Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Apr 29, 2020
The coronavirus has hurtled unprepared economies into the future of work

This commentary is the first of a five-part series on how the coronavirus pandemic is compelling countries to reckon with and reimagine the future of work, in an unprecedented way. The series shall go on to explore the debates introduced in this piece and delve further into issues ranging from the future of workspaces and remote work to the imperative of social security and adaptive learning, among others.

The coronavirus outbreak is proving to be the largest disruption to human life we’ve experienced in a long while. It has created a global sense of existential fragility and an unsettlingly invidious insecurity. It has also forced adaptation to a previously unimaginable extent. It’s not as if we hadn’t been constantly made aware of our broken world order and the need to prepare for adaptation by the scientific and policy community before, but the adaptation was always meant to be gradual and belated - the threats posed by climate change and automation aren’t quite as theatrical as this virus. The pandemic has led us to question our priorities, institutions, the globalised world order and our future in an unprecedented way. And it has forced unprepared economies en masse, to adapt to a future of work that many believed would take years to materialise. This sudden reckoning threatens to exacerbate global inequalities and widen social cleavages as countries scramble to adjust to the demands of the novel coronavirus. As Forbes magazine eloquently puts it, “We have long spoken about VUCA - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous - environments, and now we’re facing one”. In order to emerge relatively unscathed, we shall need to reconfigure our institutions and paradigms to adapt to a changing reality, because the future has arrived much sooner than any of us expected it to.

The Big Questions

The lockdowns forced by the pandemic have led to a vast chunk of the world being suddenly forced to transmute from conducting life in a material economy to living in a parallel, weightless digital world. The move to telework, telemedicine, ed-tech and heightened surveillance at breakneck speed has upended governments, corporations and people alike. The search for solutions has served to catalyse innovation, leading to a rapid onslaught of digital services, when just weeks ago we were debating whether data is the new oil, and who it really belongs to. Many believed large, unwieldy bureaucracies would need to be redesigned for a digital future requiring flexible, adaptive systems but here we are now - and these systems are being forced to confront questions that were previously only abstract but are now urgent. Developing countries (and even developed ones really - US senators scrambling to comprehend the concept of Facebook comes to mind) were only just beginning to come to grips with the issues of data regulation, privacy etc when the pandemic struck. These governments can now be seen clumsily reaching for untrammelled digital surveillance and the use of untested technologies, throwing caution to the winds and privacy advocates in a tizzy.

There appears to be another big question looming on the horizon as the coronavirus forces a transformation in the way we work, which hasn’t received quite as much attention: will the pandemic also accelerate the drive towards automation? The prospect of large-scale automation has been a contested subject provoking agonised debate over the past few years but the debate over whether it’s inevitable or avoidable may just have been settled for many. Arguably, the lockdowns wouldn’t have paralysed economies, and we wouldn’t have had to put human lives on the frontline, had we been less dependent on the presence of humans to sustain a certain basic level of economic activity. Now that we contemplate a post-lockdown life in co-existence with the novel coronavirus, social-distancing requirements will be much less onerous for businesses if robots were to be deployed alongside humans to maintain productivity levels. Since businesses will have to work even harder to disinfect and sanitise now, robots could take over those activities which would otherwise require dedicated employees. This may also be better for business, as worried customers may feel safer in less congested spaces with fewer humans. And even though this may be a temporary change in behaviour for customers, unfortunately once a robot is deployed, it’s unlikely to be replaced by a human. The aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis saw some routine jobs vanish due to automation.

With companies likely to face severe cash crunches due to the lockdown-induced recession, the pressure to replace expensive humans with machines will only intensify. Carl Benedikt Frey pointed out in the Financial Times that automation anxiety has historically inflamed during depressions. In fact, some sectors like recycling and the call centre industry are already being subject to a sudden and rapid wave of automation due to the pandemic. The reinvigorated drive to deploy chatbots and voice recognition technology threatens to irreversibly damage the BPO sector, which is a key employment generator for many developing countries, including India.

