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Five principles for innovation to prepare for a shifting world of work

Nesta's Working Better conference brought together 150 people from government, charities, universities, education providers and the private sector to tackle this challenge, ‘Can we create the infrastructure for a fairer, more efficient and more robust system for jobs and skills?’

It’s not a simple question to answer: job markets are diverse, complex and difficult to navigate. Speaking at Nesta, Anthony Painter of the RSA described the world of work as a ‘maze’. Many pathways lead to dead-ends, in which escape from low-paid, low-skill work is virtually impossible. In the context of the changing demand for skills that results from technological adoption and other trends, the walls of this maze are likely to shift more regularly, and increasingly unexpectedly.

So how can we lay the foundations for a better system, in which people can make informed choices about the skills they learn, the jobs they take, and are prepared for an uncertain future of work?

A first step is for stakeholders who can build the parts of the system to agree on principles for its development.

This blog proposes a framework of five principles that is informed by our work and summarises key themes raised at the Working Better conference.

SHIFT: Smart, Human, Inclusive, Future-Oriented, Tested

Five principles for innovation to prepare for a shifting labour market


Generate, collect and share useful information

What if it was possible to map the ‘maze’ of the labour market, and to provide timely guidance to people trying to navigate it? Through fast-paced presentations of seven initiatives, speakers in the opening session of Working Better demonstrated how innovative analysis of novel data sources can achieve just that.

Nesta’s Head of Open Jobs Data, Jyldyz Djumalieva, showed how data from online job adverts can be used to identify the skills that are in demand, and how jobs are likely to change. Pawel Adrjan demonstrated how searches by British Steel employees on the Indeed recruitment platform can help policymakers understand how workers respond to uncertainty. In a recent paper co-authored by Central Bank of Ireland economist Reamonn Lydon, Adrjan has also proposed the number of clicks on job adverts as a proxy for the supply of skills. Presenting in the lunch break, Profinda (a business supported by Nesta Impact Investments) explained that data about employees’ skills and experience can help companies to be more responsive to technological change.

A simple systems diagram to show how data creates a 'smart' system

A simple systems diagram to show how data can create a responsive feedback loop

A smart system would employ data from a range of sources to allow labour market stakeholders to spot disparities between skill supply and demand, identify opportunities for transitions between jobs, and help people prepare for growing occupations. To create such a system, government, education providers, employers and job platforms must work together to generate, open up and share relevant information.

Sweden’s JobTech Developer initiative, presented by Gregory Golding, is a frontrunner in this collaborative approach, and it was satisfying to see from LMI for All and the cross-departmental Examine a Place project that the UK government is continuing to explore opportunities to analyse and use labour market information more effectively. Nesta’s recent manifesto, Precarious to Prepared, presents three policy recommendations to accelerate the development of a smarter system for jobs and skills.


Serve the needs of people, capitalise on their capabilities, and give them agency

Technological adoption is reshaping many areas of life, and can lead to scenarios where people are forced into a context that is designed for machine efficiency, rather than human flourishing. In some workplaces, for instance, labour has become increasingly difficult and dehumanising as robots have been introduced. There is an associated risk of reducing people to data-points when applying technology and data to action, to job matching services. As Professor Caroline Nevejan, Chief Scientific Officer for Amsterdam, said, "There's too little social science in data science. We are working with people, we need to be multidisciplinary." It’s vital to avoid the temptation to see people as bundles of skills that can just be slotted into particular roles. Services and policies for skills and jobs must be designed to serve the needs of humans, and enhance their agency and capabilities.

This was a recurring theme at the conference. Dr Kate Jarvis of the Careers and Enterprise Company called for more data visualisation talent to help young people understand the labour market, echoing Lonneke van Oirschot’s statement early in the day that “data and knowledge are nothing if they aren’t used”. Presenting the morning keynote, Professor Jaqueline O’Reilly highlighted the challenges faced by people like the protagonist from Ken Loach’s film, I, Daniel Blake, who feel confused and alienated by complicated systems for jobs and skills. Gretta Corporaal of the Oxford Internet Institute set out core principles for fair platform work for the digital gig economy.

Nesta believes that human centred design approaches, which directly engage workers and jobseekers, can help stakeholders across to design services that give people more agency, and motivate them to learn and adapt to the changing labour market. Nesta’s Digital Frontrunners programme has been supporting policymakers to develop skills in human-centred design, and participants at Working Better were introduced to some of its methods in an interactive workshop led by Chantale Tippett of the Innovation Mapping team.

