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Written by Alex McKeen | Published by Vancouver Metro

February 26, 2018

Will Robots Take My Job? SFU Summit Explores the Future of Work

“There’s been a lot of reports written. There’s been a lot of research done. And there’s a lot of inaction,” SFU Public Square Executive Director Janet Webber said in an interview with Metro. “The time for action is now and we really create the future.”

People entering the workforce today will face a complete overhaul of the definition of ‘work’ over the course of their careers, leaders from the public, private, not-for-profit, and academic sectors heard Monday at Simon Fraser University.

Workplaces will change so much due to job automation and growing inequality that the university is moving to form a three-year innovation lab dedicated to the addressing these problems.

“There’s been a lot of reports written. There’s been a lot of research done. And there’s a lot of inaction,” SFU Public Square Executive Director Janet Webber said in an interview with Metro. “The time for action is now and we really create the future.”

Monday’s event was the first mini-conference in a summit called Brave New Work. About 50 summit participants invited from around the world will work together Tuesday and Wednesday to identify problems in Canada’s workplace that could be addressed by a potential three-year “Future of Canada” lab backed by Radius and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

The lab is in the “problem identification” stage for now, Webber said, but will be launched quickly if all goes well at the summit. The focus of the lab will be to prototype and pilot scalable business solutions to impending challenges within work.

The research that concerns Webber most surrounds automation. One 2017 report by McKinsey showed half of the tasks currently done globally by employed humans could be completed instead by technology that already exists. Examples include driverless cars, advertising technology like Facebook’s platform and automated delivery services. 

That’s something experts in the artificial intelligence field told conference attendees is unavoidable.

“Everything is going to be profoundly changed,” said James Maynard, Wavefront Innovation Society President. “You can’t opt out.”

For the first time in history, Maynard said, technology’s role in workplaces is moving beyond making tasks more efficient. The new frontier is employing technology in strategic ways.

It may also mean there will be an increasing emphasis on labour requiring a human touch. As futurist Nikolas Badminton put it, “We used to work with our hands, now we work with our heads, and going forward we’re going to work with our hearts.”

How that shift will manifest remains to be seen, and is raises uncertainties — especially for those already on the margins of the workforce like racialized people and women. That’s a hot button issue for members of the millennial generation, 80 per cent of whom would prefer a more inclusive workplace, said Deloitte’s Tara van Zuiden.

Iglika Ivanova from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said many of those who face significant barriers to entering the workforce, like immigrants, Indigenous people, and people with disabilities, end up in precarious situations like part-time employment and contract work, which may not include health benefits and security.

“Social protection models for workers need to change,” Ivanova said.

One possible solution explored Monday was ‘alternative business models’, like cooperatives, some of which offer benefits and supports to freelancers and contractors. Steve Rio, who founded the consultancy Briteweb, went so far as to suggest a future path where people are considered “team members” instead of being divided into “employees” and “freelancers.”

Briteweb’s team members, Rio said, work from wherever they want, and at various levels of commitment. It’s a new model for work Rio believes will be more inclusive of lifestyles.

“We’re just hoping that regulation doesn’t stomp out what we’re doing,” he said.

Events of the Brave New Work summit continue until March 7.

This article was originally published on the Vancouver Metro on Februray 26, 2018. 

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