Category Archives: Strategic Foresight

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.

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“Preparing for the change that is on the horizon”

Abstract

Although we see change all around us, we aren’t yet fully aware of the coming impact that increasing computerisation and automation will have on the workforce. This paper looks at the research from leading academics and institutions and posits several implications for local businesses and economic development activities. Using a strategic foresight framework it outlines several courses of action that address the implications.

Current Research

Much discussion has been had with respect to the “40% of jobs will be lost between now and 2030” headline in recent times. But where has it come from, and what are the implications of this change.

Frey and Osborne, two researchers from the University of Oxford, released a paper in the latter part of 2013 entitled “The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation”. They analysed the tasks of all of the standardised list of jobs (there are just over 700 different jobs – sales manager, hairdresser, CEO, etc). This analysis looked at the likelihood of computerisation of any of the tasks of any of the jobs.

Jobs and the probability of computerisation

 

Figure 1: The distribution of occupations and the probability of computerisation, along with the share in low, medium and high probability categories.

 

 

 

 

What they found was this. Firstly, that high-wage and high-skill jobs are the least susceptible. Secondly, that the more routine tasks that a job has the more susceptible that that job is to computerisation and automation.

Another of their findings was that employment in services, sales and construction is likely to be affected. Although this seems counter-intuitive, reflect upon recent technological advances. For example, robots are making their way into services, entry level sales jobs are being replaced by technology, and prefabrication, 3D printing and drone-based construction are forging paths into the construction sector.

Another major piece of research that you may not have heard about was that produced by David Autor and colleagues of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2013).

This research was focused on the types of tasks that a job is comprised of. Reflect upon the job that you do, even those of your colleagues or friends outside of work. Your jobs are made of manual tasks and cognitive tasks. Autor went one step further and divided these into routine manual, non-routine manual, routine cognitive and non-routine cognitive tasks.

Jobs and the demand for skill types

 

 

Figure 2: Trends in task input in the US Economy

 

 

 

As you can see from the graph (although it is of the USA job market, the trends nevertheless apply to Australia), the movement in skill demand is only good for non-routine cognitive tasks. That is, those that require non-routine interpersonal skills (social intelligence) or those that require non-routine cognitive skills (creative intelligence).

These historical findings make sense. For example, we have seen the replacement of a lot of manual manufacturing jobs with increasingly sophisticated machines over the years. Likewise with say routine cognitive tasks like account/book keeping where shoeboxes full of receipts have been replaced with automatically updated entries on some cloud-based software.

A third line of research related to employment is aimed at finding out how productive we are (Productivity Commission, 2016). That is, the better a firm is at turning its inputs into outputs the more productive it is. What flows from increased productivity is increasing profitability, higher wages, business growth, and so on.

Now, over the years, it used to be that the smartest and most productive firms (the frontier firms) were always a fixed percentage better than most. However, in recent times, these most smartest and most productive firms have been getting much more smarter and much more productive than the rest. The “fixed percentage better” is no longer fixed, the gap is increasing. So much so, that the majority of the economy seems to be stagnating.

Markey sector labour productivity

 

Figure 3: Productivity of the Australian economy

 

 

 

 

What this chart (fig 3) tells us is that the majority of Australian businesses either aren’t looking at making better use of their labour, or they are making sub-optimal investments in their business.

The final piece of research to mention is with respect to employment multipliers.

We know that one the tenets of economic development is that for every local job created, additional jobs are also created. This employment multiplier is dependent upon the industry and whether or not the job is in the tradable or nontradable sector. Moretti (2010) finds that for every local manufacturing job created, another 1.6 jobs are created in the local nontradable sector. Lee and Rodriguez-Pose (2016) report on research that found 4.9 additional jobs in the nontradable sector for every 1 job created in high-technology industries.

According to Kaplanis (2010a, 2010b) there are three factors that drive the formation of these additional jobs: increasing the density of high income workers drives an increase in the demand in the local nontradable sector, rising production complementarities as the density of local skilled workforce rises, and improvements in one firm’s productivity benefit other firms.

