Automation and the rise of gig economy platforms get all the airtime when it comes to the future of work in the UK. But context matters. Technological forces can have very different impacts in emerging markets. And these workers face distinct challenges. What did we learn from our 2019 Future Work Awards?
Where in the world has the most WorkerTech?
Last week we announced the 28 winners from the inaugural Future Work Awards. A range of innovations, from digital platforms for worker voice, to new approaches to lifelong learning that help blue collar workers transition into hi-tech jobs, and FinTech tools for gig workers that smooth out income volatility.
We have profiled over 70 initiatives in an interactive map database – turning our longlist of finalists into WorkerTech directory.
You might have doubted whether we would find any significant innovations outside of Europe and North America. But our longlist has impressive regional coverage, with 9 finalists from Asia, 8 from Latin America and 6 from Africa. New York City trumps Silicon Valley, with the big apple home to more than the bay area. And London already has the makings of an ‘infrastructure for good work’ – as expected we did find a lot on our doorstep. More surprisingly, Mexico City is a real hotbed of social innovation. 3 of this year’s finalists are located in the area (as many as in Paris).
We uncovered hundreds of applicants for this year’s awards – through an extensive process of interviews and desk research, alongside an open call for nominations. Along the way we learnt a lot about the future of work in different parts of the world.
Robots or working hours?
What are the biggest challenges facing workers in South Korea – there is lots of robots right? When I posed this question to So Jung rim, Programme Director at Social Innovation Exchange and one of this year’s judges, she told me that work-life balance, not automation, was top of the list.
South Korea has a history of long working hours . But last year the Government cut the maximum to 52 a week, down from 68 (still 4 more than 48 ratified by the working time directive). Partly because a culture of workaholism has contributed to declining birthrates .
A lack of flexible working opportunities makes things difficult for returning parents. But platforms such as WeConnect have emerged to address this. WeConnect is a job marketplace which gives career disrupted women access to flexible working opportunities . While still an early stage initiative, WeConnect also works with employers to help them develop HR policies.
We did find one noteworthy response to automation in Bangladesh. Shimmy Upskill is an initiative piloted by a garment manufacturer to upskill workers at risk of automation . It uses AI to teach digital pattern making and 3D modelling to workers in their native language while building up a digital asset database that manufacturers can use to automate workflows. Workers meanwhile transition into jobs of the future.
The challenges workers face in emerging economies are very different to the UK. Most African economies are characterised by high levels of unemployment and informal work. The oft cited ‘youth bulge’ stands in stark contrast to our aging population .
When speaking with Tayo Akinyemi, Head of Growth at African Tech Roundup and another one of this year’s judges, she tells me how a lack of appropriate education – both hard and soft skills – has left many young people, including university graduates, unable to find good work.
Most of our winners from this region are focused on upskilling and job matching. WAVE has empowered thousands of young people in Nigeria through a ‘competencies over credentials’ approach that screens for job seekers with innate talent and emotional intelligence before providing training in industry relevant skills such as customer relations. It partners with employers to match them with their pool of trained and job-ready youth. WAVE has partnered with Lagos State Education Department and is looking to build a network of ‘replicators’ to scale their model across the region.
Lynk is an online platform for Kenyan artisans that provides both access to jobs and “entrepreneurship infrastructure” including training, loans, customer service, and a digital profile to enable workers to thrive in this space. Lynk demonstrates how gig economy platforms can be a force for good in emerging markets. Rather than transferring risk onto workers – they offer informal workers a degree of formalisation.
Elsewhere, in Latin America, one platform has gone further and completely flipped the gig economy on its head . Enter Hogaru, a platform for cleaners based in Colombia that directly employs its workers with full benefits. Its 800 full-time workers for the first time have access to health insurance, pension savings, and other financial services including micro loans. The Hogaru model is financially viable because providing workers with security decreases job churn while increasing client retention and satisfaction.
The next generation of good work
We hope that this directory for WorkerTech will encourage researchers, journalists, policy makers and investors to support these pioneers. We hope that people around the world will consider joining schemes that have reach in their area. Perhaps, even we hope that it will encourage the next generation of innovators to learn from best practice around the world – and kick start something similar in their own backyard.
The RSA’s Future Work Centre has released research that models four ‘futures of work’ by 2035 - and shows how our warring politicians are nowhere near up to speed on what’s going on.