Brave New Work: Confronting the benefits – and costs – of the tech revolution

February 23, 2018

Op-ed published in the Vancouver Sun

Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

The work we do – and the way we do it – is changing rapidly, and while these changes hold much promise, there is no guarantee that they will be all for the good. On the one hand, advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and communications have the potential to improve our quality of life. On the other, as the Brookfield Institute reports, 42 per cent of the tasks Canadians are currently paid to do can be automated using existing technology, disrupting industries and displacing workers.

Consider for example the promise, and the threat, of autonomous vehicles. A recent report from the Canadian Senate estimates the potential economic benefit of self-driving automobiles at $65 billion annually in collision avoidance, heightened productivity, fuel-cost savings and reduced congestion. But what of the million-plus Canadians who currently earn their living behind the wheel of a car or truck?

The fear is that sweeping technological change will benefit those who control the technology at the expense of those who do not, creating a richer and more powerful elite and a larger and more vulnerable underclass. This prospect calls into question our ability to anticipate and prepare for ever-accelerating change. To navigate this evolving landscape, individuals, governments, businesses, educational institutions, and civil society will have to collaborate – to reimagine work and to create the society we want.

The need for collaboration makes the future of work an ideal theme for Simon Fraser University’s sixth annual SFU Public Square Community Summit. SFU launched the Community Summit in 2012 as an expression of our commitment to be B.C.’s “public square” for enlightenment and dialogue on public issues. Embraced within our mission to be Canada’s most community-engaged research university, SFU saw both an opportunity and a responsibility to create an inclusive and vibrant space for dialogue and deliberation on essential and sometimes difficult subjects.

We have dubbed this Community Summit Brave New Work, with a nod to Aldous Huxley’s warning, in his novel Brave New World, that the road to utopia can be hazardous. We must be resolute in the face of technological change to ensure that choices concerning our collective future are not imposed upon us, but are determined by citizens through democratic means.   

For this year’s Summit, from February 26 to March 7, we have scheduled a series of enlightening events and provocative dialogues designed to encourage public discussion and generate new ideas. We have enlisted experts from across SFU to inform this process. The student group Embark will host an event on green-tech jobs. SFU Health and Counselling will weigh in on resilience. And SFU faculty will share research and innovations relating to the world of work.

The Summit’s signature event will be held on February 28 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, when SFU and Vancity present “The World of Work: Thriving or Surviving?” Featuring Van Jones and Anne-Marie Slaughter, two leading American commentators on work and the economy, the evening event will explore the role that citizens, governments and civil society can play in shaping the future of work.

While there is cause for concern about the future of work, there is also cause for optimism. Technologies produce new jobs even as they eliminate old ones, and tech industries are this province’s fastest growing sector. As James Manyika of the McKinsey Global Institute has observed, “The net impact of new technologies on employment can be strongly positive.”

This, in turn, points to a prominent role for post-secondary education. Jobs involving some combination of complex decision-making, critical thinking, creativity and interpersonal skills are least likely to be displaced by technology, while new technology-driven employment will commonly require advanced knowledge and aptitudes. In both cases, universities and other post-secondary institutions will be instrumental in equipping workers with the necessary qualities and qualifications.  

The challenges and opportunities associated with the future of work are as wide as society itself, and call upon all citizens to participate in their resolution.

Please join us, as we contemplate Brave New Work.