Implications

Based on this research, there are several implications for both businesses and economic development activities in your local area.

First. Jobs that involve thinking and/or people skills are the future-proof jobs. Think about the different industry sectors (ie, agriculture, construction, education, manufacturing, etc) and their impact upon your local economy both now and into the future.

Can you see a range of employment options developing that are rich in these two types of skills?

Second. Jobs happen in the context of a business. And with more and more jobs being computerised and automated, are the businesses in your local economy looking to improve how they operate their business and how they produce their goods and services.

Take, for example, a telemarketing business. Say there is such a local business (call is “Biz-A”) and it employs about 200 people. The staff are paid to call people and move them along the sales pipeline. Now, lets imagine a competitor. And this competitor (call it “Biz-B”) uses computerised voice services. There is significant potential for the Biz-B to compete profitably against Biz-A.

Have you heard of Amazon’s “Alexa”, Apple’s “Siri” or Microsoft’s “Cortana”. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that Biz-B could simply be a computer with the right software and an internet connection to be just as effective as Biz-A. The potential is for those 200 staff to lose their jobs, and for Biz-A to close down.

So, for businesses to thrive, they must always be looking to both improve the efficiency of their operations (a total cost of ownership calculation) and to improve the effectiveness of how they generate profit (a return on investment calculation).

Is there a bias toward improvement and innovation across your local business sector?

Third. For businesses to succeed in the period ahead they need to be able to attract people that can think and that are good with others. That means that the owners of the business and the organisational culture must be biased toward new ideas and working with those outside the firm.

Is there a continual flow of good ideas and forward looking people into your local economy?

Fourth. There is a definite linkage between businesses that export product out of your area and growth of local lower-paid jobs. Although developing the manufacturing base will do it, greater local employment gains will be achieved with a focus on high-technology industries.

What steps can you take to develop local high-tech industry?

Actions through the lens of Strategic Foresight

Strategic foresight precedes strategic planning. Planning strategies is about decisions. It’s about asking two questions: “what will we do” and “when will we do it”. Whereas strategic foresight is about understanding the future and clarifying emerging situations. It answers the questions: “what seems to be happening” and “what might we need to do”.

One model that helps us understand the future is Dator’s matrix. This model holds that the future for any organisation, person, business, community group, family, etc will follow one of four paths:

  1. Business as usual
  2. Something transformational will happen
  3. Decay and degradation set in
  4. Restrictions and discipline are enforced

With so much change on the horizon, particularly in the world of work and business we can probably discount the “business as usual” future.

We can probably also make the case that the transformational path won’t happen (ie, hope is not a strategy) and that an increasing “nanny state” future is also not likely.

So that potentially leaves a retreat from the prosperity we currently enjoy.

Therefore, because we can see this change fast approaching and to forestall, mitigate and overcome this retreat, the recommendation is for local action.

Where the action includes a focus on either attracting, or developing, high wage high tech industries.

Where the action includes ensuring local businesses have a bias toward innovation.

Where the action includes community development that is attractive to the thinkers.

Where the action includes events and programs to facilitate business to business interaction.

References

Frey, C. Osborne, M (2013). “The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation”, Oxford Martin School, Sep 2013

Autor, D. Price, B (2013). “The changing task composition of the US labor market: An update of Autor, Levy, and Murnane (2003)”. MIT Economics, June 2013

Kaplanis, J (2010a). “Local human capital and its impact on local employment chances in Britain”, SERC, London School of Economics, Jan 2010

Kaplanis, J (2010b). “Wage effects from changes in local human capital in Britain”, SERC, London School of Economics, Jan 2010

Moretti, E (2010). “Local Multipliers”, American Economic Review: Papers and proceedings 100, May 2010, pp373-377

Productivity Commission (2016). “Increasing Australia’s future prosperity: Productivity Commission working paper”, Nov 2016


 

This article was first published in the journal of Economic Development Australia, Autumn, 2017



 

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.