‘Next Economy’ takes people, not just consumers, into account

Back in 2013, a pair of researchers at Oxford University crunched data about several hundred occupations to determine which were at greatest risk from technological change. Their conclusion? Nearly half — 47 percent, to be exact — of all jobs in the U.S. were in danger of seeing human workers replaced by computers.

As worrisome those conclusions appear, that future isn’t set in stone, according to Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media. Instead, O’Reilly envisions the emergence of “The Next Economy,” which he describes as “an economy in which we use technology not just to replace workers, but instead to augment them so that they can do things that were previously impossible.”

As O’Reilly rightly points out, “An economy has untold possible outcomes.” Unlike true physical sciences like chemistry or physics, economics doesn’t have immutable, unbreakable, true-everywhere-and-everytime rules. Policies, business practices, government actions and much more can all affect economic outcomes, he notes.

Which means that the bleak future envisioned by Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne doesn’t have to be. What people and organizations do — or don’t do — can determine the economic future for billions.

“Right now, we’re at an inflection point, where many rules are being profoundly rewritten,” O’Reilly writes. “Much as happened during the industrial revolution, new technology is obsoleting whole classes of employment while making untold new wonders possible. It is making some people very rich, and others much poorer.”

The challenge, he says, is getting more players in the economy to recognize that people are not expendable widgets whose costly labor should be displaced by automation and algorithms. Business, he says, needs to recognize that people — not just “consumers” — matter.

Some businesses already do this, and are hoping to see other organizations join the trend. A good number of their leaders are planning to discuss these challenges at length during a Next:Economy summit in San Francisco this October. Among the questions they’ll be considering are, “Are we measuring the right things?” “How do we manage bias in algorithms?” “What surprising new jobs emerge as the definition of work evolves?” and “Which ones are going to scale?”

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