At the age of 13, I co-authored a textbook on computers in school together with my brother, Peter. Computer terminology was slightly different then. While children now learn about ‘IT’ and ’coding’, back then, they learned about ‘electronic data processing’ and ‘programming’.
What has not changed, however, is the concern for the changes brought about by technology.
When Peter and I gave a presentation about our book at Christiansborg, the Danish Parliament Building, in the early 1980s, we were met by demonstrators who feared for their jobs. I vividly remember the awkward moment when our dad, who accompanied us, lectured the demonstrators in Parliament Square that computers were part of the future, and that protesting them was foolish.
During the past 30 years, the changes that Peter and I witnessed have undeniably accelerated. So far, Danish society has proved relatively resilient in the face of both the technological revolution and the globalisation that has always accompanied technology.
Other countries have been hit harder and deeper – most recently the United Kingdom, through Brexit, and the United States, with the election of Donald Trump – and have failed to convince millions of people that they have a place in the world that is emerging. In response, their citizens have chosen to voice their protest in ways that will have almost unpredictable consequences for Europe, the United States and the world at large.
The general explanation of what made these two disasters possible is complex, but I would like to highlight one particular factor: the lack of real and effective inclusion in the transition processes that are currently increasing in speed and scope in our societies.
There failures of leadership
In my view, this comes down to a massive failure of leadership, in both the UK and the US, which is also present, to some extent, in Denmark, although we still have time to learn and adjust. This failure of leadership has occurred simultaneously in three sectors:
First, both UK and US business leaders have failed to involve their employees in a sufficiently systematic, innovative and equal way in the development of the new products, services and business models that are going to provide their future livelihood.
Consider the impact on employment in Detroit of decades of lack of innovation in the American car industry or the impact of the focus on short-term earnings in the energy sector for the people who thought they were going to make a living extracting shale oil. In Denmark, industry and the finance, energy and telecommunications sectors are also grappling with the challenges that come with change.
Second, key public institutions in the UK and the US have not managed to keep up with the changes with regard to citizens’ present and future needs in a way that supports the transition in the labour market. Childcare, schools, higher education and vocational training have all failed to keep up. As a result, large groups of the population have not been equipped to maintain their footing in the labour market and have not had access to the quick and relevant retraining needed to switch to a different sector or industry.
Throughout large parts of the Midlands and the American Rust Belt, the future holds no real prospects for members of the lower middle class. In Denmark, we have not been able to employ thousands of out-of-work academics, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of people who find themselves more or less permanently excluded from the workforce.
Third, trade unions – to the extent where they even have a role to play in Brexit and Trump land – have not been able to fulfil the unique role they can and should play, in a dialogue with both employers and the public sector, to make sure their members are agile and flexible enough to be included rather than excluded in the global competition.
In this regard, there is no doubt that Denmark fares better. In Denmark, trade unions introduced the term ‘employee-driven innovation’ ten years ago as a new and meaningful approach to promote inclusion. However, it does not seem to be an agenda that has been fully scaled up and integrated in the workplace. Recently, though, LO, the Danish Confederation of Trade Unions, held a conference with the promising title ‘Arbejdsmarked 4.0’ (Labour Market 4.0), which indicates that the challenge is being taken seriously.
One common aspect of the failure of leadership in these three areas in the UK and the US is that none of the sectors have managed to involve their employees, citizens and members early, convincingly or sufficiently in finding the new answers that are needed to translate present developments into meaningful new opportunities. This failure has prevented people from taking shared ownership in shaping the new futures that companies, public institutions and trade unions and associations have to be bearers of.
Are we next?
I am well aware that there are profound differences in business and industry, the public sector and, especially, the role of trade unions between the UK, the US and Denmark.
In coming years, however, Denmark is going to face severe challenges from the combination of ongoing technological change and a globalisation trend that is bound to be on the wane, reducing our benefits as a small, open economy.
The technological development accelerates and initiates many new transition processes, mainly in companies but also in the public sector, which of course plays a key role in Denmark. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), 3D printing and new open-source platforms are going to present challenges to organisational and business models and cause many jobs to be transformed or to disappear entirely.
Perhaps this time, in Denmark it is not going to be industry that faces the most daunting challenges but instead large swathes of our white-collar workforce in the private and public sectors. Today, organisations such as FTF (Confederation of Professionals in Denmark), Djøf (which organises law, business economics and political and social science graduates) and the Danish Medical Association need to consider the impact of digitisation and AI for their members. If an algorithm or a robot can do the job equally well, sooner or later it will.
It seems almost obvious that jobs where human intuition, empathy and creative competences play a key role are going to be even more valued in the future. The question is, however, how we are going to discover and shape the new jobs. How do we find ways to ensure that jobs produce value and are part of new, sustainable business models?
The 1970s hold the answer
To find a possible answer, paradoxically, we need to look back to the time when Peter and I first experimented with micro-computers. In the early 1970s, when computers made their entry, Scandinavian companies and trade unions responded by developing the concept of participatory design. In all simplicity, the idea was that involving the employees in developing new technology and, especially, computer software was the only way to ensure that these employees became a meaningful and value-creating part of the new reality.
Since then, the idea of participatory design has spread and been renamed – today, we are more likely to speak of co-design or service design. The logic remains the same, however: participatory design includes employees whose jobs are being transformed in creating their new job in the new technological reality.
As I describe in my book ‘Shape the Future’, it is in the interaction between management and employees, facilitated by designers, that the new technological possibilities can be translated into attractive and commercially and socially sustainable solutions.
Despite all the knowledge we now have about how to include employees – along with partners, customers, clients, users and suppliers – in creating new solutions, surprisingly few organisations actually pursue this in a systematic way. Even in Denmark, the birthplace of participatory design.
In my view, we need pervasive and far more radical inclusion lest we follow in the footsteps of the UK and the US and lose a generation of citizens in the coming technological revolution. Now it is up to leaders from business and industry, the public sector and trade unions and associations to revive the insight from the 1970s and seize the potential. In this effort, the Disruption Council for the future labour market that the Denmark’s reconstituted government is going to establish promises to be a good start.
We need experimentation to build our future
In closing, I should address one crucial condition for achieving radical participation at every level of society: political leadership. For a particularly relevant example of that, we will go back even further in time.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an American presidential candidate during another critical era, the Great Depression in the 1930s. In the run-up to the Democrat primary in spring 1932, Roosevelt was looking to articulate his political message at a time when all of society was struggling with the dire economic situation. In a campaign speech at a university in the state of Georgia he said the following:
‘The country needs (...) bold persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails admit it frankly and try another. But above all try something.’
Few politicians would dare say something similar today. And in the 1930s too, it was, as Roosevelt’s own advisor Louis Howe so elegantly put it, ‘an appalling piece of political stupidity’ to suggest experimentation as the way to find the solutions the country needed.
American voters, however, responded surprisingly positively to Roosevelt’s proposal. He won his party’s nomination and went on to win the presidential election. And he became one of the most transformative – in a very positive sense of the word – presidents the United States has ever had.
For Denmark to handle the transition processes of the coming years and prepare for the future, the new Danish government should ask itself how we can initiate new experiments that involve the radical inclusion of both employees and citizens. We are going to need it.