Four Ways That Technology Can Reinvent Work In The Digital Age

By Devin Cook

In the 1800s, it was machine-powered looms that replaced human hand weavers. Today, digital technology is disrupting work for working people — blue- and white-collar alike — in every occupation. Advances in fields such as artificial intelligence and robotics are making it increasingly possible for machines to perform not only physical but also cognitive tasks, according to a new report on IT and the U.S. workforce, published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

But this story is probably not news to anyone anymore. Most of us are aware that as we enter this new Industrial Revolution, automation and digital devices are upending jobs, from cashiers to automotive assembly-line workers. Yet there is an upside, which we don’t hear as much about. While technology can jettison many existing jobs, it’s also constantly creating new jobs and new conveniences. Globally, career taxi drivers now compete for passengers with Lyft and Uber drivers, and new industries, like solar energy, employ more people than the coal industry. The grand challenge we face is how to accelerate the pace of job-creating innovation and the reinvention of work, while easing the transition for those whose jobs are lost in the process.

At the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy we’ve given a lot of thought to the future of work. We believe that the way forward is not to preserve the jobs of the past, but to create new paths for more people to share in the prosperity that digital technology creates. Last year, to put these beliefs into action, we launched the first Inclusive Innovation Challenge to show that technology can create a future that works for more people — and that this is already underway. Our over $1 million awards program celebrates global organizations that are using technology to ensure greater economic opportunity. These organizations are addressing key questions such as: What skills will be needed in the future and how do workers find jobs once they are properly trained? How can more people around the globe ‘plug in’ to the digital economy?

We have identified four basic areas where technology and jobs must intersect more effectively. These areas comprise the categories for our Inclusive Innovators:

Job Creation & Income Growth: Simply put, we need to use technology to create new jobs that pay better wages. What might that look like? IIC 2016 Grand Prize Winner, Iora Health, has created an entirely new job category — health coach — for people who support patients directly and work as liaisons to medical professionals. The model simultaneously drives down costs. Using a proprietary medical record technology platform to gauge patient progress and success, Iora is providing job opportunities that merge human compassion with data-driven management. This year the IIC is looking for more organizations like Iora that enable entirely new industries and jobs to flourish in the digital economy.

Skills Development & Opportunity Matching: Tomorrow’s jobs will be very different from today’s, and it’s critical to prepare people to succeed in rapidly growing job categories like robotics, coding, AI, and renewable energy. Moreover, once people develop these skills, they have to connect with appropriate job opportunities. Another IIC Grand Prize Winner, Laboratoria, works specifically with low-income women in Latin America to train and match workers and jobs. Once the women master critical digital skills and are equipped as developers, they are matched with jobs in the tech sector. Digital boot-camps like Laboratoria, technology-driven approaches to scaling up education, hiring platforms that reduce unconscious bias, and labor markets that safeguard fair wages are just a few of the technology-driven ways working people can access and succeed in emerging work opportunities.

Technology Access: In our increasingly digital economy, those with access to technology will prosper at the expense of those without access. Yet many people who are willing and able to work simply cannot “plug in” to the digital economy. According to a 2016 FCC study, 39 percent of Americans are unable to access any broadband Internet services; surely, a reason that rural America’s economy has been so hard hit. Globally, a Pew Research Center study of emerging or developing countries showed that only 54 percent of the population accessed the Internet at all.

Innovative approaches are emerging that will empower people to engage more fully in the digital economy. For example, last year’s IIC Winner, Jana, allows people from around the world to download specific apps on their smart phones. As compensation, Jana provides Internet access via smartphones, getting millions of people and businesses online and on the job.

Financial Inclusion: Often, even with a job and an income, a family’s financial stability can be tenuous. According to the FDIC, 27 percent of American households do not have bank accounts or have inadequate services. As the economy incorporates more contract workers — fully 20–30% of the working age population in the U.S. and EU fall into this category — they usually have limited access to protections like unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, and disability insurance, according to a McKinsey study. Technology can change this, however. Last year’s IIC Winner, Destacame, developed an algorithm to allow individuals demonstrate their creditworthiness by using alternative data, gathered from credit-like services such as utilities, telecoms, and suppliers.

Societies can’t go backward or stop the evolution and redefinition of work in the digital age. But we can encourage and support new mechanisms for job creation, skills development, technology access, and financial inclusion that will provide safety nets and paths for workers to adjust to the new realities ahead.


Devin Cook is the Executive Producer of the Inclusive Innovation Competition, which is accepting registrations through June 1. Prior to this role, she led customer experience at start-ups in the Boston-area and worked as a strategy execution consultant, implementing international projects and seminars for Fortune 100 clients. Devin studied entrepreneurship among textile artisans as a Fulbright Scholar in India. She holds an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Visit MITinclusiveinnovation.com to learn more about last year’s finalists and this year’s competition.

For more information about innovative solutions that are making expanding opportunity in the changing economy, go to the Grads of Life website at GradsofLife.org.


Originally published at www.forbes.com on April 27, 2017.

Also read the latest blog by Devin Cook about the IIC featured on Forum for the Future here.

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