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The digital economy materialises in several ways. High value innovations occur not just within services or platforms, but across them. Rapid technological change means that businesses and workers are constantly adapting. Lifestyles are similarly evolving to reap the benefits (or suffer the consequences) that technology brings. The conveniences of the digital economy also bring security issues and new forms of crime.

Several institutions are already feeling these effects; regulators have had to keep up with new challenges such as private hire cars and shared bike platforms. Consumer habits have also shifted due to the pervasive availability of food delivery services, and this has opened up new business opportunities. Platform giants, states and multilateral institutions have been rethinking responsibilities in counterterrorism efforts, content regulation and the protection of personal data. The rise and evolution of the digital economy will certainly continue to shape the global operating context, and will present new complexities as our social and geopolitical landscape evolves.

This article proposes four big shifts for society and work arising from the digital economy which could fundamentally change the way we think about institutions today. These are not predictions, but plausible futures set in the 10 to 15-year time horizon, and are meant to be conversation starters around current day strategies.

Shift #1: Replace → Augment

It has been suggested that the most value to be extracted in applying technology to work is through the augmented human rather than automation.

Digital healthcare start-up Babylon Health recently made news when its AI doctor performed better at a diagnostics examination taken by trainee general practitioners with an average pass rate of 72%. Babylon AI scored 82%. This doesn’t mean doctors are out of a job. There is still a need to account for ethical responsibility and the complexity of a patient’s history and environment, which would mean that a doctor’s main value-add would shift to focus on treatment rather than diagnosis.

In 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue famously beat chess champion Gary Kasparov. Fast forward to 2005, when an online chess tournament sought to test if humans and AI could make a better team than an AI alone. True enough, the human augmented player beat the solo computer. The kicker? The augmented players weren’t even champions, they were amateurs.

Humans and machines need each other to perform optimally. How do we extract that value to maximise outcomes? What applications could there be beyond work?

Shift #2: Live to work → Work to live?

Much has been said about millennials and their “unique” work ethic. Disdain aside, the difference between current youth aspirations and those of preceding generations is big enough to present legitimate concerns.

A recent Deloitte study of millennials revealed surprising statistics: 44% have turned down a job because the company’s values did not match their own, and 56% swore never to work for any company whose values did not match theirs. In Singapore, youth have also said they prized happiness over many other things, wealth among them. Can jobs in the digital economy still keep the youth of today happy, or will there be a push towards working to seek greater meaning in life? Even if jobs cannot fulfil the needs and aspirations of youth, might there be other ways for them to achieve personal fulfilment?

Shift #3: Live long and prosper → Age is just a number

Could the digital economy solve the existential challenge from ageing populations?

Developments across a range of human augmentation technologies combined with cheap production and distribution could mean a new era for humanity. For example, there is evidence that metformin, a common and cheap diabetic drug, has significant anti-ageing properties. In mice, metformin has increased lifespans by 40%. The demand for nootropics, or supplements that enhance or help manage cognitive abilities, is also increasing. They are now more readily available and normalised thanks to e-commerce and clever online marketing. Exoskeletons are also getting cheaper, and have the potential to give new life to the elderly and the disabled. All Nippon Airways has been experimenting with exoskeletons made by robotics company Cyberdyne for their staff, which includes older workers, to be able to handle large suitcases better.

If we get basic research into anti-ageing drugs right, keep distribution channels pervasive and drive down the cost of exoskeletons, might we have a solution to stay productive even as we age? What are some obstacles to harnessing such technology? Would augmented humans be subject to special rules and codes of ethics; what extent of augmentation would be acceptable?

Shift #4: Learn to work → Work is learning

Disruptions experienced in the last decade have had people concluding that many skills of tomorrow aren’t the skills we know of today. A 2016 report by the World Economic Forum found that by 2026, most jobs across all types of occupations will on average have more than 1/3 of the core skills needed to perform them coming from a group of skills currently not yet considered crucial. Many also recognise that soft skills like collaboration, networking, creativity will be critical for success. If we don’t know what skills are needed in the future, why frontload all our education in the prime of our productivity only to learn skills that aren’t really useful to work? Stanford’s design school recognised this and proposed a concept called the Open Loop University. Students learn at their own pace, and can alternate between learning and work as needed. They enrol for 6 years which can be used across their life and don’t even need to wait until they turn 18.

Of course, schools aren’t just for learning hard skills. Should we maximise schools for other outcomes such as building social skills, a common identity, values and ethics? How would the roles of the employer and the work environment evolve to complement these “soft” skills?

Nobody can predict the future, but we can try to be less surprised by it

Multi-level and cross-sector discussions on such plausible futures could unearth latent assumptions, hopes and fears that need to be addressed today in order for us to better reap the digital economy’s benefits. Pervasive and consistent efforts to build change mindsets, reward innovation and implement improvements to work processes will help organisations and their people be prepared for more surprises that the digital economy will bring.


Liana is Deputy Head at the Centre for Strategic Futures, Singapore.

This article was first published on the CSF blog at www.csf.gov.sg, and was adapted from a presentation for a panel discussion on the digital economy at a dialogue on “Digitalisation in Asia and Germany: Impact on politics and society” organised by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung in Singapore from 10-12 Jul 2018.

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