This blog is from Rose Marley of Sharp Futures – it looks at the skills we need in future, incentivising social impact, and devising new ways of supporting people into the workplace.

We are living through a time of seismic shift. In a decade punctuated by global economic crash and crisis, political tension and uncertainty, President Trump, austerity, Brexit, conflict and human loss, there is an almost tangible sense of instability and transience; a world in motion; of unstoppable transformation at pace and scale.

Naturally, this circumstance brings with it fear and uncertainty, permitting and giving rise to the whole spectrum of negativity, panic and despair, but what also lives here is hope. History tells us that every noted period of enlightenment has been immediately preceded by an intense period of crisis; a turning point. And so, for me, we are currently living through a turning point. We are on the brink of a new era; the fourth industrial revolution.

 As a graduate of Leeds University and a business leader from Manchester, I am proud to be a product of the strong and formidable Northern cities formed in the first industrial revolution. As CEO of social enterprise SharpFutures based at The Sharp Project in Manchester, home to over sixty of Greater Manchester’s digital entrepreneurs and production companies, and The Space Project, a purpose built facility for large-scale TV and film production, I am surrounded by innovators and early adopters of new creative and digital tech in everything from e-health to digital forensics and AI-led security to immersive tech. I am lucky enough to see and experience this remarkable innovation up-close and first-hand; and I see some incredible stuff. This is the Northern Powerhouse meets the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Yet even with the things we know about and can experience already – AI and machine learning, robotics, immersive technology and the internet of things, there is so much more which is currently inconceivable to us. It is estimated that 65% of our primary school children will have careers in roles we are simply unable to comprehend. Futurology teams at the likes of Cisco have proposed that potential future careers might include nano-medic (creating miniature implants for monitoring health conditions), avatar manager, haptic programmer (specialising in touch and memory augmentation), body part maker and – controversially – child designer. The possibilities of the new era come with a whole new gamut of ethical questions.

The power of the unknown, the magnitude of potential, the breadth of opportunities and challenges, and the pace at which we are moving toward the new era can feel overwhelming, but as any good historian will tell you, the future answers may well be found in our past.

Over the next twenty years, we will face challenges of which we were previously ignorant, but the good news about the pace of change is that what we think are insurmountable problems, might in fact disappear just as quickly as they arrive. In 1894, for example, there was hysteria around London’s manure problem, due to the amount of carriages on the street. It was declared a crisis in The Times and the world’s first international urban planning conference in New York debated the matter, but to no avail; London was going to drown in manure. Of course, it turned out that no one had imagined what Henry Ford had imagined, and within fifteen years motor cars were the main mode of transport, averting the great manure crisis of old London town.

As we face our current and future circumstance, we need to look to our industrial past to help form policy for our new industrial future. In 18th century Britain, profit-motive doubtless drove the industrial revolution, but it was government policy and creating the right economic conditions which allowed it to thrive. Industrial enlightenment grew through the coffee-shop networks of Britain, unhindered by religion or state, unlike the rest of Europe which suffered from severe censorship of ideas.

Business will be the driver of the fourth revolution, but the determining factor in the new era will be social impact 

Similarly, I believe that business will be the driver of the fourth revolution, but that the determining factor in the new era will be its social impact; its unique potential to mitigate and solve the social – and human – challenges we face. Our equivalent enlightenment will be the creation and implementation of policies which allow and encourage businesses to build social impact into their very core, galvanising and harnessing the power of business as a force for good.

This will require more than mere tokenism, and cannot rely on ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) which, in practice, often does more for the glossy public relations brochure than it achieves in terms of actual impact being made. Instead, this requires a complete reconfiguration of how business and social impact inter-relate, and the application of new thinking and new models in the role for policy-making within that dynamic.

There is currently zero incentive in the UK for business-minded entrepreneurs to set up social enterprises. Believe me, I run one. So my first proposition is a simple one; that the state must incentivise business to create social impact. Rewarding businesses that make social impact through, for example, tax incentives, represents an easy win in the new revolution. Business is at the forefront of the tech agenda and all that that brings. Isn’t it in our best interests to make it beneficial for the businesses developing those cutting-edge technologies to put them to good use?

Whilst this must of course be underpinned by a more mature and informed approach to measuring, evaluating and demonstrating social impact, the aim – and arguably the direction of travel – is to reach a point where social impact is so ingrained in business models that it serves as its own reward. Unilever, for example, has sustainability programmes worldwide and through its global challenge programme Why? Because this is social impact that makes business sense and improves the bottom line.

Social impact through core delivery is a very different proposition to the predominant models of charitable giving. When I was a child, every year we would collect tinned goods for ‘Harvest Festival’ and take them to school for distribution to the poor and needy older people in our local area. This felt good, and was a chance as a child – and for other children and our parents – to reflect on society and relationships and our contribution to our community. That was until one day, an elderly relative of mine with plenty of disposable cash received one of these hampers from the parish. This made me think at the time – and continues to, to this day – about the efficacy of charitable giving. In doing ‘good’, are we sure that we are doing the good we think it is?

