The WorkerTech Podcast - Episode 1

This is a transcript of episode one of a three-part podcast series by Tech for Good Live, created in partnership with Bethnal Green Ventures. If you want to listen to all three episodes and more podcasts from Tech for Good Live you can subscribe via your regular podcast provider such as iTunes and Spotify.

If you've read this transcript already, you can check out the other episodes below:
Transcript of Episode 2
Transcript of Episode 3

Episode One

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
What is WorkerTech. Is it a real thing? Or just a made up word. Are you in some kind of surreal tech-themed dream right now. Of course not. This is episode one of the WorkerTech Podcast, brought to you by Tech for Good Live and Bethnal Green Ventures. I’m Rebecca Rae-Evans.

Let’s begin with a question. Or, maybe it’s two questions. Is the very nature of work changing, and what role does technology play in that? Even if you’re new to the Tech for Good Live podcast, I bet it won’t surprise you to hear that we talk about technology - a lot. I’d like to say “almost exclusively” - but we do waffle on about comic books and board games more than we should.

This special series though - the one you’re listening to right now - is going to talk about technology. Specifically, technology that impacts workers. It’s a topic called, helpfully, WorkerTech - and yep, I had no idea what that meant too. We’ve been working alongside our friends at Bethnal Green Ventures on this subject and when they suggested we do a podcast, I was initially unsure. Would it be boring? What’s more - our team are all volunteers… is this really the subject we want to be covering in our spare time?

Thing is, it’s SUPER interesting. But before we get into the specifics of why that is, I want to introduce you to Jessica from Bethnal Green Ventures - or BGV for short - I chatted with her on the phone recently...

Jessica Stacey (Bethnal Green Ventures):

My name is Jessica Stacey and I’m a partner at Bethnal Green Ventures; BGV is an investor in early stage tech for good startups. We invest in teams of people who have a great idea for using technology to solve big social or environmental problems. We provide them with investment and intensive mentoring and support so that they can turn these ideas into successful businesses that will go on to have a positive impact on people’s lives.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):

That’s Jess, and we’re going to hear more from her in a bit. I think it makes sense to hear from Jess and BGV first, because when telling any kind of story, it’s good to start at the beginning. Let’s take our approach to doing these podcasts as an example. When we’re asked to partner on a special series, or when the Tech for Good Live team are kicking around ideas for a special we might want to do, we ask ourselves why the topic is interesting to us, and - more importantly - why would our audience want to hear about this?

With WorkerTech though, the starting point was even more basic. I had to ask… what even is it? What does WorkerTech mean, and why do Bethnal Green Ventures care about this topic?

Jessica Stacey (Bethnal Green Ventures):

I guess there isn’t a set definition but they way we talk about it at BGV is that WorkerTech is a technical innovation that has been designed and developed with the intention of improving the lives of workers. You can unpack that in a couple of ways. There is obviously the technical element which is about innovative solutions that are using technology. But then the intentional aspect I think is important; that they are focused on having a positive impact for workers. That is the motivation, I guess the social mission for their existence. Having that mission at their core will influence the way they develop.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):

Jess later goes on to add an important element to the definition of WorkerTech. Ideally, it’s not enough for WorkerTech products and services to just have a positive impact for workers. They should also be focused on low-income and low-skilled workers.

I imagine you can already see why this is interesting to me. I believe, with all my heart, that technology can be a powerful tool to help people. To make the world a better place. An opportunity to explore how tech can have a positive impact on workers is something we’re always going to jump at. Partly because we hear so many horror stories of the exact opposite. We hear about employers monitoring staff. Fear of robots taking jobs. Fear of mandatory chip implants. The dangers of the gig economy. The list goes on.

I’m hoping to see what positive work is being done, what challenges are being tackled, and to explore whether or not the very nature of work is changing due to tech, especially for low-income workers.

I asked Jessica why this topic was so important to BGV.

Jessica Stacey (Bethnal Green Ventures):
It really goes back to 2016 when we were approached by Resolution Trust who are very interested in income inequality and interventions to address that, particularly in the areas of the world of work. They wanted to see if startups or new technical innovation could have a positive impact there. So we launched a partnership with them where we’d go out and try to find entrepreneurs who had ideas for the ways they could improve work, particularly for people on low incomes. So that was the start of our WorkerTech programme area.

