Skip to content

Technology Development and the Future of Work

Key Enabling Technologies (KET) are a highimpact group of technologies characterized by the fact that they will impact multiple industries and they will form industries in their own right. The impact in economic terms and in industry structure terms will be substantial over the coming decade. This will in itself pose challenges and opportunities for individuals, organizations and society as a whole. The Future of Work will pose an even larger challenge that will impact primarily individuals and society in a negative way whilst impacting organizations in a positive way from a productivity and cost point of view.

The way we work and the way our organizations divide up the necessary tasks between technological artefacts and people is constantly evolving with technology. Over the coming decades this rate of change will accelerate exponentially, leading to fundamental challenges for individuals, organizations and society.

The Emergence and Development of Key Enabling Technologies 

Technological development happens in all knowledge domains but some of these are likely to impact individuals, organizations and society more than others. The label given to this highimpact group of technologies is Key Enabling Technologies [KET]. These technologies are characterized by the fact that they will impact multiple industries and they will form industries in their own right. Based on the European Union definition of this group (Larsen et al., 2011), the author defines this group as comprising:

• Information and Communication Technologies including Big Data, Big Data Analytics and InternetofThings.

• Advanced manufacturing technologies including additive manufacturing and robotics.

• Industrial biotechnology including microbial consortia engineering and synthetic biology.

• Photonics.

• Advanced materials including lightweight & ultrastrong materials; materials capable of resisting aggressive environments; surface materials and coatings; electronic and photonic materials; smart, multifunctional devices and structures; biomaterials; and industrial including other materials.

• Nanotechnology.

• Micro and nanoelectronics.

In addition these technologies will be incorporated into capital equipment for use in production. The deployment systems for the embodied technologies in a given production environment are known as production systems and also in this domain there are emerging developments that will have major impacts on individuals, organizations and society like e.g. (Brecher et al., 2012):

• Individualized Production, defined as a concept for the design and layout of all elements of a production system in such a way that it permits a high degree of variability in the production programme whilst maintaining production costs on a level comparable to that of mass production.

• Virtual Production Systems will be deployed in the development of new products with the objective of reducing time and resources used for nonproductive planning activities prior to the actual value creation.

• Hybrid Production Systems will build on a combination of production technologies based on differing physical principles or the integration of separate production processes into a single, new production process.

• SelfOptimising Production Systems will possess an inherent intelligence and have the capability to adapt themselves autonomously to changing ambient conditions in order to achieve greater process flexibility.

The impact in economic terms and in industry structure terms will be substantial over the coming decade. This will in itself pose challenges and opportunities for individuals, organizations and society as a whole.

On the level of the individual it will require continuous competence development and high levels of flexibility in order to benefit from these changes: those who do not possess the relevant competence combined with sufficient flexibility will likely be left behind during this journey.

On the organisational level it will require increased ambidexterity i.e. organizations will have to maintain two simultaneous strategic capabilities: the first will be a continuous focus on efficiency through cost reductions (using the principles of lean and other similar approaches) and productivity improvements (defined as getting more for less); the second will be a continuous focus on effectiveness through innovation (using the principles of integrated innovation to both create and capture value) and productivity improvements (defined as doing smarter things in smarter ways). For more details on this see Roos (2014b). This increased dynamic will likely result in both increased entrepreneurial activities and a shorter average life span for a given organization.

On the societal level it is clear that the winners will be regions (and countries) with a high level of economic complexity (see Figure 1). Complex economic activities initiated through an entrepreneurial event will increasingly have to migrate from a low economic complexity region to a high economic complexity region in order to secure access to necessary utilities, product, service, competence and lead customer input. If this is combined with the agglomeration economic effects where firms that make up agglomerations have higher productivity as well as higher productivity improvements than firms that are not part of any agglomeration (Jaenicke et al., 2009; Garanti & ZvirbuleBerzina, 2013), then these migration effects are further strengthened.

Already so far in this discussion we can see that there are challenges for individuals, organizations and society but there is an even larger challenge that will impact primarily individuals and society in a negative way whilst impacting organizations in a positive way from a productivity and cost point of view.

The bigger problem 

In the medium term e.g. 510 years we will see the full effect of the Information and Communication Key Enabling Technology development. The principle is outlined in Figure 3 (Roos, 2014c).

