If only we knew … what skills and networks can help people collaborate and compete in the digital economy

On April 19, the second day of the GovLab Experiment, participants took part in a variety of half-hour “horas” featuring discussion built around specific themes. The “If Only We Knew…” session asked participants, “What are the most important research questions that, if answered, would radically transform our understanding of open government?”

Hora 2’s central research question revolved recognizing and disseminating the skills needed to be successful in the digital economy.

In Hora 2, participants discussed the need for improved understanding regarding the actionable steps that need to be taken by academia, civil servants and private sector representatives to help people navigate the future economy. If we are able to identify these needs accurately, then we can invest in developing skills-sharing mechanisms that prepare people for the economy of today and tomorrow, rather than the economy of yesterday. Of course, these skill- and network-building initiatives must be smart and agile enough to account for the ever-increasing speed of change in the digital economy.

Below are illustrative examples of the challenges we are experiencing due to our current lack of understanding in this area, current attempts to find out how rectify this lack of understanding and some of the potential benefits of finding meaningful answers.

Challenges From Not Knowing

  • The Thiel Fellowship, created by entrepreneur Peter Thiel, offers funding to students for skipping college, in a “radical rethinking of what it takes to succeed.” The project, which is focused on imbuing entrepreneurial skills, was developed based on the increasingly popular belief that traditional education outlets, particularly colleges, no longer give students the skills necessary to be successful in today’s—let alone tomorrow’s—economy.

Current Attempts to Find Out

  • James Manyika, Richard Dobbs, Michael Chui, Jacques Bughin, Peter Bisson and Alex Marrs of McKinsey produced a report titled, “Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy,” that provides detailed information on the twelve technologies they expect to disrupt the world economy in the near future: Mobile Internet, Automation of Knowledge Work, Internet of Things, Cloud Technology, Advanced Robotics, Autonomous and Near-Autonomous Vehicles, Next-Generation Genomics, Energy Storage, 3D Printing, Advanced Materials, Advanced Oil and Gas Exploration and Recovery and Renewable Energy. A greater emphasis on understanding and building skills around these technologies will likely go a long way toward preparing people for success in the (near) future economy.
  • Similarly, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) produced a fact sheet espousing the economic benefits of information and communications technologies, including: creating high paying jobs, comprising a significant share of GDP, driving productivity and GDP growth, helping build high-growth companies, creating new sectors and ways of doing business, being a key source of competitive advantage and driving innovation. Of course, few would argue against the value, economic and otherwise, of ICTs in 2013, but a fact-heavy list of their benefits is nonetheless informative. The challenge now is creating such a list regarding the industries and skills of the future.
  • The Open Knowledge Foundation’s School of Data “works to empower civil society, organizations, journalists and citizens with the skills they need to use data effectively – evidence is power!” While data mining and analysis are certainly not the only types of skills that will be needed in the economy of the future, the creation of an online learning repository for providing people, the advanced and uninitiated alike, with skills that can improve their ability to take part in a growing portion of the economy is a great first step, and one that can be expanded upon to disseminate a wider variety of innovative skills in the future.

Potential Benefits of Finding the Answer

  • The Intel-sponsored We The Data envisions a future where we can “create new forms of social cooperation and exchange” through increased access and control over our data. With more access, and the skills necessary to leverage that access, we could witness the creation of “as yet unimagined kinds of entrepreneurs.”
  • In 2011-12, the use of public data injected up to £7.2 billion ($11 billion) into the UK economy. Providing more valuable data to a populous with a greater capacity for leveraging that data would likely result in that already incredibly high number skyrocketing even further.
  • Estonia’s focus on providing children with the skills of today—namely programming skills—has led to a fundamental change in the country’s character, complete with “E-stonia” rebranding. Larger-scale, global efforts to provide children, and adults, with the skills of tomorrow could lead to even more transformative effects.

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