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How Digital Technologies are Changing the World of Work

Catalina Rojas

May 7, 2020

Let's talk about how digital technologies are changing the world of work. But first, a story.

It was the end of an extremely busy and tiring week as we were putting together our house (and lives) after moving overseas. One afternoon in the search for affordable furniture for our apartment, we ended up in a extremely noisy and very polluted part of the city packed with cars and huge trucks. Sadly, we found everything was both ugly and outrageously expensive. The sun was setting and there was no taxi at sight. We waited a good 45 minutes but were finally rescued by an Uber car. I called it a rescue and of course I unloaded all my frustration to this wonderful guy who during our chat shared his favorite website to find super affordable and Scandinavian-style furniture. Thanks to this stranger, you can actually sit in chairs and have supper with us.

You might be wondering why is this random story opening this blogpost. Just think for a second. A few years ago would you have had a total stranger pick you up? I don’t think so.

These everyday life changes that are occurring all over the world are what Professor Dr. Arun Sundararajan calls “The Sharing Economy”. I had the opportunity to attend a talk the NYU Professor and world renowned expert gave a while back  at the Global Youth Economics Opportunities Summit. What follows is based on what I learned from him and I want to use it as a basis to explaining what are the key trends of the future of work and how it connects to social change.

According to professor Sundararajan, what happened in the universe -for me and family to happily ride a stranger’s car- is called the “Fifth Wave of Commercial Trust.” This emerging economy is largely based on systems that facilitate trust between people and institutions. Beware of yelp reviews. I am half joking but no, take it seriously. This has been a process in economic history. At first, we had community to community systems of trust (which bakery sells the freshest bread; which butcher has the best meat, etc). Then came government regulations (enforcing standards of cleanliness, safety, fire code). Making sure roaches stay away from your food. The next stage was brands. You know what Nike is, you recognize the Coca Cola logo, you only drink Starbucks coffee. And now, there is “gig labor arrangement based on platforms that help facilitate digital trust”.

Let’s unpack all this in a way that we can easily understand and find relevance to our field –social change-. If you are wondering why on PCDN –a global hub for peacebuilders, social changemakers, troublemakers, social innovators- we are talking about The Future of Work we simply have to remind you of Dr. Sundararajan’s*  assertions where he states that:


Sit down for a second and ponder that almost half of the U.S. workforce will earn some part of their income via the gig economy. This massive change happening before our eyes will affect the field of Social Change in at least two ways:

  • We need to study what kind of socio-economic, political and cultural implications this will have on workers and individuals
  • Will this lead to a further rise in inequality?
  • How about the widening gap between wealth and poverty?
  • What does this mean for workers' rights and benefits? What about retirement? Salaries?
  • If much of the social safety and benefits is tied to formal full-time employment what do societies need to do to support people in the “gig economy”?
  • How will the fields that are grouped under the rubric of Social Change -and those working in it- will be affected by this change? Don’t think this will not affect you just because you either write research-based reports and robots are FAR from writing as well as you do. Think again. An example is the paralegal profession could is already being radically changed as computers are now able to search, collate and identify high volume of data at a fraction of the time of human paralegals..

Sure, C-3PO is not coming right now to take over and deliver your training, or to draft your report for the donor, and sure this is NOT the first time in history that we see technology transforming the way we work and live. Nevertheless, at PCDN we can’t talk about how to get jobs without making sure you understand the world you are living in right now and the world that is changing whether we like it or not.

So let’s understand the basics of these fundamental changes and identify how to best be prepared to be competitive and ride the wave of automation and digitalization in the world of work.

How digital technologies are changing the world of work

First, the change of pace in which machines are likely to substitute for human labor is growing rapidly. The key word here is NOT technologies but pace. Remember that the printing machine replaced hand written books in the transition to the modern era. Thanks Guttenberg. Also, in the 19th Century, electricity and caffeine were directly related to the creation of the 12 then 8-hour workday and irremediably altered patterns of rest in workers. Yes, caffeine is not a technology (duh, it’s a necessity) but it is NO coincidence that we have a massively global custom to drink caffeinated drinks to start the day and that thanks to electricity, humans are able to work past the natural rhythms of rest.

