The battle between the Brexiteers and the Remainers has been bloody. Each side had indicated that a vote for the other side was a vote for uncertainty. They are both right. But not for the reasons they mentioned.
Around six years ago I wrote a book for the European Commission, entitled The e-Skills Manifesto: A Call to Arms. The thrust of it was that Europe needs to raise its game if it is to avoid becoming an economic backwater. This was not an opinion piece, but a consolidated perspective of Europe’s leading academics, politicians and business leaders.
Little has happened since then, other than the pace of change has accelerated and the issue is more important than ever. What many people do not seem to realise is that we appear to be re-enacting the collapse of the Roman Empire. The party, and for some it is a party, is coming to an end. Certainty, and entitlement with respect to living standards and employment, is over. The growing throngs of employed is morphing into a generation of the unemployable. Some of the latter have, through this vote, found a means to express their frustration, and force change.
But this is merely a symptom of what is actually happening. The transition from the industrial era to the digital age is the root cause. And by digital, I don’t mean reaching customers via mobile devices (that is merely providing another channel). I mean we are entering an age of disruption and uncertainty. Correction. I should say that we are, in fact, re-entering the era of disruption and uncertainty. This is how it has always been since we fell out of the trees. The industrial era was a blip in our history when we thought we could impose certainty on nature. That battle is over.
So, how do we move forward?
Step 1: Warn the people.Alert them that their future prosperity cannot be controlled, much less assured, by their government. They have to take responsibility for their own survival. Though one possible scenario is that in a robotics-driven world, there will be no need to work. So a guaranteed income may become a government obligation, if the robots are generating sufficient margins. But I, personally, wouldn’t make this ‘plan A’ in respect of economic survival.
Step 2: Empower the people.Aggressively put programmes in place to empower the people to take charge of their own economic destiny. To think turning everyone into a coder is the way forward is to misunderstand the digital economy. To erect digital hubs manned by self-obsessed hipsters who are more focused on how they look and what artisan cheese shops to be seen in, doesn’t cut it either. The key skills are creativity, commerciality, project management, service and marketing. The paternal mega-corporation is long gone. It’s Me plc in the gig economy era.
Step 3: Retune the education system.Its primary output today is compliance. That worked well when the students were to take up roles as cogs in the ‘factory machine’. Instead of having MBAs, lets have MSI (Masters of Social Innovation). Young people, and old people, realise it is more than ‘about the money’. Let’s make financial wealth a by-product of a thriving society, rather than the focus.
Step 4: Retune the unions.Their role was critical in the industrial era. They are now in the way. It is not about protecting workers; it is about empowering them. The unions have a responsibility to support the step 1 initiatives. And an opportunity to support step 2.
Europe is a patchwork quilt of potential talent. Demographic heat maps will show where the pockets of engineering excellence sit. Similarly, with creativity, research and culture. Let’s not smooth out these hubs so that we end up with uniform adequateness across Europe. Hyperspecialisation is the way forward. Celebrate excellence and keep raising the bar to remain globally competitive.
These are exciting times (in every sense). The referendum result, in my view, is a distraction from what is actually happening. However, it might well serve as an opportunity to press the ‘reset’ button on Europe, so that we can jointly prepare for the disruptive tsunami that is coming our way.