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Jobs of the future, skills and sustainable consumption

We gave a short talk at an ITU conference at LSE last month connecting a number of dots related to jobs, skills and sustainable consumption. And panelists raised some really interesting points that we thought we’d share here.

The event was about how technology can help boost the effort to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Most of the focus was on goal 8, called “decent work and economic growth”, and how technology offers opportunities to emerging economies to leap frog.

We were definitely not the “usual suspect” in this conversation, as our entry point is a preoccupation with the throw-away economy of rich nations like the UK. We also confront head-on the problematic notion that more technology, both physical and software, is an automatic societal advance or good.

What kind of economic growth

The environmental dark side of the explosion in growth of the internet and associated markets for consumer goods is so often ignored at this kind of event. And while the focus was on jobs, we felt the need to add Sustainable Development Goal 12 on sustainable consumption to the mix. While well-meaning, SGD 12 is one of the wooliest and least specific in relation to consumption of raw materials. It dodges any real concrete targets in relation to the “material footprint” of countries.

Figure from “The Material Footprint of Nations”

We believe an agenda to generate “decent work and economic growth” must be joined up with the need to promote sustainable consumption – especially for the countries consuming the most per capita.

We started The Restart Project because we could see that our “repair muscles” – our creative problem solving muscles – were atrophying here in London. We began to ask ourselves what jobs this passive, take-make-dispose economy creates. The answer: marketing jobs, plus a couple of warehouse and delivery jobs, both of which major online retailers are working hard to automate.

So when we talk about the need to stimulate economies of repair and reuse, we are thinking about jobs. The UK is the world’s second highest producer of e-waste per capita, producing 24.9kg per year, according to the UNU – and the other top-5 countries are MUCH better at recycling than we are. But here’s the silver lining: research shows that repair and reuse create more jobs than recycling. In terms of higher-skilled jobs in sustainable tech, there are many: greening tech infrastructure, working on logistics and design for a “circular economy”.

The skills gap

It was interesting addressing a global audience, sharing our skills gap here in the UK. Over 170,000 engineering jobs go unfilled every year in this country and things are not improving. Moreover, the political climate has made it harder for employers to bring talent to the UK. We think focusing on the sustainable development agenda can and will interest more people to go into technical fields.

Quoting from recent research by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers:

There is no single best practice in teaching students or inspiring their interest. For engineering, different approaches are needed… Government, teachers, industry and STEM organisations must take into account young people’s diverse values and attitudes, when developing programmes, courses and activities, if we are to significantly increase numbers to desired levels.

We should select a broad range of modern technologies and contexts to illustrate the diverse nature of engineering. Young women, for example, tend to have greater affinity with engineering connected to design, medicine, sports, information, environment, agriculture and construction. This should be reflected in how engineering is presented to them.

We absolutely confirmed this when we offered a pilot enrichment programme at Archer Academy in north London – the Head of DT at the school was impressed with the interest from girls in our offering, which pitched at addressing social and environmental problems.

Our education system here (and the US) is focused on assessment, but the wrong kind. Only in the later stages of engineering is there any space for experimentation and project-based learning related to products, and product longevity. Design and technology, with its hands-on approaches, represented a real opportunity into STEM and other technical fields, but has now been significantly diminished.

Resilience, adaptability and creativity are qualities increasingly sought after by employers looking for technical graduates. A 2014 University of Winchester report on engineering “habits of mind” explains the benefits of these six elements: creative problem solving, improving, problem-finding, adapting, visualising and systems-thinking.

Almost all of these are used in repair activities when they take place in school or the community. While these habits are difficult to assess at scale, they are critical to success in technical fields.

Automation and outsourcing – two different scenarios

Many of the skills we just mentioned are the hardest to automate.

However with the rise of platform working, and embedded software, some repair and maintenance jobs can be outsourced across borders and markets. A great example that already exists is in IT helpcentres based in the Philippines. Clients in Europe and North America can afford to spend eight hours paying for help from workers in these centres after a failed Windows 10 update.

As we learned from fellow panelist Helani Galpaya, who researches “platform working” trends globally, these jobs are very simple and quick to relocate, and there is a real sense that there is a “race to the bottom” with these.

Proprietary augmented reality (AR) software also offers up the possibility to outsource the troubleshooting and problem solving work in physical repairs – turn them more into mechanical, low-paid grunt work. (A much less glamorous version of the astronaut taking detailed commands from technicians on Earth while space walking.)

Will jobs become like less-glamorous space walks - NASA photo of space walk

What if, instead of these models, we could shift the focus to sharing of these higher-level problem solving skills, to use AR and communications technology to share ingenuity and creativity between repair cultures and across borders? We have been inspired by fixers in Havana, Nairobi, and São Paulo. In some respect, this is already happening on Instagram, where we see small repair businesses sharing their techniques and tricks.

What if manufacturers actually used AR to share repair documentation and help owners repair their own devices or small businesses become more effective. Ahem, iFixit are you working on AR?

As with many global trends, we imagine both will continue to emerge and overlap – but surely the sharing of problem-solving skills and repair documentation are the key to taking better care of our material world, not a race to the bottom where the few learn how to centralise knowledge and reap the rewards.

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