Whether we consider my annual tinned goods offering, or the social impact I am creating now through my businesses, there is a clear question about the role of the state. Isn’t it the state’s responsibility to make sure the older people in the parish had food? And, in that case, wasn’t charity being used as the ‘fixer’ – a stand-in for the state’s responsibilities?

Maybe so. But in the new era, it is not – in fact – about the tins. The actual impact is in the giving; in the human interaction when the hampers are handed over, in the social experience, which might come with a nice cup of tea. A shrewd business might look for the commercial opportunity in this, perhaps creating an annual ‘Happy Hamper’ day where families visit elderly neighbours, bearing gifts; but the real lesson– true then, and true now – is in the value of humanity.

Complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity will be the top 3 skills required by business in 2020 

Complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity will be the top three skills required by business in 2020, according to a recent list from the World Economic Forum. All three are innately human skills. There are significant implications here for our current education and skills system which, driven by a ‘working mentality’ which goes back to the second industrial revolution of the 1870s, is still very much focussed on the development of skills for the labour market, and based on an education system which continues to value conformity – sitting in rows, ‘good’ behaviour and moving around to the bell.

This approach is simply not fit for purpose in the working world we are moving toward. We need critical skills on the curriculum, art, music and science – all of which are woefully absent or at best underfunded in our schools. Without this, and despite of all the incredible advances in EdTech, remote and immersive learning, we will continue to face the same supply problem with education as our immediate ancestors – the continued need to develop independent minds within in a system designed as mass childcare.

From the demand perspective, the key driver for change in the near term is overwhelmingly the mobile workforce or ‘gig economy’, and it will be this dynamic labour market and the human skills it requires which will power the fourth industrial revolution. The creative industries, where I am based, has always operated in the sphere of the freelance and the short-term contract work. It is, as my family have often reminded me over the years ‘not a proper job’, but nevertheless the move away from the job for life is happening and is real. It is a market based less on static tenets of supply and demand, and more on networks, bartering and the ‘sharing economy’.

I saw this in practice in my first music production business Silk Studios, at the height of the Madchester music movement, then the dotcom boom and have seen it since through my work at The Sharp Project, where knowledge sharing, resource sharing, trading and negotiation are key facets to the culture of these creative business communities. As with the industrial revolutions which have preceded it, the policy challenge in embracing this new wave of workforce is how to legislate to protect the jobbing freelancer, the mobile knowledge worker, the nano-medic and the avatar manager. What is the new equivalent of the unions to protect the new way of working?

For millennials, the human interactions at the heart of the workplace can be an unpractised concept by the time they leave education 

For millennials, relationships developed via social media and the lack of relationships developed peer-to-peer in for example, youth clubs, means the human interactions at the heart of the workplace, and the need to ‘work as a team’ can be a fairly unpractised concept by the time they leave education. At SharpFutures, we have developed a very exciting proposition that is working well and achieving good results – POD, a transitionary tool into the sector which creates ‘People on Demand’ for employers who need short bursts of capacity and an opportunity to gain much sought after paid work experience into the sector for new entrants.

POD acts as an introduction to a social system, within the support mechanisms of employer rights, but its principles are just as applicable to wider society. For all of its limitations, our childhood ‘Harvest Festivals’ were a well-intentioned community response to a visible social need. What elderly people will need more and more in the future is help to navigate the perceived complexities of the technological world. Just like ‘the cloud’ needs ‘safe hands’ – someone to reboot the router or re-set the controls, often in the real world tech problems can be solved by the classic acid test – ‘Did you switch it off and on again?’. Which will be a common problem for older generations using more and more new tech. Not to mention how lonely tech and remote support could make older people feel. A strategic answer here could be Digital Buddies – young people paired with elderly neighbours, some of whom might for instance be facing dementia or other illnesses or complications – to be that pair of ‘safe hands’. This could be in the form of paid work experience, or incentivised in some way, but represents how rethinking the relationship between skills, technology and society can achieve multiple bottom line social impacts. New thinking on the ‘tinned goods’ that are required.

There is an emerging school of thought that the periods of tension and conflict immediately preceding periods of enlightenment represent our navigation of new territories as humans; as we struggle to understand our relationship with new advancements and to find a balance in our interactions with new developments and technologies. The critical role for the state and for policy-makers in supporting our journey to the fourth industrial, and tech-led revolution, is not necessarily to support the advancement of tech, but to support our businesses, skills and understanding of social impact to embrace the capability of tech but to ensure we remain more human in its application.

>> Find out more about Sharp Futures’ work

By Rose Marley, and edited by Clare Devaney