Participants designing a human-centred service

Working Better participants design a human-centred service


Identify the people who are losing out, and tailor services to their needs

A human-centred approach does not automatically result in an inclusive system. Inclusion means that policymakers and service providers must identify the people who are losing out or at risk, understand what their needs are, and design services and policies that are tailored to them.

Patrick Lee from the Department for Education (DfE) spoke about the efforts they are undertaking to ensure that the National Retraining Scheme (NRS) serves people who do not currently participate in training, and prepares them for the jobs of the future. Through collaboration with the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the Trades Union Congress (TUC), and iterative testing with people whose jobs are vulnerable to automation, the NRS is developing a variety of inclusive services. Anthony Impey, chair of the Skills & Apprenticeships Policy Unit at the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), highlighted older workers as a group who currently lack support to adapt to the changing job market, and pointed out that a commitment to inclusion should extend to types of organisations, such as small businesses, that experience challenges when hiring or training.


Anticipate change and prepare for the unpredictable

It is now commonly said that technology is changing the skills that people need for work, while the threat of automation continues to loom on the horizon. In 2017, researchers from Nesta, Pearson and Oxford University identified six more trends that are affecting the job market, among them globalisation and an aging workforce. The interaction of these trends creates makes it difficult to predict exactly how jobs will change - but what is clear is that many people will need to upskill or retrain.

Seven trends affecting labour markets

Nesta identified seven trends affecting labour markets

For this reason, access to lifelong learning and careers advice should be expanded to make sure people have to tools they need to anticipate change and opportunities to adapt to new roles throughout their lives. Dr Soon Joo Gog spoke about SkillsFuture Singapore’s initiative to put funding for training into the hands of individuals, while Anthony Painter of the RSA commended Singapore on its ‘movement building’ approach to embed lifelong learning throughout society. The CareerTech Challenge, delivered by Nesta and the DfE, aims to stimulate the development of new services that help people to prepare for the future of work by building their career adaptability skills.


Experiment, evaluate and identify what works

Finally, interventions to help people progress and adapt to the changing world of work must be tested. Nesta’s rapid evidence review, What Motivates Adults to Learn? found that there is little robust evidence about what works to help adults learn new skills and move between jobs. When evaluations of training and labour market measures are conducted, they can demonstrate a surprising disparity in effectiveness.

In Finland, for instance, an evaluation of a range of active labour market policies found that job rotation gets roughly 6 out of 10 displaced workers into jobs within three months, while ‘work-and-education try-out’ only helps approximately 1 in 10. If governments and employers are going to invest money to support people to adapt to the changing labour market - and people are going to invest their time - the initiatives they take part in must have more than a 10% success rate.

The best way to identify what works is to experiment and evaluate. Lonneke van Oirschot presented a number of experiments being conducted in the Netherlands, from virtual reality job tryouts to technologically-enhanced ‘speed-dating’ to match jobseekers and employers, which demonstrated the range of innovative interventions that could help people find fulfilling roles. In his closing remarks, Geoff Mulgan pointed out that with a better data infrastructure, in which the effectiveness of interventions can be tracked, it is simpler to try new things out and detect successes and failures. Nesta’s FutureFit programme is working with partners around Northern Europe to develop and test new approaches to adult learning, and contribute to the literature on ‘what works’.

What's next?

Through six programmes, Nesta is helping lay the infrastructure for jobs and skills systems that are smart, human, inclusive, future-oriented and tested. But we cannot do it alone: we need to foster collective intelligence. The Working Better event, and these SHIFT principles, were conceived to spark more collaboration on using data and design to create a fairer, more efficient and more robust labour market.

Nesta would like to bring together a broad coalition of organisations and individuals to share research, pilot initiatives, and test interventions that generate and apply data in ways that help people and businesses adapt to the changing economy. If you would like to collaborate:

  • Read Precarious to Prepared, Nesta’s manifesto for supporting the six million most at risk of losing their jobs in the next decade, and share your comments
  • Explore our Future of Work and Skills programmes
  • Join the Labour Market Information Network, which hosts innovative thinkers and doers in regular webinars. Email: [email protected]
  • Apply for the CareerTech Challenge, a delivered by Nesta and the DfE, which aims to encourage bold solutions which improve people’s working lives and unlock employment opportunities for the future

Thank you to all the speakers and participants who joined us at Working Better, and to Anna Thomas and Naomi Clayton, who chaired the panels at the event.


Jack Orlik

Jack Orlik

Jack Orlik

Programme Manager - Open Jobs, Data Analytics Practice

Jack was a Programme Manager for Open Jobs.

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