy to imagine one scenario – the business as usual path. For example, in 50 years time (ie, the lived experience of the teenage grandchildren of today’s teenagers) and based on what we know now, it is conceivable that consumer purchases will all be cashless and will involve automated delivery technology, and that all business transactions will use blockchain technology for goods and services prioritised by company-wide artificial intelligence algorithms?

How could things turn out?

But what about other scenarios? Will the history of the digital economy unfold such that there will only be an upside for your life, your job and your community? Where machines and robots undertake the work we don’t want to do, provide for our needs effectively and facilitate the richness of humanity’s many bonds and opportunities?

Imagine, then, a scenario unfolding where everything is restricted, or perhaps a scenario where anarchy rules.

First, restriction. Today we live with our social media feed being individually unique. No one else on the planet has exactly the social media friends and followers as I. Likewise with the configuration of ads I see in my browser; they are unique to me. And what about my purchase history where I shop with loyalty cards. This too is unique to me, as are the offers I receive. Why not then, in the time ahead, only seeing on my screen the things I am interested in? Only being shown political messages that will resonate with me, only being offered membership to social groups aligned with my past experiences and interests.

 A scenario where the lives we live have boundaries that can not be altered. Where a superficial peace is the dominant mood.

Second, the anarchy scenario. Today there are forces that seek to upend the order that liberal democracy has brought to bear upon hundreds of millions of people across our world. What if they succeed? What if the internet is technically re-architected into ideologically walled gardens, that the Global Currency – the US Dollar – is replaced by the Chinese Renminbi, the German Mark and the Brazilian Real, and that the bounds of ordinary life are limited to self-contained urban zones each with different digital capabilities and intents.

 A scenario where social and business life is dissimilar across the many enclaves, in which tension is a common theme.

With business as usual, life retains its complexity; with restriction it is hollow; as for anarchy it is wearying.

The future is not set

As outlined above, an AI-rich digital economy that supports quality of life is a likely outcome of the business as usual path. But what of the other two scenarios under consideration? For the consumer, the restriction path implies only uniquely tailored goods and services. Similarly for business. Where success is tied to this unique tailoring, implying that prospects for innovation are limited by the scope of these personalising algorithms.

 With respect to the dystopian scenario, some enclaves no doubt will have the economic resources to realise a business as usual outcome, but most are likely to be unrecognisable societies by today’s standards. And so, due to resource scarcity, lack of trust, and through the application of technical digital capabilities built up over decades, local oligopolies reign supreme with deep surveillance and intense social stratification core characteristics of each society.

 Understand that the future is not set. History indeed can unfold along one of these three paths. To our question at the start, the answer then is no. We are not assured of beneficial outcomes for our life, our jobs, our community in a digital economy.


Digital Economy Series: “Our current experience”

Tech and GlobeStarting out

Let’s explore the digital economy that we currently experience.

Consider how ubiquitous digital technology is in our daily retail transactions. In recent times, for example, I was on a consulting assignment to a far-flung Pacific Island. During my time there I enjoyed a latte at a cafe. The ease at which I paid for my beverage with a Travel Visa card through an electronic terminal at this very remote establishment is a wonder of modern technology.

Years ago this story would have been much different. One element of this story is the planning for this prosaic first world transaction. The planning would have included making sure I had enough local currency by interacting with people at banking outlet during opening hours! No doubt you have similar stories to this.

Consider too, the actual things that we purchase. No longer common, for example, is the youthful experience of excitedly carrying home the latest 12 inch vinyl disk. Now, we enter into some form of electronic agreement to gain access to artists that please our ears.

I could go on. But, wherever we are on Earth and whatever sector we can think of, we intuitively grasp that so much of today’s economy, so much of what is produced, traded, and consumed, has digital written all over it.

Defining the digital economy

So, what is the digital economy? Building on the foundational understanding that an economy is comprised of the production of, the trade in, and the use of goods and services, we can add digitisation to each of these three factors. For example, the digitisation of labour, of transactions, of decisions, and of value. The list goes on. As Negroponte put it in the mid-90’s, it’s a shift from the “processing of atoms to the processing of bits”.

The Australian Government defines the digital economy as “economic and social activities that information and communication technologies deliver”. Forbes refers to Don Tapscott’s prescient 1995 best seller, “The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence” as not only the birth of the phrase “Digital Economy” but also as a guide to how the internet would change business.

To what degree is the economy digitised?

Various estimates put the value of the digital economy at about $5 trillion (USD). Considering that the global economy as a whole is worth more than $80 trillion and that this growth in the digital economy is from a standing start twenty years ago, what we are witnessing is no doubt historically significant (some would say revolutionary).

Where the components of this phenomena include, for example, ICT hardware software and services at over $3 trillion (the enablers of this revolution) and electronic games at over $100 Billion (its fruits). And where for some countries, up to 10% of their GDP relies upon the ICT sector (its importance).

Where the impact of this phenomena is witnessed in the speed at which companies of scale are built Harley Davidson took 86 years to get to a billion dollar valuation, Twitter just 3 years), in the ease at which we can find answers to almost any question (40,000 Google queries per second), and in the explosion of data (90% of the world’s new data is only 2 years old).

To what degree can the economy be digitised?

The journey over this series of articles is one of exploration and prospection. Both discovering the pervasiveness of digitisation of our economy and contemplating that which could appear.

A journey that is supported by two purposes. The first: reflections upon the opportunities and costs of a fully digital economy at personal, business and government levels. The second: considerations of contemporary economic themes using the lenses of established strategic foresight models.

A journey with a vista of the world that today’s teenagers will experience during their middle years.

A journey that will be worthwhile.

Routine manual jobs are on the way out.

You might have picked up on the news that the nature of the job market is changing.

Blogpost - Factory

Now, while it is true that the economy has always changed over time (for example, do you remember that Australia used to ride on the “sheep’s back”?) it seems that the rate of change is increasing.

And you can put that down to the impact of computers.

The impact of computers on jobs over the coming years was highlighted by Frey and Osborne in their 2013 “Future of Employment” study and CEDA, in their 2015 “Australia’s future workforce” report, further developed this understanding. However, the real discovery was by an MIT Economics Professor (David Autor). Through an investigation into the amount of human labour used by USA companies for jobs dominated by manual tasks, he found that demand for this type of labour had declined by about 10% over the 50 years from 1960.

Now, while companies were still producing things that required manual tasks, they require fewer men and women to do that manual work.

The impact is that some entry level jobs are lost and that jobs for the lower skilled are harder to find. It means that career choices must be made with more consideration.

So, for the student in your life, a clear-eyed consideration of the changing job opportunities must be paramount.


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