Business must choose its digital future

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A BITC event explored how automation and AI should be rolled out in the workplace

The business community, government and wider society must decide now what kind of digital future they would like to see, agreed a series of panellists and presenters at a Business in the Community (BITC) event.

The Future of Human is Digital event was held to launch new guidance from BITC and Accenture designed to help businesses ensure that digital transformation has a positive impact on people, the planet, workplaces and communities.

Speakers at the event included Mark Price, minister of state for international trade, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady, CBI director-general Carolyn Fairbairn and BITC chairman Antony Jenkins.

Several of those speaking presented business’s approach to a future of ever-increasing levels of automation and AI as a choice rather than an inevitability. O’Grady, along with others, described the huge opportunities harnessing digital technology represents; not only in doing things better but also in eradicating repetitive work.

“Digital can be a great force, not just for good but for liberation,” she said. “There is a lot of brain-destroying work still in the UK and this could be a great liberator.”

She cautioned though “that we have some choices to make". "In Japan it may be all about robots in adult social care but is that how we want it to be?" she asked. "We have some big decisions to make about what our economy should look like and how we want to use human creativity."

BITC’s Jenkins echoed this point. “The essence of how we respond to digital is what we do and how we do it. It requires leadership from business but also from other parts of society,” he said, citing trade unions’ and government’s role. “Every actor has to pull together if we’re going to seize this opportunity.”

Jenkins urged businesses to make calls about what a responsible digital future might look like now. “There are many parallels between climate change 30 years ago and where we are now with digital,” he said. “The response then was lacklustre, which is what’s put us in the difficult position we’re in today.”

The CBI’s Fairbairn pointed out that a future of automating every job possible wasn’t the only option. She said that instead of considering a basic income for those automated out of work money might be better spent on reskilling.

“We need to decide where we’re going to put our resources – will that be into training?” she said. “Because I think work will remain a source of fulfilment for a very long time and I think we should therefore be investing in it.”

Price pointed out the societal issues already being caused by disillusionment with poor-quality work and limited opportunity for many to boost their incomes. “People are under more pressure but earning little, they feel their jobs are being taken and because of that their wages are being squeezed, they feel that technology is taking their jobs… I’ve heard this message reported in every Western democracy I’ve visited.”

Price too urged businesses to consider carefully this fourth industrial revolution: “What I’d love is they say [looking back in future] that we managed a digital evolution rather than went through a revolution… because revolutions rarely succeed.”

Managing director of Accenture Strategy Justin Keeble agreed: “In previous industrial revolutions we didn’t have the opportunity to ensure they were inclusive and sustainable, but in this revolution we do have that opportunity.”

BITC’s new digital guidance recommends businesses prioritise the following issues:

  • Protecting, supporting and empowering customers – by taking steps to help customers feel safer online, being more transparent about how customer data is used, and finding ways to help customers access the internet and make the most of services online.
  • Creating innovative products that serve society – by using technology as a force for good to solve global environmental and social issues such as cutting waste and improving health and education.
  • Creating more transparent value chains, by using technology to maintain environmental standards, and track and trace goods to prevent corruption and exploitation.
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