The rapid technological advancements of our time have provoked as much anxiety as enthusiasm.
While businesses and consumers may applaud the ever increasing ease, efficiency and expanded reach that each new application offers, there are hidden costs to this galloping pace of change. Those who are in less of a position to take advantage of new developments risk being displaced or side-lined, which can breed disaffection and deepen existing socioeconomic divides. Unfortunately, the world will not slow down to allow stragglers to catch up. Nor can the public sector stand aloof from such dilemmas: as veteran public servant and our Senior Visiting Fellow Peter Shergold reminds us, machine learning and other advances are poised to revolutionise not just service delivery, but also the backroom analytical processes at the heart of government work. In light of these shifts, practitioners have argued for a more agile approach to policymaking, not least because a timely, iterative response to emerging developments can make the difference to whether policy intentions are met.
But this is not merely a matter of cracking the whip on laggard bureaucracies. Beyond speed and cost savings, governments need to take into account other factors that the market may not consider: including social cohesion, factual veracity, security issues and privacy. Our institutions may need to be strengthened or developed to manage such concerns, while allowing the benefits of technology to flow through in ways that are more conducive to human well-being. Technology is not a force of nature to be weathered like a storm: paths and choices can and should be taken mindfully. The sobering prospect of workers being replaced by automation en masse is only part of the narrative. There are also opportunities to help workers find more meaningful employment, to support worker productivity and capability (both physical and cognitive), to relieve manpower shortages (especially in ageing societies), and to free up teams to offer a more attentive, human touch to clients and stakeholders. Indeed, these human capacities—for empathy, judgement, compassion and adaptability—may well gain more traction once machines can handle more mechanical or routine tasks. Greater imagination could be brought to bear to help realise the potential of technology to enhance rather than disrupt.
At the same time, the responsible approach would be to prepare our people for a much more complex, uncertain future in which they must learn to take charge of their individual development and career trajectories: hence initiatives such as Singapore’s national SkillsFuture framework. For many, this is a significant leap to take: it is a cultural shift that ought to be managed judiciously rather than left to the vagaries of the market. On its part, Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower has monitored the trends very closely and has thought through some of the emerging challenges and possible solutions that may arise as employment patterns change. We should consider what structures might be needed to protect freelancers and other workers who don’t fall into traditional categories of regular employment. A balanced approach that is supportive rather than prescriptive could ensure basic securities that many employees already enjoy, while allowing evolving work arrangements to find their own level. Rather than discourage people from new modes of working, safety nets could be made more broadly accessible, for instance. Novelty always comes with risk; the experiments of the private sector often raise interesting, even game-changing possibilities, suggesting how work flexibility, service responsiveness, data insight, and inventive partnerships could result in greater public value.
The future of work is less about who gets to do the work, but what work is worth doing—and what tradeoffs should be made in so doing. Such questions cannot be resolved by any one sector alone: societies that can address these issues in a spirit of pragmatism, transparency, honesty and trust, will have a better shot at making the future work for them.
I hope you find this issue of Ethos, with a refreshed layout, a productive read.