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21 January 2019 | By John Allan Insight

How business can prepare for the future

CBI President John Allan offers his thoughts on adapting to new technology and providing employees with the skills to match

Speaking at the University of West England last week, I looked beyond the current turmoil around Brexit to make some predictions about the future of Britain. Here I’d like to focus on two of them – one about technology, the other about skills.

Technology for good

Starting with technology, I believe that most predictions being made about technology today – whether optimistic or pessimistic – will turn out to be wrong.

Technology simply won’t deliver all that’s claimed of it – flying cars, hoverboards, jet-packs and so on. But where it does, it will deliver far beyond our wildest expectations.

If you draw on significant inventions from the past – from combustion to computing – each saw exaggerated claims about its potential impact, before its real application was identified. Once put to a specific, tangible use, it was then made to be of huge benefit of society in the long run.

I think that something similar is happening now. We may or may not all have driverless cars soon. We may or may not get our pizzas via drone. But the focus of the race should be to find the narrow areas of application that really will change society for the better.

Take healthcare for example. Just last year, scientists proved that skin cancer classification can now be done by AI systems at the same level as world-leading dermatologists. And there have been similar advances in prostate cancer grading meaning that, for the first time, machines can now reliably outpace top pathologists in diagnosing some diseases.  

These are the technologies that could matter. They are the ones that might take years to get right, but that I hope one day become widespread and as taken for granted as electricity and rail travel are today.

But business doesn’t just have a responsibility to create new technologies which have a clear, obvious public benefit and which hold the potential to solve society’s big problems – whether that’s climate change, access to education, or an ageing population. They must also use the technologies which have already been adopted in a way that serves the public interest.

Skills for everyone

My thoughts on skills are related to this point. If handled correctly, automation will not destroy jobs but will lift the quality of working life for almost everyone.

Just as when I began my career, the roles of ‘social media manager’ or ‘app developer’ were unheard of, there will be more highly paid, highly skilled jobs in engineering, technology or science – many of which don’t even exist yet.

But for today’s specialised blue-collar workers, machine operators and communities whose local economy depends upon a single factory or industry, the way we scale-up technology must pay heed to the issue of social mobility.

I don’t think unfairness is inevitable. It’s perfectly possible that technology could lead to a society in which people cherish ‘human’ skills such as communication, creativity, resilience, and leadership, while robots take care of undesirable factory jobs and production lines.

There is also a strong historical precedent that we will be able to get this transition right, in time.

South Wales, for example, was hit by the shift away from coal, steel and ship-building in the 20th century. But today it’s the biggest cyber security hub outside London. Firms in Newport and Caldicot are helping to develop the technologies behind 5G, robotics and driverless cars. And Cardiff is home to countless FinTech firms, thriving creative industries, and a competitive digital economy.

This transition hasn’t been straightforward. But the areas where it has been most successful are the areas that have invested in skills, and exploited the expertise of local universities.

And we can be sure that a similar transition in response to today’s new technologies will only be possible with the right education and training in place for the future.

This will require a shift in the way we think about schools, colleges, and universities. 10 years from now, technical routes to work – through T-levels and apprenticeships for example – can no longer be seen as a second-best option.

And we also need to shift the way we think about the workplace – and the idea of lifelong learning.

Many firms are already laying the foundations of this change. Last year, private sector firms in England spent almost £45bn on training in the workforce. But we need to go further.

In the coming years, it is my hope that we will no longer think of work and education as two separate stages in life. But rather a single, continuous lifelong process of learning and contributing to society in equal measure.

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