So then, over the past year and a half when we’ve been trying to promote WorkerTech as a really good tech for good opportunity area. We’ve supported three startups so far, Labour Exchange, WorkerBird and Organise. They’re fairly early stage but have gone on to have a positive impact on over 140,000 workers’ lives so far. And we also ran a hackathon early in the year called The Future of Fair Work Challenge. And we think there is the opportunity to do a lot more in this space, so this summer we’ve been talking to Accenture; they’re interested in the changing nature of work and the challenges that presents to people. They’ve actually provided us a bit more support to help us not only fund more entrepreneurs that are creating WorkerTech ventures but also to do a bit more communications and campaign activity to raise awareness, which is why we’re doing this series of events around the country and doing this podcast as well.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
As interesting as this topic is to me personally - and when you work in the tech industry, it’s easy to fall in love with the beauty of a design solution. To get caught up in it so much that you lose sight of the actual root problem. Here though, the problem - or problems - that WorkerTech solutions are tackling are absolutely fascinating. And horrifying.

Over three million people in the UK are now estimated to be in insecure work. That might be temporary work, low-paid self employment, or people working on zero hours contracts. Depending on your source of news, or who you talk to, or your political leanings, you’ll hear seemingly differing stories on the state of employment in the UK.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation just published their UK Poverty Report that reveals that four million workers are living in poverty – a rise of more than half a million over five years; and that in-work poverty has been rising even faster than employment, driven almost entirely by increasing poverty among working parents.

This is important context, because if we’ve agreed that WorkerTech is defined as something that has a positive impact on workers - particularly those on low incomes, we need to have some grounding in the state of employment in the UK. Then, we can talk about how tech can help, and how it could hurt.

That question of how tech can hurt - how it can have a negative impact on the lives of workers - is something that I’ve been thinking on a lot recently. If we were to set WorkerTech aside for a moment, and instead focus on the impact technology more generally is having on employment, we might hear some pretty alarming stuff.                 

It feels like a rare occurrence nowadays, that you can read the news without hearing doomsday prophecies about how technology is displacing jobs. Robots are rising up and stealing your paycheck with their terrifying mechanical fingers. Headlines might scream that automation is going to replace you. You will lose your job, your home, and ultimately the world will explode into bright light and fiery death once skynet accesses the nuclear launch codes.

Ok, so I took that a bit far - but let me give you a real example.

I live in a small, town just on the outskirts of Manchester. Our train station has finally installed those automated barriers. You know, those ones where you insert your ticket. A red light flashes and an alarming beep of failure blurts out before a member of staff fights through the crowd behind you. He’s doesn’t check your ticket, but just swipes you through, because one of the other barriers is also beeping and he has fight back through the crowds to rescue someone else.

Well, we have those barriers now in our town.

During my morning commute a woman started talking to me about how mad she was at these barriers. She says that they are taking people’s jobs. She doesn’t want to use them, but she has no choice. She’s an art teacher and she’s genuinely worried that her job will disappear too in the not too distant future.

She’s not alone in worrying about this. We spoke to Fabian Wallace-Stephens from the RSA – that’s the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. I’m going to keep calling it the RSA if that’s ok, or this will be a really long podcast.

Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Royal Society of Arts):
I’m Fabian Wallace-Stephens and I’m a researcher at RSA, the Royal Society of Arts which is a think tank and social change organisation based in London. I work in our Future Work Centre which is basically all about analysing how technology can impact jobs in the economy and what we need to do so that workers can benefit from these shifts.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
I asked Fabian about these worries that people have. Is technology coming for your job...

Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Royal Society of Arts):
An RSA populous survey showed that 32% of workers are worried about losing their job to technology more than half are worried about being obsessively monitored as a consequence of technology.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
So, this was surprising to me for two reasons. Which is a lot of surprise for such a tiny sentence. 32% - so almost a third of people - are worried about losing their job to technology. That’s a huge amount. But, that figure, about more than 50% being worried about obsessive monitoring. That gave me pause.

We’ve spoken to a bunch of people whilst working on this podcast. Another of them was Dan Tomlinson from the Resolution Trust.

Dan Tomlinson (Resolution Trust):
My name is Dan Tomlinson and I’m a researcher at the Resolution Trust, which is an organisation that does a whole mix of things, but in particular we’re interested - in partnership with Bethnal Green Ventures - in trying to find and back people with great ideas who can use technology to help improve the world of work

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):

Thats Dan. He’s great. And he backed up what Fabian was saying.

Dan Tomlinson (Resolution Trust):
In some senses also, technology, not just in the gig economy but across work, is doing more monitoring and surveillance of employees and self-employed people and that can’t feel very nice if you’re an employee - it might be good for wider world in making people more productive and makes our economy bigger and means we’re all better off. But if you’re an individual employee who is is being excessively monitored and tracked and has every last thing you do traced by an algorithm or a human boss, that can’t be a nice experience.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
It’s obviously not good to hear about how many people are worrying about how technology might impact their work. And how even seemingly small shifts can lead to big changes, or at least hint at the potential for big changes to come. Dan’s point about what might be good for the employer, and even the wider economy, will not always be what is good for the worker. Again, this is why WorkerTech is so important. Oh, that mention of the Gig Economy? Don’t worry - we’ll come back to that later.

