Digital Economy and the future of work (WS34)

8 Dec 2016 10:00h - 11:30h

Event report

[Read more session reports and live updates from the 11th Internet Governance Forum]

At the start of the session, the moderator, Ms Megan Richards, European Commission, mentioned that the discussions would be divided into two parts: the digital economy overall, and the implications for the future of the workforce and employment in a changing environment. 

Ms Lillian Nalwoga, Internet Society Uganda chapter, talked about the situation in Africa. There has been a considerable increase in Internet access throughout Africa, and this allows more people to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Internet. As an example, young people are developing applications to solve socio-economic challenges. But there are still infrastructure challenges across the continent, as well as deficits in digital skills. Other challenges are related to issues such as cybersecurity, taxation, privacy, and data protection. The region needs to address the challenges by deploying reliable infrastructure, with private-public cooperation being key here; consolidating capacity development; and building trust in the digital economy.

Mr Vincenzo Spiezia, Head of the Information and Communication Technologies Unit in the Directorate for Science, Technology, and Industry of the OECD, said that innovation is a driver of growth. Technologies facilitate the production of goods and services, thus creating new markets and new jobs. People whose jobs are made obsolete by new technologies need to be trained to transition to new activities; vocational training and other labour policies are essential in this regard. However, some workers will not make the transition, and they cannot be left behind.

Advancement in digital technologies can, indeed, bring more jobs, if we look at the overall picture, but in certain countries this is not necessarily the case. Things have accelerated beyond the ability of the political system and the education system to keep up. Older people, for example, face challenges in adapting to the digital economy and new job requirements, either because of under-qualification or over-qualification. There is a changing risk profile: we are moving to a winner-take-all economy, with only a few winners. And this leads to a more unstable economy.

Mr Antonio Garcia Zaballos, Lead Specialist on telecommunications in the Competitiveness and Innovation Division at the Inter-American Development Bank, noted that there is a mismatch between the skills required by companies and the skills provided by the workforce. Governments, the private sector, and academia need to work together to bridge this gap. For example, ministries of education need to adjust the educational curricula to what is really needed, while private training centres could contribute more to training local communities.

Mr Vint Cert, VP and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google Inc., said technology changes the requirements for work. At the same time, it can also create new kinds of work. He noted that we are also entering a period where our lives are longer, which means we can work longer. We therefore need to learn more over longer periods of time. Cert also mentioned that we have a problem in attaching the right people to the new jobs. We should not jam people into pre-defined jobs, but find out what they can do well and then fashion work for them to excel in. We should try to adapt work to the people, and not the other way around.

Mr Lorenzo Pupillo, Executive Director in the Public & Regulatory Affairs Unit of Telecom Italia, spoke about the migration of the younger population among countries, and how this also disrupts the labour market. He mentioned that, when looking at advancements in the digital era, there should be some complementarity between humans and machines. Computers are good in replicating knowledge, but not so good in promoting tacit knowledge. There is, indeed, progress in the field of artificial intelligence, but there is still room in many sectors for humans to play a major role.

Ms Helani Galpaya, CEO of LIRNEasia, talked about the value chain in the digital economy, and the various types of jobs that individuals can take in the area of micro-work (such as add-clicking and creating logos for companies). This is seen as a good opportunity for unemployed people and those who are looking for flexible work. The problem, however, with this type of work is that people are not encouraged or trained to advance in the value chain. And there is also a financial challenge: workers not being able to get payment for their work, because of the online payment markets not being available in some regions/countries.

Ms Gabriela Rocha, Partner and Mexico Executive Director, Laboratoria, mentioned that higher education is still an important way to reach the labour market, but accessing higher education is a challenge for people with low incomes. Alternatives are needed for putting these people into the labour market. Also, there is a gap between the education curricula and industry requirements. Rocha also pointed out that we tend to focus too much on technical skills, and there is less emphasis on soft skills.

During the Q&A part of the session, several points were raised. Some participants argued that the digital advancements would bring harm to millions of workers, with loss of jobs and lack of social security. This happens mainly because of lack of adequate regulation. Others mentioned that while jobs may be made obsolete, many others will be created. The challenge is to adjust people to the new technologies. Historically, technologies came in, disrupted existing jobs and created new ones. This is still the case. But the question is whether the new jobs can be occupied by the same people who lose their jobs. This is where education and training policies come into play.

There were also discussions about the sharing economy and how this impacts traditional markets and employment models.

by Sorina Teleanu