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Blockchain platforms can enable good work

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  • Picture of Andy Spence
    Andy Spence
  • Future of Work
  • Economics and Finance
  • Employment

Digital work platforms are here to stay for many different categories of work. Despite some high-profile issues with platforms in the gig economy such as Uber, Andy Spence FRSA argues there are some inherent features of blockchain technology that could help us build the next generation of work platforms that are fairer and more effective.

Babies born in the UK today are expected to live past 100. It is unlikely they will go to university when they are 18 for three years, work for two or three employers then retire with a pension at 66. The way we work is rapidly changing, shaped by new technology and evolving business models, there are now more flexible employment options than ever. For example, in a survey conducted by the RSA, it was estimated that there are 1.1 million people in Britain’s gig economy.

The Taylor Review described the goal of ‘good work’ for all improving the quality of work, whilst retaining flexibility. To achieve these aims, we need to improve the way we match work with suitable and willing workers. There are problems with our recruitment of different types of workers. These include prejudice and bias, lack of visibility of available workers, low levels of trust in centralised social networks, spam and high fees to intermediaries. We now have the opportunity to build the next generation work platforms enabled by technology such as artificial intelligence, mobile and blockchain, the underlying technology behind Bitcoin.

Blockchains are essentially distributed ledgers, which enable secure peer-to-peer encrypted transactions. There is no central database, or intermediaries needed and it keeps an immutable digital record of transactions. Beyond the latest headline grabbing crypto price bubble, blockchain solutions are being built. For example, blockchain solutions are being developed to record property transactions on land registries, logging birth certificates in Illinois and tracking blood diamonds.

There are some key features of a new generation of digital work platforms that have the potential to revolutionise our economy. First, identity verification mechanisms, managed by individuals and authenticated by independent agencies, could include qualifications, work history and references. I have looked at how such an approach could impact HR and, through the Blockchain Research Institute, have examined the potential benefits of workers managing their own verified career profile on decentralised platforms. This approach is being trailed by the Open University, working with APPII, to place qualifications and accreditations onto the blockchain.  Decentralised career networks will allow people to monetise their own data and efforts and get paid straight away and enables people to have more control over their own career history.

Currently our data is owned and monetised by centralised platforms such as LinkedIn and Upwork. A second design feature – worker-owned networks and incentivisation –could be developedthrough the use of digital tokens to reward and motivate users. Tokens can be used as a utility to operate within the community where each member has equity in the network. Incentivisation could range from setting-up interviews, to agree to be approached by a hirer or simply for giving a relevant reference. Tokens could be used for democratic votes on how the platform operates and to promote community-based resolutions. These tokens will also have intrinsic value over the longer-term especially if the platform is used by large numbers of people.

Third, more secure and quicker payments to workers can be delivered using digital smart-contracts between client and worker. This can reduce cashflow problems caused by delayed payments to workers and reliance on payday loans. Etch are developing pilots in the UK construction industry, paying contractors almost immediately after they have finished work. Using a combination of technologies including blockchain, the platform allows workers to share wages earned with family, including overseas, with low remittance fees.

Fourth, blockchain can help toreduce transaction costs; it is estimated that decentralised, peer-to-peer work platforms could reduce fees from between 15-35% to below 5% for many categories of workers, as the involvement of intermediaries is diminished. Finally, a digital work audit trail, which records evidence of work done, in a tamper-proof record,will over time give more confidence to the labour market and help to prevent exploitative work practices such as unlawful deductions from wages. It will also help to ensure legislative compliance, for example with the Modern Slavery Act.

The UK is well positioned to build the next generation of global work platforms on blockchain with interested industries and technology hubs. The UK government has been positive to the benefits of blockchain, and I have given two examples from many UK based start-ups leading the way in developing blockchain solutions for the employment market. Using blockchain technology, for example, in the verification of UK degrees, will send a positive message on UK’s innovation and competitiveness and also develop useful expertise in important new skills.

It is impossible to predict exactly how industries will develop and what type of work will be needed in the future. But we have an opportunity to push a new social contract for good work using digital work platforms and this requires a big-picture approach that includes consideration of lifelong learning, education and taxation.

I am working with technologists, start-ups and early adopters to build the next generation of work platforms; let me know if you are interested in helping and if you want to learn more about blockchain, a good start would be Don Tapscott’s TED talk. If the next generation will live past 100, then we can begin to build the foundations of a better, fairer economy, one block at a time.

Andy Spence FRSA works at the intersection of technology, HR and organisational change. He can be contacted at Andy@GlassBeadConsulting.com and @AndySpence.  

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