by Perry C Douglas
for Inclusive Economies… The Application of Technology as an Agent of Social Change
Recently, the Prime Minister of Barbados, Hon. Mia Mottley, in an attempt to promote the Barbados economy amid a global pandemic, invited people from all over the world to ‘come and work remotely in Barbados.’
Her efforts were a hail mary attempt to try and save her economy, by leveraging the ‘work-from-home’ trend, which has been exponentially accelerated by the pandemic. Her efforts so far have not been successful. This was primarily a reactionary move or panic, naïve in nature, and without foresight.
Covid-19 did not suddenly change the future-of-work, instead, it exponentially sped up the application of technology relative to work. Digital technology was able to be applied to new circumstances. Workers with the necessary level of education and skill, for example, adapted quickly, however, those more ‘manual’ workers have had a harder time at it.
Those of us who can leverage digitization, work from home and adjust accordingly will make it through these transitional times, those who cannot will experience challenging financial and anxious times ahead.
The economic divide will continue to grow and so will inequality — within societies, among countries, and regions.
There is no going back…the fierce change to the future is the now!
Covid has accelerated change and advanced technology, particularly Artificial Intelligence (AI) is rapidly changing the future-of-work. Accordingly, a clear technology-based opportunity path forward has developed, which can assist the region in leapfrogging into prosperity, on a global scale.
However, that path must be paved in a sound foundational mindset and with courage, coupled with creativity and preparation to adapt to a future world. Reactionary moves similar to the one the Barbados PM did will not cut it in the new economy, a proactive disposition is required instead.
Preparation leaves societies with flexibility, ready to take on all challenges. The retooling, upskilling or reskilling in a technology-based ecosystem is central to the proper laying of the success path. Therefore, those individuals and economies that can increase their relevance and add real economic value to the global economy, will thrive! Those who cannot, won’t.
The late Apple Founder, Steve Jobs once said: “Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” In short, Caribbean leadership (business, government, institutions, people) must develop robust policy and invest in technology-infrastructure, education, and skills training. Again, as Job’s said: “give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things.”
As the new economy builds up steam and the reality that one can work effectively from anywhere, the more the new normal crystallizes. The ability for employers not to be limited to their borders is increasingly becoming more attractive for the enterprise. Therefore, workers in Canada for example, no longer have the ‘protection’ of living ‘in Canada’ as being a competitive advantage to their prosperity trajectory. The remote option has increased the global competition matrix for workers, and businesses, putting meaningful pricing dynamics and pressures on workers incomes. We’ve already seen Facebook, for example, decreasing salaries of staff who’ve decided to move away from high-priced Silicon Valley and work remotely anywhere in the country. One of the biggest challenges that developed economies are now facing, in the transition to the new economy, is finding talent. A study released in January 2020 by Manpower Group found that 54 percent of companies worldwide reported a significant skills shortage developing. Therefore, significant risk exists for those individuals and economies that do not recognize the urgency of the now. At the same time, a significant opportunity exists for the future of Caribbean prosperity if the region can recognize, develop the other side of risk, which is opportunity.
Historian, Yuval Noah Harari, offers insight and predicts that just as mass industrialization created the working class, the AI revolution will create a new “unworking” class. Harari’s work poses a simple but bracing question:
“What should we do with all the superfluous people, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better than humans?”
Nevertheless, regardless of Harari’s thoughts, there is still opportunity, depending on your ability to adapt to the new environment. AI from an operational standpoint dramatically increases efficiencies and improves our lives greatly, however, it is still humans and societies working optimally with machines that continue to create true value. And it will be those societies that can do that exponentially that will rise and thrive in the digital age.
Once again, we turn to Yuval Noah Harari for insight in a historical context, as he defines the future of value through the evolving technology landscape:
“In the 21st century we might witness the creation of a massive new unworking class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society. This “useless class” will not merely be unemployed — it will be unemployable.”
In other words, an individual’s value or an economy’s productivity value will be dependent on its ability to create value holistically, or where the machine cannot. The question then becomes: how will societies participate to their benefit in the new economy? The Caribbean region’s long-term economic sustainability might depend on answering that question.
Nevertheless, there does exist a clear path for the Caribbean to build supply where demand exists, while at the same time positioning itself to leapfrog onto the new global economy. The Caribbean region has an opportunity to employ long-term thinking and strategies to the situation and begin to investment towards building a highly-skilled, productive and resilient workforce. A workforce that can compete confidently on a global basis.
Economics is not a morality play, the enterprise merely seeks scarce resources that can be leveraged in a cost-effective manner to create extraordinary value for the enterprise. Notwithstanding, of course, it would help tremendously if one can also set their own winning conditions and environment to attract enterprise. Being well prepared in the new economy will leave one well-positioned for the future-of-work. Caribbean workers with the necessary skills can become productive assets to corporate teams anywhere in the world.
