EXCLUSIVE - Conversation: Living in a digital world in 2040
Digital technologies are impacting every aspect of our lives today. Great optimism regarding potential benefits exists alongside escalating anxiety over the dark side of technology.
A new book written by experts in Singapore argues that how we prepare for the future should not be based on a dystopian or utopian view of technology’s influence on society. It takes a more balanced view that technology can be helpful or harmful in different contexts.
The book explores four different future scenarios in the areas of work, education and healthcare. For example, in the area of work, the vertical axis ranges from rapid to incremental technological disruption, while the horizontal axis moves from many people struggling to many people thriving, creating four distinct visions of the future.
In view of these scenarios, the authors try to provide practical answers to questions like: “How can people thrive as their lives are disrupted and transformed?” “Will jobs be created or destroyed?” “Will digital divides narrow or widen in education and healthcare?”
Published by World Scientific, Living Digital 2040: Future of Work, Education, and Healthcare is authored by Mr Poon King Wang (Director, Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities or LKYCIC, SUTD), Dr Hyowon Lee (Assistant Professor, Information Systems Technology and Design, SUTD), Dr Lim Wee Kiat (Research Fellow, Asian Business Case Centre, NTU), Dr Mohan Rajesh Elara (Assistant Professor, Engineering Product Development, SUTD), Dr Youngjin (Marie) Chae (Research Fellow, LKYCIC), Ms Gayathri Balasubramanian (Research Assistant, LKYCIC), Mr Aaron Yong Wai Keet (Senior Industrial Designer, LKYCIC), and Mr Raymond Yeong Wei Wen (Research Officer, LKYCIC).
The multi-disciplinary team has experience and expertise in design, sociology, human-computer interaction, human-robotics interaction, analytics, wearables, IT in organisations, fashion design, industrial design, telecommunications, banking, consumer products, and public policy.
The team adopted a qualitative approach for the project, using in-depth interviews, participant observation and group discussions. During the interviews, the team ensured that while focusing on specific domains and sub-areas, different domains were connected to each other at various points.
OpenGov had the opportunity to speak to Mr Poon (top right), the Principal Investigator for the project and Dr Lim (top left), a Co-Principal Investigator, about LKYCIC, the origins of the project and the findings of the study.
LKYCIC was established in September 2012, as a research institute in the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD). Considering that cities are becoming the dominant player for implementation of solutions and improving people’s lives, the Centre seeks to stimulate thinking and research on the critical issues of cities and urbanisation and explore the integrated use of technology, design and policy to provide urban solutions.
Like SUTD itself, LKYCIC adopts a multi-disciplinary approach, because the issues in cities are multi-faceted.
One of the main objectives of the Centre is the sharing of knowledge and experience. Mr Poon said, “As the rest of the world is urbanising, we realise that Singapore’s experience is potentially very useful as a reference, not necessarily a template, for other cities. Not only should we consolidate what we know and have learnt about Singapore, we should also be learning from other countries and sharing our learning with other countries, so that we form a global learning community.”
Idea behind the project
This new book is an outcome of a project under the Land and Liveability National Innovation Challenge (L2NIC) funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Ministry of National Development. The aim is to study the future of cities in 2040 and its implications for Singapore.
Under the L2NIC, there are 7 projects, covering future economy, future diversity, future urban forms, future transportation, sustainable futures, big data and living with technology. All these projects are expected to develop understanding of how trends are evolving and what Singapore should do to prepare for the future.
But why 2040? Mr Poon explained, “It allows us to think in a way that is not overly constrained by problems today. It is a useful intellectual mechanism to transcend some of the constraints that might otherwise hold back some of our imagination.”
This specific project is on living with technology. With the idea that technology is a major disruptive force to society, the researchers examined how technology is evolving and its impact on how we live. They focused on three critical social institutions: work, education and healthcare, because these are areas all of us will inevitably experience first-hand at various points of our lives.
Pace of disruption
While talking about disruption, Mr Poon emphasised that disruption does not hit us overnight and blind side us.
To factor in the pace of disruption, ‘time’ is included in the conceptual equation presented in the book for the drivers of change:
Many of today’s technologies that are deemed disruptive have been around for some time, at least a few years. For example, artificial intelligence (AI) is in its third or fourth wave. The building blocks that underpin big data have also been around for a few years.
Dr Lim brought up the example of chatbots. The Singapore Government is using a number of chatbot applications – the whole-of-government virtual assistant Jamie and Joanne in the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS). But 20 years ago Microsoft Word already had an animated paper clip Office Assistant performing similar functions, though its interface was not as user-friendly and its abilities were a lot cruder.
