Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future. – John F. Kennedy
Over the coming years, we’re going to face rapid change. A push towards digitization, automation, and sustainability is going to transform the society we live in. All three changes will bring huge benefits, some of them necessary for human survival, but as with any transformation, it will come at a cost.
The Big Three Changes
Around the world, we are currently undergoing a big push towards three transformations:
- Digitization – reliance on electronic information.
- Automation – work by machinery instead of people.
- Sustainability – more environmentally friendly ways of living.
Some of these changes are being driven by human desire, others by necessity.
Digitization has shown its advantages with the rapid proliferation of the internet and the expansion of digital ways of reading, watching, listening, even working. Already the fastest of these trends, it has been accelerated by the coronavirus crisis.
Automation is the longest running trend, stretching back to the industrial revolution. The development of machines capable of replacing human labor has increased productivity and led to a constant, steady wave of innovation across industry and agriculture.
Sustainability is driven less by desire than by necessity. As almost every government on Earth has now recognized, humanity is living beyond its limits. Unless we can find ways of living that consume fewer resources and do less environmental harm, humanity won’t live to reap the benefits of the other changes.
The Challenge of Digitization
Digitization has brought one of the fastest changes in human history. In the space of a generation, we have created cheap, instantaneous electronic communication across the world. We’ve made a vast pool of music, books, films, and other resources instantly available anywhere. Access to culture is no longer limited by the number of copies of a piece that are created. Collaboration is no longer limited to people in the same room.
Digitization is a powerful democratizing force that has unleashed a wave of human potential, creating cultural forms and intellectual endeavors that were impossible thirty years ago.
Over the next generation, digitization will continue to grow. Old barriers will fall, as market forces make it harder for businesses to provide content for one country and not another. Mobile devices will place the internet in the hands of those who have so far missed out. Anyone in the world will be able to share their opinions and access the ideas of others.
But this brings great challenges. Old intellectual property laws are unproductively limiting and often unenforceable in the age of gifs, remixes, and file sharing. Those laws need reform, and those who benefited from the old models – especially large industrial and entertainment companies – will lose out.
Many people will face the pain of learning to work in new ways. Technology doesn’t come easily to everyone, but digital working will soon be a necessity. Older workers may find themselves left behind, frustrated and faltering in a new world.
As the World Economic Forum (WEF) has pointed out in its Global Risks Report, the digital environment itself faces risks, from fracturing systems to malign agents using the internet to spread crime and misinformation. Ways need to be found to make the digital landscape resilient and accessible for everyone, or we could lose much of the progress we’ve made.
And then there’s energy use. Digitization saves on resources in travel, transport, and the production of goods, but it also leads to greater energy use by people and organizations. Providing this energy without wrecking the environment adds to the challenge of sustainability.
The Challenge of Automation
The advantages and challenges of automation are simpler to sum up, and they come down to the same thing – machines take over people’s work.
In theory, the advantages of this are huge. Machine work is often faster and more consistent. Productivity can be increased. Dangerous tasks can be completed without risk to human life. By taking away the need for human labor on mundane tasks, machines free up time for us to innovate, create, relax, and spend time together.
In practice, this last opportunity is being squandered because of the way the benefits are distributed. Instead of reducing the amount of work we do across the board, machines are replacing the work of a growing minority of the population, leaving these people without work. Millions are left poor and unemployed, while millions more are stuck working even longer and harder for fear of being made jobless. These trends are ripping holes in our mental health and social cohesion.
To reap the benefits of automation, we need to create a matching social change. How we achieve it remains to be seen, but somehow we need to better distribute work, so that everybody gets some of the increased leisure that automation can provide and everyone has access to the work they need to get by.
The Challenge of Sustainability
While most people take the benefits of digitization and automation for granted, convincing them to consider sustainability is harder.
For decades, we have been living unsustainably. We use up more resources and put out more pollution than the planet can take. This is driving us towards a toxic, over-heated world. Several of the biggest risks identified by the WEF stem from this, from extreme weather conditions to ecosystem collapse.
Sustainability is the necessary shift towards living within our means that will keep the planet livable. In part, it is achieved through greener production of goods and of energy, something we’re making increasingly big strides towards. But it also depends upon making changes in how we live – travelling less, consuming fewer material goods, making objects to endure instead of being replaced, sourcing our food locally.
Most challenging of all, it involves redesigning our economy. As green economists such as Ann Pettifor have pointed out, to achieve a sustainable future we need to move away from a focus on growth and towards a steady state economy. Governments need to invest in the technological and social changes to make sustainability possible. That means heavy costs upfront to avoid greater costs down the line, both in money and in human life.
To be sustainable, the wealthiest part of the world’s population will have to accept limits such as a huge reduction in flying. Any such change is hard to accept because we’re psychologically hard wired to feel our losses more than our gains. Currently thriving companies may have to shrink or be shut down, and governments will need to find ways to care for their employees and investors. But if it keeps the Earth inhabitable, then it’s a challenge worth facing.
All of these changes represent balancing acts. Balancing costs and benefits. Balancing the need for rapid change against the time it takes to adjust. Balancing the benefits of new technology against the social disruption it brings. Balancing the needs of different people in different parts of the world.
We also need to balance the impacts of these three great waves of change. Digitization and automation have led to greater energy use, which is harmful to sustainability, but they can also be used to its benefit. Digital meetings can reduce travel and so carbon emissions. Automation can produce environmental technology faster. The creation of jobs in sustainable sectors, as advocated by proponents of a green new deal in both the US and Europe, could make up for jobs lost to automation.
There’s also a balance between short- and long-term effects. Many of the challenges, harms and disruptions these changes bring are in the short term, while the benefits come in the long term. We have to learn to recognize that balance and to accept short-term pain for long-term gain.
To balance these challenges, our leaders need to openly acknowledge them and undertake the hard work of persuading people to accept change. So far, many have failed, not wanting to risk their popularity by offering up a challenge. But refusing to face the coming disruption doesn’t make it go away, it just makes the pain worse because we don’t take steps to avoid it.
People are better than these leaders are willing to accept. Throughout history, humanity has shown an ability to rise to new challenges, to do what is difficult because the results will be good, to work harder now so that our children can inherit a better world.
Digitization, automation, and sustainability are going to transform the world. Together, they will reduce the work we have to do and provide a better standard of living. The question now is how well we manage that change.