Technology is a hugely disruptive force. Newton stated, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”, as he defined one of the basic principles that we all accept governs the world around us. So does it follow that for every technical advance there is an equal and opposite regression or retrenchment? If this principle holds true is it the job of government or the tech community to address the imbalance?
The rise of populism in 2016 would indicate that the answer is a yes, that there are negative or regressive effects to disruption. We as a community seldom stop to consider the potential negative impact of the innovations we develop, seeing them as largely positive.
When local manufacturing was the key driver of business growth, benefits tended to trickle further down the economy as more people were employed in the supply chain supporting those industries. The growth was therefore shared in local communities. The rise of outsourcing over the 20 years has seen that trickle down growth occur, however, it is no longer constrained to a locality and so whilst communities in China and India have been transformed local communities in UK and USA stagnated. Now with software based businesses the positive impact of growth is concentrated in a very small number of people. The recent Snap IPO demonstrates this, creating billions of dollars worth of value with less than 400 employees. As computing power, robotics and AI replace labour any notion of trickle down stops and our demand creation and tax systems become very challenged.
In many western countries the benefits of the recovery since 2008 have been biased toward higher income households as the OECD concluded late last year. Income inequality is still at record high levels despite low unemployment.
You could argue that isn’t our problem that in the end innovation can resolve all the issues that result and to some extent that is true. However, Stephen Hawking recently commentated in The Guardian that more people Sub-Saharan Africa now have access to a mobile phone network than clean water. We are innovating far faster in some areas than other crucial areas and this distortion is amplifying that feeling of being left behind. Where a clear profit motive doesn’t exist it is clear there is far less innovation and investment. This has promoted some high profile entrepreneurs to start initiatives to address some of these issues and the creation of some funds aimed at social enterprise.
Many Governments have been slow to address the issues creating the perception they are “out of touch”. The tech world needs to shoulder some responsibility at a time when we know that the pace of change is increasing and where AI and robotics will replace many of today’s jobs. We have a role to play in:
Education – Making sure that those who write policy really understand the level of disruption that is coming in the next 5-10 years and its impact – OBR employment forecasts from the recent Budget suggest continued very low levels of unemployment for the next 5 years. How could you talk to your MP or a Minister or policy maker about this?
Training – Playing a part in delivering training locally so that the people leaving school and college have the maths and programming skills we are all short of. Could you send people into schools, act as role models, sponsor projects at colleges, look at retraining for people looking for a career change? How much time do the people in your company spend making sure we will have access to the skills we need in 5 years time?
Innovation to provide the basics – Access to clean water or social care for the vulnerable are just two examples of areas where the lack of a profit motive means that there has been very little innovation. The tech community working together could change many of these areas if we took a different view of our responsibilities. How about letting your staff have paid time to contribute to innovating in these areas working with a charity without looking for a profit from this work? Go beyond the 1 day team building project to build a playground and use the skills you have to really change something!
As the divisions in society seem to grow, with some turning inwards towards protectionism, maybe the only solution to the negative effects of disruption is the tech community collaborating and innovating freely and globally to address the imbalances.
Over the last 25 years Margaret Rice-Jones has led a number of mobile telecoms and high growth technology companies.
Having Chaired several VC backed companies to successful exits she is currently Chair of Openet and also CTRLio an internet commerce start –up and a NED at printing technology business Xaar PLC, she also has extensive consumer market experience from her role as Chairman of Skyscanner, the travel comparison site.
Margaret will be speaking at DSE on ‘Leadership Models for Disruptive Businesses’