We’ve had about 50 years of computing in business and about 20 years of the digital revolution. How are we faring on the question of digital fuelled growth and productivity? Many economists are coming to the surprising conclusion that technology may not be providing the boost we had expected.
This question really matters as politicians around the world are grappling with a voter backlash at disruption to industries and the promise of growth providing new jobs seems to be wearing thin. The population wants jobs but many fear that the new employment, relying on technology, are not going to be relevant to their individual skills or geography. New tech jobs are ending-up being concentrated in a few locations and requiring skills that are out-of-reach to those that have been displaced by global trends driven by digital channels.
Robert Gordon (author of The rise and fall of American Growth) splits productivity into three industrial revolutions: 1770-1840 (steam and transport), 1870-1920 (electricity, cars, city infrastructure, chemicals and working conditions) and 1970- (ICT). He argues that the second revolution provided about three times as much productivity growth as the other two. Worse, when he breaks-down the third revolution he argues that productivity growth has stagnated since early in this century.
The last part of the 20th century saw almost universal growth driven (arguably) by mass liberalisation of trade and the opening of new markets. Many assumed that technology was providing a virtuous boost. It seems that the rise of the web, digital technology and the smartphone have driven consumer demand but more economists like Gordon are questioning whether it has made the supply of that demand any more efficient.
So where has the productivity gone? I’ve argued before that IT has become too complex and expensive. In addition, we’ve lost some of the traditional ways of encouraging organisations to leverage their investments. Many of the online tools that we all use (such as search, collaboration and workflow) are fantastic but they don’t cost very much (and are often free) resulting in little governance to make sure that the benefits are realised.
Without a clear focus on realising productivity as the main aim of technology, many benefits are pleasing but of little benefit to the economy. For example, is there a real gain for the economy being able to check-in to your aircraft in half a dozen different ways? What about buying soap with a QR reader?
Ergonomics matter but much of what we implement is about gimmicks that are pleasing but don’t improve society.
That doesn’t mean that productivity growth for our economy isn’t coming, rather just that it may not be as easy or clear cut as we had expected. As we approach a new generation of robotics and artificial intelligence what do we learn? The problem is that the combination of genuine displacement of people without economic benefits mean there aren’t resources available to grow the job pool in other ways.
There have been thousands of words written about the threat of automation and I’ve previously given my view that Our machines won’t outsmart us. I’ve also written about Why aren’t I working a 4 hour day?.
We need to pivot our focus from whether jobs will be lost (they will, but new ones can be created) or whether machines will lead us into a terminator style future (they won’t), but rather how we change the trend on productivity.
The last 200 years have been amazing. Angus Maddison was an eminent economist who estimated the world’s long-term economic growth to be surprisingly small. According to Maddison’s work, from the Middle Ages through to the Industrial Revolution, the normal annual growth was less than 0.07%, far less than the numbers we assume today.
Without a change to the status quo, including new approaches to technology which unlock productivity growth, it could be that we are heading back to a world where growth is near zero. By the middle of the century, even population growth won’t help the world economy.
This is so important that it may be that there is a role for government regulation to ensure investment in technology results in productivity that is seen in the economy. It is in all of our interests to change the equation and find a way to turn our digital revolution into a new wave of productivity and wealth that everyone can share in.