Cars have followed a similar development path. Today we are talking about driverless cars. The various devices and functions in cars are improving gradually, such as the shift from manual gears to automatic. More and more functions have been computerised.
Dr Lim said, “There are a lot of micro changes that accumulate, and it comes to a point where we realise it’s a big change. Likewise, technology is creeping upon us, slowly but surely.”
“To us, the biggest disruption comes from the inability to track and the inability to tackle - the failure to see what is coming and even if you see it, the inability to act on it,” said Mr Poon.
But often individuals, societies and governments tend to be aware of the technological change only when it has reached a certain threshold or tipping point. We asked how the government and society can have long-term thinking at a stage when changes might not be easily observable.
New tools are required to track technology trends and development. Part of the project was to determine and explore what could serve as practical tracking tools.
For instance, the team found ‘tasks’ to be the appropriate tracking tool for work. Academic studies from economists recognise that many of the changes we see in the labour force and markets are related to how tasks have been configurated by technology, both within the job and globally, as a result of globalisation.
A report titled ‘Artificial Intelligence and Life in 2030’ from Stanford University which looked at what AI can do and its impact on jobs, found that what we have now is narrow AI, i.e. specialised AI which can only perform certain tasks. So, at least as of now, AI will take over jobs task by task.
“As such, having task databases or task-based strateies give us a better level of accuracy on predicting the general direction of technology development. It gives you perhaps a couple more years of lead time to think of what to do in preparation for the future. We think that’s what governments and businesses increasingly have to do,” said Mr Poon.
The UK and US are already using or exploring task-based approaches. The book recommends a task-based analysis of the city’s economy and the creation of an O*NET type database to help government agencies, companies and citizens master tasks.
But how can individuals be motivated to prepare themselves for all these changes caused by technology?
Mr Poon said that the same set of tracking tools can be used to empower individuals. The team is now building a prototype that can work off a laptop to help individuals plan their future. Being able to see and plan one’s own future is expected to give them the confidence to make changes.
The other aspect of this is socio-psychological studies to help individuals be less fearful about change and even job loss. The team is running a couple of such studies.
“One of the ideas related to the book is that while most people focus on job loss as the major social disruption in the future, there is little call for companies to improve their CSR practices to focus more on job creation. Our assumption is that if we can take away some of the fear, people will be more accepting to technology as they see the benefit of it,” Mr Poon said.
The third approach is to cultivate the willingness to be resilient in people, from when they are young. This enables people to see what they can do, accept change, and use technology to their advantage.
But this raises another question. Those who are more adaptive to learning new technologies and open to changes, or the individuals who are labelled digital natives, tend to be the younger generation. The young tend to be less risk averse. What about the older generation, especially as Singapore is facing the challenge of an ageing population?
Dr Lim answered, “We asked ourselves a similar question, when 2040 comes and we get older, will we be equally fearful and risk averse as some of today’s elderly? We think there is a generational and cohort difference. The population profile is qualitatively different from the population from the past decades. Elderly in the future will be considered almost digital native. It might take us some effort to pick up new skills, but the change would not be as abrupt.”
Mr Poon also noted that sometimes we underestimate what the comparatively older generations can do. If you look at the augmented reality game, Pokemon Go, no generation difference is visible in its avid fanbase. Whether it is the Government or a business, the key question would then be whether they have created enough motivation for people to change.
Another point is that technology has to be designed in a way that is easy to use and inclusive. This involves what our interviewees call universal design.
One of the themes of the book is the need for collective effort from the society to deal with challenges. But for collective capacity, changes have to be inclusive.
Mr Poon explained, “Different levels of skills and abilities have to be accounted for, the design of solutions must suit all different levels of skills and abilities, solutions and policy must give a sense of motivation and the understanding that these capabilities do not stay static.”
An important trend discovered in the study is that instead of governments and large companies leading innovation, individuals are now empowered to start something new. In this digital age, innovation can come from anywhere. The question is how to create an environment to encourage it to happen.
The team is continuing research and conducting a survey on how people perceive change in the context of smart cities and digital economies
The researchers also continue to examine what the future of work means and understand the psyche of people who are affected.
On the implementation side, schools have approached the research team to explore further the ideas in the future of education. Companies are also interested in the task-based approach. On a wider scale, the team is building communities, be it communities of interest or of practice, to further discuss the project.
 The O*NET database, containing hundreds of standardised and occupation-specific descriptors on almost 1,000 occupations covering the entire U.S. economy. It was developed under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Labor/Employment and Training Administration through a grant to the North Carolina Department of Commerce.
 Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.