Figure 1: Changing demands for jobs across the skills spectrum (Roos, 2014c)


The key challenge is the increasing demand for individuals with all three skill sets:

• Interpersonal skills

• Creative problem solving ability

• Domain expertise

This demand is found at both extremes of the skill scale e.g. in the need for a cleaner who has to clean an office that is in use, and in a submarine designer who has to create a solution to a problem never before encountered within a complex stakeholder interaction framework.

Almost all of the jobs in the middle will disappear due to: the increasing speed and capacity of computer hardware; the increasing availability of data due to digitization and development of sensors that can deliver just in time information; and to the development of algorithms that enable information to be turned into useful data. This development will have a dramatic impact on service jobs and primarily backoffice type jobs in e.g. law firms and accounting firms. Today processes like discovery, that take thousands of hours in complex legal cases with millions of pages to digest, can be done in seconds by a computer that has been trained by an experienced discovery professional across the first 10 or so documents. The result will be a reduction in backoffice staff of lawfirms of 90% or more, whilst the star lawyers arguing the case in front of the court will become even more productive and the concierge that services them when in the office will be even more sought after – an illustration of the demise of the middle and the growth of the two extremes. Not only will this kill any hope of the emerging service economy being a large employer that provides decent salaries, it will also generate a major social problem for societies: many countries have in place a policy to increase the number of people with university education, but the universities are currently educating in only one of the three required skill domains, i.e. domain expertise. Historically driven «highstatus» professions like law and accountancy will be lowvolume employers in tomorrow’s world. The few who succeed will be at the top of their class with an innate capability in the domains of creative problem solving and interpersonal skills providing them with a potential to reach the top of their chosen profession.

This university education policy is likely to generate a large number of individuals with no job and high study debts. Some of these may be able to migrate into the lower end of the skill scale but the corresponding oversupply of individuals will generate an increasing downward pressure on salaries for those who do get a parttime job serving coffee to visiting tourists.

The impact on the primary industry domain and the manufacturing domain will be less, due to their already lean operations with high productivity, but there will still be some impact in terms of the peopleless mines, the robotic precision agriculture facilities and the constant reduction of employees in manufacturing based on productivity increases outstripping demand growth in the served markets, exacerbated by the replacement of labour by capital equipment leading to most scale intensive industries moving to become «black factories» i.e. peopleless 24/7 production operations.

So what will all these people do and how will society respond to this?

Firstly there is a need to have as many startups as possible in the firm domain and to support the growth of these startups as much as possible. This is not primarily because they will generate employment but rather that they will generate an economic surplus that can be taxed and economic transactions that can be taxed by government as a rev enue source. Revenue raising will be critical and should focus on the two forms of tax that cannot be moved offshore, i.e. consumption tax and tax on fixed assets.

Secondly, any country with a resource base (e.g. oil, minerals, hydroelectric or geothermal energy, agricultural land etc.) has to ensure that it has an effective resource rent tax (like the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth fund that now stands at around one trillion dollars) and also strong incentives to add preexport value to produced goods for tax purposes (like Sweden’s value adding to iron ore and trees, or Iceland’s attraction of energy intensive production like e.g. aluminum smelting based on its very low cost geothermal energy).

Thirdly, education has to be adapted to produce graduates at all levels with the required three skill sets to ensure maximum local employment.

For the rest there will be unemployment or selfemployment that has to be guaranteed on a low but acceptable income level to avoid social unrest.

If the above reasoning sounds pessimistic, please bear in mind that I have not discussed here the implications of each of the other Key Enabling Technologies which will all have different impacts but with the same general effect on society.


Over the period to c. 2030 (known as the «singularity» because that is when it is estimated that computers will become selfaware, with a reasoning capacity exceeding that of human beings) we will see technologydriven shifts in our societies unlike anything seen so far.

These shifts will create threats and opportunities but these will not be symmetrically distributed across society and scales. On the firm level they will be balanced towards the opportunity side. On the level of the individual they will, with few exceptions, be balanced towards the threat side. On the society side there will be a large difference depending on whether the society has access to key resources and whether it has a highly complex economy – if it has, then this will provide an opportunity to handle the upcoming challenges with a low probability of social unrest; but if it has neither of these, then the society risks major instances of social unrest with the associated negative outcomes.

It is paramount that our political masters start to discuss these issues while there is still time.

Written by Prof. Göran Roos


Ir al contenido