August 10, 2021
How times change…in 1955 British Ports handled 20% of the World’s shipping trade (19,014,000 tons), with Japan way behind at 3,578,000 tons (3%). But 45 years later the figures had flipped: Japan was handling 13% of the world’s shipping (70,608,752 tons), and Britain had slumped to 3% (at 15,539,475 tons: lower, even in absolute terms, than in 1955). And the clue in the narrative, because by 2000 international ports weren’t really “handling” cargo anymore at all: they were just moving containers around. Back in 1955 all cargoes were “break bulk”, with stevedores offloading individual crates and sacks from the ship by hook and hand. And when Managers at the Port of London Authority, fresh from an American fact finding mission, suggested using forklift trucks and bulkhead cranes to speed things along, the Ship Workers Union said fine…provided existing teams of eighteen Dockers could stand and watch the trucks and cranes at work… a crippling eighteen month strike followed (one amongst many), and then the containers came…and the rest, as they say, is history.
Technology changes everything…and it’s happening again: not in the docks this time, but in our homes and offices, in societies across the globe, and faster than ever before.
With fresh impetus from the strictures of COVID lockdowns (think Zoom), emerging and AI technologies are changing the way we’ll all work in the years ahead. And just like the revolution in shipping (which helped global trade to increase explosively between 1955 and 2000), those same technologies are set to deliver significant economic benefits, at least according to the OECD’s Future of Work Report (www.oecd.org): its what they quaintly call a “megatrend”…and they couldn’t be more right.
As usual McKinsey Global Institute (www.mckinsey.com) has also thrown its hat into the ring, reporting that although many “whole occupations” are still not fully automated, partial automation will affect future work patterns too. More than 60% of current occupations have at least 30% automatable activities: meaning, inexorably, that the way we all work is set to change.
Thanks to new technologies, output and productivity will progressively increase, as a predicted 1.2 Billion workers across the World adapt to technical innovation. Digital Talent Platforms are improving the way available jobs and workers are matched, introducing greater efficiency and transparency into labour markets; opening up more flexible working platforms (Lord knows we know about that after more than a year of COVID lockdowns), and, of course, digitally enabled independent working is on the increase as well: some 30% of workers in the United States and Europe are currently working independently from home, something they couldn’t even dream of doing without digital platforms: think Uber, Etsy and Didi…and bear in mind too that no less than 35% of new jobs in the United States didn’t even exist twenty five years ago. They exist now…because of emerging technologies.
In India, Google is rolling out the innovative Internet Saathi Programme (“Friends of the Internet” to the uninitiated): enabling female rural residents to work in their local village communities and provide services ranging from telecoms products, financial services and, as “paratechnicians”, supporting a variety of leading edge government schemes (including the Affordable Housing Programme).
And if that sounds like so much tinsel and window dressing…well, you couldn’t be more wrong: just ask those women across the subcontinent’s heartland who are now being empowered by new technology: ask India’s dispossessed, now a little closer to owning their own home, and ask yourself, more than anything else, whether technology isn’t a better way forward.
Isn’t it, in short, about time we started to learn the lessons of the past?
Emerging technologies, new data platforms, AI and internet functionality, are all coming together to change our world for the better: and if you haven’t seen it already, it’s high time to sit up and take notice.