According to professor Sundararajan, this rapidly change of pace is also creating new opportunities, innovations and career paths that could possibly contribute to solving complex social problems. An example here is the reduction in size in the machinery sector (robots are building people’s cars) but also the explosion of growth in health care industry. Every new technology creates new jobs and demands a new set of skills. Catch my drift? We better be ready in the form of acquiring the skills to make us employable in the future of work.

The second change is the fundamental reorganizing of the economy: crowd-based capitalism or the sharing economy. Sundararajan called this the shift from managerial capitalism to crowd-based capitalism. This shift redefines the institutions in society that provide structural capital. To explain a bit further this transition, professor Sundarajan points to the shift how people watch television. I grew up watching shows made and distributed by larger corporations. My son most likely will watch YouTube (he already does under my supervision-sort of-). While YouTube is NOT a small company, the content YouTube provides can come from individuals all over the world (a small number do make a lot of money from their creations while most don't), to parents that create channels to film their son doing parkour (such as my family). This is not fictional.

This is what this change is about. In a crowd-sourced sourced economy platforms are key (in this case is YouTube, but think Airbnb, Kiva) the content is the aggregate of smaller individuals, i.e. your video, your home, your car. And the platforms provide a means of distribution, of verifying content and facilitating trust between previously unconnected people and/or institutions.

So what this means, it’s that the economy is moving from large infrastructure institutions or employers to interface based institutions. The labor markets are also radically changing. The old economic model was based in many countries with people working for corporations and getting a salary (and benefits) for their labor. The change here is that many people will be navigating a very diverse set of work experiences and gigs via platforms and networks, rather than working for a single institution.

Of course this raises many ethical and policy challenges. Policy institutions that govern or regulate our economic interactions are far behind in adapting and also visualizing how to deal with the future of work. For example, if in the U.S. benefits have largely been tied to full-time employment, how can we create a system where benefits are portable? This is obviously a fundamental question for any social change academic and activist.  At PCDN, we are committed to continue opening the conversation, bringing experts and your community insights into this very important topic.

Currently, we have an even more pressing question from the point of view of careers in social change.

How can we change the nature of higher education and credentialing to better prepare people for a life of learning and skills development?

Professor Sundararajan emphasized a few key trends that we need to consider as the future of work arrives today. 

1) Post secondary education. Not preparing people for a job but giving individuals skills, entrepreneurship, and a lifetime of learning. Micro-entrepreneurship education for youth: more and more of the population will be entrepreneurs. There is a need to redefine what is taught in school and colleges. I would also add, that we need to prepare those that will not be entrepreneurs in finding skills (and having continued learning opportunities) that will effectively prepare them for suitable employment.

2) Inventing robust transition education plans for workers already in the economy. A high number of people are going to be doing something completely different in the next 10 years.

3) A critical challenge is who owns and will own the data. It is essential that access to data be democratized and not only in the hands of a few corporations. While many argue that this shift will widen the inequality gap, Professor Sundararajan argues that there is an opportunity for inclusive growth as more people have the potential to be an investor, to have more democratic access to capital and work in a trust based system through innovative platforms, Blockchain and other mechanisms can have many positive outcomes. Of course it is certainly possible that inequality will further increase and that digital tools will not solve many of the problems facing the world today.

I might not share ALL of Dr. Sundararajan’s optimism as I’m confident these changes will bring about socio-economic challenges but also it is a great time to identify the opportunities that we have in our area of work to create innovative solutions and hopefully sustainable incomes. I can’t help to imagine how this will impact International Development, Humanitarian Assistance, Conflict Resolution, Social Entrepreneurship and related social change sectors including how people build careers  as well as how we deliver services and change systems to benefit those that are left out.

What sector do you work on and what are your questions for the future of work?

By Dr. Catalina Rojas, Director of Innovation, PCDN.global

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