Three ideas for involving workers in debates about the future of work

Picture the scene: You’re an engineer designing an automated factory. In your head, little robots whizz around on the floor, metal arms dance through the air. You want to protect the workers in the factory, so what do you do? You decide they need something that separates them from the machines, a sturdy barrier of sorts, so you design something and submit a patent for this creation. Only later, once the media storm hits, do you realise what you have created: a worker cage.

The worker cage is symptomatic of a major issue in how the future of work is unfolding: innovators and policymakers aren't talking to workers. Perhaps these engineers designed the worker cage without any malice. But if they would have asked a factory worker, if they would have asked you, do you want to work in a cage all day long, what would you have said?

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, the AI Council, the Ada Lovelace Institute, these are just a few of the initiatives that have been set up to explore the effects of automation on, among others, workers. But are they talking to workers? Is the APPG on AI taking evidence from low paid workers who are managed by algorithms? Does the AI council have members on it who work in manual jobs?

These ideas may seem frivolous, but, as Joseph Stiglitz recently argued, a more robust public debate on AI and work is an idea whose time has come. Why is this so important? As a number of recent reports show, technology is having a range of negative effects on low paid workers.

Here's the British Academy and the Royal Society's new evidence review on the future of work:

‘Evidence from historical and contemporary studies indicates that technology enabled changes to work tend to affect lower-paid and lower-qualified workers more than others.’

And the TUC's new report on technology and the future of work highlights data which shows that workers are not benefiting from the productivity gains from the introduction of technology.

Will innovators fix this on their own? It seems unlikely. The titans of the tech world, particularly the gig economy, often cast themselves as pioneers, visionaries in the drama that is the future of work. But as Sarah O’Connor argues, it often seems like they are trying to recreate the conditions of London’s 18th century gig economy, from piece work to zero hours contracts. The founders of these companies manage to sound genuinely enthusiastic about the flexibility they offer their low paid workers. But if you look at the job ads on these companies' websites, the offer to data scientists and marketing managers is, by contrast, much more traditional: full time, permanent contracts, pensions, sick pay, holiday pay, training.

Perhaps innovators, and policymakers, just need more information about the effects of innovation on low paid workers. One approach is to give politicians good statistics. The RSA has produced a report on measuring good work, proposing additional metrics to help measure job quality. This is a much needed contribution.

But we need to go further than this. What about the stories, feeling and detail that are needed to win the hearts and minds of policymakers in the fight for good work? Sometimes, quality journalism is the way to go. For example, this Mother Jones article by a reporter who spent some time working as a ‘warehouse wage slave’ in the US is a must read and I hope that any politician thinking about the future of work does read it. But like all of us, politicians are deluged with things to read.

Alongside statistics and stories, here are three things that innovators and policymakers can do ensure they hear from those who have to live with the effects of disruptive innovation:

Appoint 'worker champions' to every commission, expert group and inquiry on technology and the future of work

Experts, policymakers and business interests are well represented on commissions designed to explore technology and the future of work. Alongside these interests, these bodies should appoint people who are there to speak for workers. This might be someone from a trade union, or it might be someone from a civil society organisation familiar with the challenges workers face in adapting to new technologies.

Get your engineers to talk to your lowest paid workers

Research and innovation have wide-ranging effects on the lives of everyone and yet only a very small group of people are involved, as researchers and as decision makers. Talking to low paid workers about how innovations might affect them doesn't have to be rocket science: it's not necessarily about finding representative groups of workers and having facilitated discussions with them, it simply needs to be about broadening the influences that engineers are exposed to. That could be as simple as getting the engineers to hang out with the workers they are designing things for - over lunch, or in the pub. Doing this could be one way to ensure that innovators aren't only innovating for people like them.

Help workers to tell their stories of the future

Perhaps we're missing something if we only listen to the well-rehearsed visions of the future told by innovators, who are expert storytellers. Both innovators and policymakers have something to gain by helping workers to tell their stories, including a more inclusive range of potential futures to aspire to. How might this work in practice? Talking directly to workers is one option. We've been trying to do this at Nesta with our Common Futures series. Another approach is to use creative methods to enable workers to tell their stories - giving them the space and support to think creatively about what they want the future of work to look like.

The model of the great and the good speaking on behalf of workers needs to become much more democratic. These are just three ideas for how the voices of workers could be brought into debates on the future of work. What other ideas should policymakers explore?


Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Tom Saunders

Principal Researcher

Tom was a Principal Researcher in the inclusive innovation team.

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