About three years ago, MIT launched the Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE), a major effort focused on the broad changes brought about by the relentless advances of digital technologies. As its website explains:
“While digital technologies are rapidly transforming both business practices and societies and are integral to the innovation-driven economies of the future, they are also the core driver of the great economic paradox of our time. On one hand, productivity, wealth, and profits are each at record highs; on the other hand, the median worker in America is poorer than in 1997, and fewer people have jobs. Rapid advances in technology are creating unprecedented benefits and efficiencies, but there is no economic law that says everyone, or even a majority of people, will share in these gains.
The future of work and jobs is one of the major areas being addressed by IDE. What will the workforce of the future look like?; Where will jobs come from in the coming years?; Will the nature of work be significantly different in the digital economy?; How can we accelerate the transformation of institutions, organizations, and human skills to keep up with the quickening pace of digital innovation?
To help come up with breakthrough answers to these very challenging questions, IDE just launched its first annual Inclusive Innovation Competition. The competition aims to identify, celebrate and award prizes to “organizations that are inventing a more sustainable, productive, and inclusive future for all by focusing on improving economic opportunity for middle- and base-level income earners.”
The competition is open to for-profit and non-profit organizations of any size, age or type, in any nation around the world. It seeks creative solutions in four major categories:
- Skills: Prepare members of the workforce for opportunities of the future, including the necessary education to help them acquire new kills as well as improve their existing ones.
- Matching: Help qualified unemployed or underemployed individuals gain access to meaningful, productive and engaging work by improving the matching of labor supply with demand.
- Humans + Machines: Use technology to augment human labor so that the outcome is greater than either human or machine could achieve alone, and develop innovative offerings that improve the human capacity for effective physical or cognitive work.
- New Models: Come up with innovative jobs, business models and operational practices that will revolutionize the labor markets, help create new economic opportunities, and enable workers to succeed in meaningful ways.
A total of $1 million will be awarded. In each of the four categories, the grand prize winner will receive $125,000, and four runner-ups will each receive $25,000. In addition, a handful of additional awards will be given to organizations deemed by the judges to be uniquely inventive.
Let me briefly discuss why I think that the Inclusive Innovation Competition is so important.
Few topics are as critical, - and as challenging to anticipate, - than the future of jobs in the digital economy. Along with its many benefits, the digital revolution has resulted in enormous dislocations in labor markets and a sharp polarization in job opportunities over the past several decades.
Jobs requiring expert problem-solving and complex communications skills have significantly expanded, with the earnings of the college-educated workers needed to fill such jobs rising steadily. But opportunities have significantly declined for middle-skill jobs dealing with the kinds of routine physical or cognitive tasks that can be well described by a set of rules and have thus been prime candidates for technology substitution. Low-skill jobs involving physical tasks have been growing, but their wages have been stagnant or declining. Moreover, as intelligent machines become more capable and less expensive, they will increasingly compete with and replace unskilled human labor all around the world.
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