I spend a lot of time talking and thinking about the future of work and what it might mean for individuals, organisations, and society more broadly. However, the conversation can often be focused very much on the Western idea of work.

If we look at developing countries, there are often very different levels of technological development, as well as more informal employment arrangements – these often result in different approaches to new models of work. Following our first African gathering earlier this year in Cape Town, I thought it might be interesting to share a few things we heard from business leaders about the future of work in South Africa.

The group in Cape Town spoke a lot about the fear technological change is creating in an already unstable job market. They reflected on attitudes in townships today (in comparison to ten years ago) as being far less positive about three-person-jobs being managed by one person. We have to adequately prepare for a world where automation makes good sense for people – so they don’t feel the need to fight it.

Virgin Unite, The B Team, 100% Human

Virgin Unite, The B Team, 100% Human

It is assumed technology will increase creativity and efficiency, but we need to think – does that ignore the fact that every time we raise the sophistication of technology, the number of people who can usefully contribute is fewer? We wipe out whole ranges of skills. Everyone who works in McDonalds, all 1.8 million of them, are not going to become coders – so what does that mean? We need to rethink ways that people can find meaning beyond a job, and ways for people to sustain themselves beyond a salary. Otherwise technology will potentially create a larger income and skills gap.

The solution isn’t less technology for those that have it, but bringing technology to those that don’t have it.

However, solving the technology gap actually requires more technology. Only around 40 per cent of the South African population has access to a smart phone, many can’t afford data and lots of people can’t access the internet. Governments need to understand what the base level of technology is and what needs to be available to offer workers opportunities to bridge the gap. The solution isn’t less technology for those that have it, but bringing technology to those that don’t have it.

It also became clear that business leaders in South Africa still perceive the inherent value of the human contribution. They don’t necessarily see ‘technology’ as creating the new markets, and acknowledge that humans develop the opportunities through creativity, innovation and empathetic thought.

At a recent conference about heartfelt-hyper-connectivity, Cyborg Anthropologist, Amber Case, said that what we need to do is, “Use the least amount of technology possible to solve a problem and the fundamental principle is that technology and machines need to enable humans to be more human.” There are now more people employed in the creative industries in South Africa than there are in mining, which inspires optimism about the future of work and highlights how new jobs are developing as old ones decrease. Google & Livity Africa didn’t exist 18 years ago and are both emblematic of the sector they work in.

Virgin Unite, The B Team, 100% Human

Virgin Unite, The B Team, 100% Human

We need to hasten the closure of the gap between what the major educational institutions are providing and what the new world of work requires. South Africa is seeing an increase in (and a market opportunity for) the provision of just-in-time learning and nano courses.

We must be conscious that there are human elements in work that can’t be mechanised – such as empathy and creativity – these need to be encouraged in education so that they also become instinctive in the workplace. Perhaps we also need to be thinking about systems level change to establish principles around how we move forward with technology and how we manage the changes. Do I hear the sound of a robot tax coming?

Whatever is to come, we need to ensure that changes in the world of work do not increase inequality, insecurity and the vulnerability of workers in developing economies. I was heartened to see such a strong appetite for ideas on what we can practically do to start shaping a better future that benefits everybody. 

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