A country like Canada, for example, has lots of natural resources which allow it to continue to earn decent incomes even into the new economy. However, the Caribbean does not have such vast resources, at least those that can meaningfully sustain their economies in the future world. An economy like Trinidad for example has seen oil prices retreat from a high of $150 per barrel years ago down to around $38 per barrel today. Such a dramatic cut in revenue for any nation is problematic at best, but for small island economies it can become acutely negative. Therefore, with the developing Green-economy and climate change mitigation on a global scale, one should not be holding their collective breaths for a climb back to higher prices. In the new economy, data or information is the most important commodity, however, human resources remain a valuable resource, and can’t be fundamentally replaced. The creative and innovative individuals who can leverage their skills and training most relevant to the digital world, will prosper.
To bend the region’s prosperity curve steeply with an upwards trajectory, an educated high skilled and tech-savvy workforce must be developed, for any chance at long-term wealth creation in the region.
Preparation for Success
If you can imagine for a moment. A highly skilled software engineer who graduated from UWI. In the old economy, professionals like these had to move to North America or Europe to find the income comparable to their skill set. However, in the new economy, that same engineer can market his or her skills to the global marketplace. With the same level of education and with all things being equal, a starting salary of US$150K for example, to a Grenadian engineer ‘working-from-home’ would see that income go significantly further than one living in high priced Toronto. Such a reality would increase the local middle-class and help the nation and region leapfrog into the global middle-class. The economic impact of an expanding Caribbean middle-class population earning on par $US cannot be overstated. This dynamic will be a game-changer!
“Globalization is here to stay, and your strategy for dealing with it will determine your prosperity. High demand for skilled workers to expand the rapidly advancing global economy will drive up pay-cheques everywhere, however, the Caribbean citizens’ ability to participate will also depend on serious vision, planning and leadership. The Caribbean has a unique opportunity to accentuate its competitive supply advantage characteristic of human capital, but long-term sustainable prosperity will only come through strategic thinking and positioning, and real aggressive actions.”
Whatever the desired outcome, success will not come without proper education and training, the building of deep platform ecosystems, and infrastructure investment, and cultural mindset shifts. Investment in education at all levels, with a focus on science, math to enable technology/digital-led economic expansion. A move to making Wi-Fi accessible ‘island-wide,’ particularly to youths in rural locations—a rapid move to virtual learning must be given immediate priority to close the knowledge gap or level the playing field. Caribbean students must have access to the same information as a kid sitting in Toronto or San Francisco, to create a future of a highly employable workforce to compete on the global stage.
Building a technology infrastructure ecosystem to facilitate everything from electronic payments to Virtual Health/Medicine, is a must! Diversification of the economy away from a tourism dominated one is key. Digital technology like AI can be intelligently applied to green energy production, manufacturing, agriculture—the entire process can be controlled…from farming-processing to manufacturing and digital sales and marketing. The benefit of technology is that it allows the Caribbean to move from a low revenue commodity exporter to one that can control the entire supply curve, particularly the last leg…trade and commerce.
The successful application of AI technologies here, whether necessary to deploy strategic workforce planning, skill development, or product development to accelerate the enterprise’s digital advantage, will be paramount. AI platforms will become indispensable tools in achieving exponential growth through global digital commerce.
Some “expert” thinkers have warned that once artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, it may exterminate humankind before we realize it. They see AI running the planet, and transforming the entire known universe into a giant supercomputer. I do not subscribe to such unfounded fears; instead, I believe AI will make our lives considerably better! However, mindset and decision making towards how AI is approached, adapt to and applied, in the context of the future-of-work, will ultimately determine an individual or society’s rise or demise by hands of artificial intelligence.
In a Historical Context
Remember, the Caribbean wealth gap is over 400 years in the making…from the plantation slave economies to colonialism, through the extraction of natural resources by Europeans to Europe…to be manufactured into goods for trade and commerce. Which drove new industries and created wealthy European economies and families in the process.
Again, least not we forget that the European Renaissance…the British Empire and general European expansion was essentially financed off of slavery. The extraction of free labour and natural resources allowed for massive profit margins in trade and commerce. Allowing European states to spend lavishly on castles, estates, luxuries, science and engineering, and the commissioning of great works of art. Therefore, accordingly, if we can control our economics… from resource extraction, processing, manufacturing, to sales/marketing…digital commerce… leading to a sustainable product and services export economy…
…then, why can’t we create a Caribbean Renaissance of our own?
Wealth creation is driven by mindset, which is a choice, and so too is the chosen growth trajectory a nation decides upon; none of which is an inevitability nor predetermined. Therefore, decisions matter, and the critical decision facing the Caribbean today, is one of acceptance and adaptation to the prevailing new economic reality. A reality whereby the more resilient economies of the world are the ones that have become strategic and increasingly diverse and digital.
Historically, the future wealth of any nation is directly correlated to its productivity gains, derived through technology investments that drive efficiency and innovation. The Caribbean region now stands at a critical juncture in time, a crossroads, whether to be transformative and to weaponize itself to leapfrog into prosperity for its people; or not? Whether to drive responsible policy and position itself to where it can bend its collective productivity curve; or not? To strive for the quantum — more efficient and inclusive outward-looking economies where all of its citizens can participate and benefit in the collective wealth, it can create.