Are these worries routed in fact though? Or is it just panic? You know, just a bunch of clickbait headlines that terrify the working people? Well, not necessarily. A recent World Economic Forum report stated that 65% of children starting school today will hold jobs that don’t exist yet. That’s a startling figure. Well, it is at first glance.

It leads me to question what that really means though. Is this another industrial revolution, where there was a fundamental shift in the roles of workers, from one industry to another. Last week you were a farmer, but now you’re a mill worker? Is it a revolution, or rather an evolution of jobs. I sat down with Linda Wickstrom from Accenture to chat about this.

Linda Wickstrom (Accenture):
My name is Linda Wickstrom and I am the local giving program lead for Accenture corporate citizenship in the UK. Accenture is a global multinational consultancy with an emphasis on digital and technology and supporting clients in those areas.  We work with 75% of all Fortune 500, so a massive company.

So we’ve done a lot of research into the different types of jobs available, looking at the individual tasks that these jobs perform on a daily basis and we’ve really broken that down and looked at how some of those tasks will we easily automated by technology but for the most part these jobs will be more augmented - which means that it will be easier for these people to do their jobs. That means that there will be room for creating new jobs and being able to undertake new jobs. It’s quite a well quoted quote from the World Economic Forum that says 65% of all the kids that are in schools today will be in jobs that don’t exist today. We’ve done our own research into this areas and we predict that across all industries there will be a 10% increase in jobs if you take a net on net view; there will be a decrease in some jobs and an increase in others.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
This is interesting because it’s seemingly at odds with a lot of the alarmist headlines we might hear, and with what staff are saying. Accenture is predicting that technology such as AI will lead to a 38% increase in profits for companies. With increased profits usually leading to more jobs and job security.

So rather than AI and technology more generally replacing jobs, Accenture are saying technology will augment those jobs. This is still change then, even if not quite the change that people were worrying about. How do we manage this? Is this a question of upskilling workers?

Linda Wickstrom (Accenture):
So with any change there comes challenges and there are those that will adapt more easily and those that will struggle more and it’s up to us as business leaders, together with educators and the government to come together to make sure that technology provides an inclusive future for everybody.

And what we’re seeing is that those people who are more mid-career and in more routine jobs and have more tasks as part of their day to day jobs that are going to be more easily automated. It’s our responsibility together - not just the worker, but as employers and educators etc to help those people get the skills that they need. By our estimation they are 7 times more likely to be working on tasks that are more automatable.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
And again, we come back to “worry”. Linda is talking about the responsibility to make sure that we’re prepared for changes that will affect some workers much more than others. How do we do this? I asked Linda whether this is a case of us making sure that we’re investing in – that companies are investing in – upskilling their workers.

Linda Wickstrom (Accenture):
I think you’re right. From our own research we interviewed a bunch of business executives and only 7% said they would increase spending on learning and development and often that learning and development tends to be for quite immediate needs - for jobs that are happening right there and then, rather than thinking ahead “what is my role going to look like in the next five years”. We need to try to do something about that. We think there is a big imperative in there. 65% of the business we interviewed said that less than 25% of all of their staff are actually ready for the technological change that is coming. If you think about that, it seems like a simple solution, to actually start preparing them, because otherwise they will see a huge skills gap, they’ll struggle to recruit and they’ll struggle to manage day-to-day operations if they’re not helping their staff to move on. Things like morale amongst staff could be low. We see a lot of anxiety amongst workers about this and as employers we need to try to help ease that anxiety.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
It’s at this stage that I need to say that a few things are worrying me. We’re hearing that tech *isn’t* leading to a cataclysmic amount of job losses and that we’re going to see a net on net increase. As Linda said - there will be losses in some areas, and gains in others. Right now? I’m worried about where those losses might be. Remember that - because that’s something we’re absolutely going to come back to.

If we’re talking about jobs being augmented and evolving, and upskilling being needed - a sense of lifelong learning becoming the norm, only having 7% of executives saying they’ll increase spending in this area is terrifying. And, even more so, who is that 7% going to be aimed at. Is this all leading to even more inequality?

Remember Fabian from the RSA? He has stuff to say on this…

Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Royal Society of Arts):
There is this common narrative that we’re going to have automation and it won’t be that bad because most jobs are just going to change rather than being replaced - except for those ones that are really mundane - the ones in the call centres for example. That the bulk of those jobs are unnecessary because you could get an AI to do that. But most of the jobs that involve a human element will be augmented by technology in some way.