Emerging challenges and opportunities

The accelerated adoption of emerging technologies shall inevitably hurt unprepared developing countries most, and threatens to widen the yawning disparity between the developed and developing world. Almost 90% of the developed world is online but less than 20% have access to the internet in least-developed countries - therefore, technological solutions may only serve to entrench exclusion. Big tech firms are overwhelmingly housed in the rich world, giving them access to large troves of data and dominance over global standard-setting. Developing countries are also likely to be slower to move as innovation accelerates. Their low levels of public R&D investment (India’s is merely 0.6-0.7% of GDP), absence of regulation, poor infrastructure and inadequate access to finance (financing is only set to become a bigger constraint now) are major obstacles.  Advanced countries are also struggling with the magnitude of this shift but their productive capacity and capability baselines are much higher, giving them a head start. Countries like China and Singapore are far ahead of the curve - China has been using robots to disinfect hospitals and deliver supplies, while Singapore - a dominant player in big data and analytics - has shown how “big data platforms can be mobilised quickly and transparently” in times of crisis. Oxford Economics’ estimate suggests that China was already set to automate 12.5 million jobs in manufacturing by 2030. The pandemic is also likely to drive a restructuring of supply chains, and the resulting re-shoring of jobs could exacerbate the problem for developing countries.

However, there are reasons to be optimistic - the pandemic appears to have catalysed developing countries to take risks and may encourage a broader and more confident adoption of technology in the long-term. This crisis could also be an opportunity to improve regulatory frameworks and reduce roadblocks in digital transformation. Ghana for example, has made it easier to access mobile money by waiving off some document requirements. This is true even for developed countries - Japan has pushed its companies to finally adopt digital contract and seal technology to make working from home a possibility in the wake of the crisis.

Developing countries would also do well to keep their eyes peeled for trends such as a rise in demand for digital services like cloud computing and data storage and digitally deliverable services, which can open up new employment opportunities. The pandemic has reinforced a fact we’re already aware of : the skilled are most immune to the future of work. High-skilled labour has fared better during the pandemic, with high-income people five times more likely to be able to work remotely during the lockdown. They are also more immune to automation : even in high-risk sectors such as the BPO industry, those who can perform higher-skilled work are likely to survive while bots take over routine tasks. We also know that digital skills are imperative for people to employ technology in a meaningful way and actually experience a productivity increase due to it, just access to technology isn’t enough. The pandemic could result in developing countries taking digital literacy a lot more seriously. Online learning has the potential to break down many silos. With conferences moving to Zoom, a boom in free courses on platforms such as EdX and Coursera and even museum tours moving online, it’s a brave new world for learning. Education, skilling and vocational training need to take on a whole new urgency as we emerge from this crisis and may become a whole lot easier now, provided developing countries take steps to bridge the digital divide and work these re-discovered priorities into how they imagine and plan for the future. 

Stronger Together

It’s going to be an incredible challenge for governments to create these frameworks while also firefighting and finding a way to recover from this crisis. However, the silver lining is that the crisis seems to have defined our priorities for us - we now appreciate that adequate healthcare and inclusive, broad-based social security frameworks need to be the number one priority for a resilient country. With the pandemic disrupting jobs and simultaneously accelerating digital transformation, our polities need to be prepared for the social unrest that is inevitable in the throes of such rapid change. They must therefore work to foster trust, create robust safety nets and rights frameworks, ensure access to justice and expand democratic space to protect us from the worst of the fallout. Governments must also focus on smartly leveraging existing frameworks and institutions to work in tandem with advanced technology, in order to adopt what works best for their particular context and stay focused on enabling people, and not technology.

It is remarkable that the pandemic has created a situation in which countries are now transitioning to a more futuristic way of work simultaneously, albeit from different starting-points. We shall need knowledge collaborations and transparency even more so than before, as the digital economy is predicated on trust much more than the material economy. Best practices need to be shared around the world and this will demand an unprecedented level of global cooperation, at a time when its most wanting. We’re also going to require more open-source and transparent data and an “openness to the quantification of uncertainty”. This wasn’t really a black swan event - it had been predicted to quite a high level of specificity by a number of scientists and even the US intelligence community. We just hadn’t been listening. An adaptive and focused leadership, expansion of democratic space and the free flow of information will be essential to prepare us to listen better and be better equipped for the challenges to follow. Shutting ourselves in, is just for now.

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