This idea that all we need is lifelong learning, well there is a few challenges with that. Firstly, it’s really hard to do lifelong learning. Some interesting data from the OECD shows that people in those jobs that are at high risk of automation are three times less likely to engage in on the job training. So essentially re-skilling or upskilling broadly remains the privilege of the professionals still. This all comes down to the idea that is really well evidenced in the psychology of education is that the best predictor of participation in later education is early education. People who are working in low-skilled jobs are much less likely to engage with the current paradigm of education.

On the flip side when people talk about upskilling and reskilling, people often say the answer is that we just need to teach people to code; that we just need to have more tech bootcamps. We can move these people from retail, or warehousing and say, actually let’s just teach you to code and you can easily move into these really well paid jobs and it’ll all be dandy. But there is always going to be low skilled jobs in the economy, so a better way might be to professionalise these roles. To empower people to develop within them.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):

This is where we’re starting to see why workers are so worried. It’s where we begin to understand the people behind the figures. Will it be a case of those workers in low and middle skilled jobs - and those on lower incomes - who bear the brunt of the negative effects of technology? Fabian’s statement that “upskilling and reskilling broadly remans the privilege of the professionals” has stuck with me.

Linda from Accenture weighed in too…

Linda Wickstrom (Accenture):
Those in more routine based work are absolutely more likely to be automated out and those are obviously people who will also likely have lower levels of education and what we’ve seen is that they’re actually facing a real double disadvantage. They’re already on a lower wage and often already facing higher levels of job insecurity and have high levels of demands on their lives. So with automation coming in as well, you have this other disadvantage. That’s where we really need to help them. Our research showed that people in those more routine jobs actually, only about 17% of them reported back that they’ve done some on the job training in the last year. They are the ones in the population who need it most.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
I said at the very beginning of this podcast that, your understanding of the impact of technology on workers will vary depending on who you speak to. This isn’t always down to clickbait headlines. It’s actually due to the fact that this stuff is really complicated.

At a high level, no, automation isn’t going to lead to mass job losses. The economy won’t tumble into freefall. There will be up to a 10% increase in jobs. Companies seeing a 38% increase in profits. All good news. Right?

But dig a little deeper and you can begin to see the real world effects of this change. Linda captured it perfectly by describing the “double disadvantage” that low-paid and low-skilled workers may face. Those already struggling may encounter a radical change in employment, with little opportunity for further training.

Fabian talks about a potential solution.

Fabian Wallace-Stephens (Royal Society of Arts):
We have this idea that it is everyone’s responsibility. It is employers’ to improve the design of jobs to get the most out of their workers. The UK has a productivity problem. Part of that is because we have too many low-skilled, low-paid jobs. So it’s a win win for business. Consumers, it may be we need to change our attitude. To consider there is often a human at the other end.

We’re all very happy to have our Amazon Prime to arrive in 12 hours, but we don’t think of the pressure on workers to deliver it. The government has a role to play in promoting skill more generally. One idea we think the government should consider is this idea of personal training accounts. It’s being piloted in France and Singapore. It gives all workers, or citizens - people looking for jobs and people self-employed too - an annual credit to spend on accredited course. That’s what they choose. It could be on professionalising in their occupation. It could be a language skill. It could be some sort of data science program.

Rebecca Rae-Evans (Tech for Good Live):
And here in seems to be a real challenge. Technology moves so quickly. We can’t stop it - nor should we really. The solution can’t be for a new generation of luddites to rise up and protest each advancement. With every new leap in technological advancement also comes the potential to do real good. AI and Automation are already being used in many great examples of tech for good. But, as is always the case, we need to be mindful of the potential for harm. When creating new solutions, we need to be ready to deal with any unintended consequences.

A lot of the experts we’ve spoken to have talked about responsibility. The responsibility of employers, of educators, of government and of consumers.

It would be great if we could wave a magic wand and say that all companies will invest in the training and education of their workers. I’m sure some companies take that responsibility seriously. As I’m sure that others do absolutely nothing. Some due to indifference, others due to simply not having the capability. Maybe the solution is the personalised training accounts that Fabian mentioned. It’s great to see that trials are happening.

One thing we do know is that change is coming, and we do need to be prepared.

Next time on the WorkerTech podcast…

We look at real examples of WorkerTech - innovations that have helped empower workers and have had a positive social impact on their lives. We hear about how the very nature of work has changed and how tech has given workers a voice and helped them organise. And we talk about how intention matters. A lot.

This podcast has been brought to you in collaboration with Tech for Good Live and Bethnal Green Ventures.

Thanks to the contributions from Accenture, Royal Society of Arts, Resolution Trust, Organise New Economic Foundation, Zinc, and Uber. This episode wouldn’t be possible without Podcast.Co providing us with their studio space.

Read Episode Two

Jonny Rae-Evans