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‘Technology will create more jobs than could be lost’

Jide Awe is the Chief Executive Officer, Jidaw Systems. He was the Chairman, Conferences and Publicity/Events, Nigeria Computer Society (NCS), the umbrella body for all computer practitioners in the country. In this interview with ADEYEMI ADEPETUN, Awe speaks on fears that technology might reduce jobs due to the disruption and automation caused by coronavirus pandemic. Excerpts:

How significant is the role of ICT (technology) to the economy globally? 
The use of ICT and digital technologies keeps the world connected. It is central to the development and the functioning of society. Communications, education, commerce and many vital humans and economic activities are today dependent on ICT. 
 
It is widely and globally acknowledged that ICT has fundamentally changed practices and structures in social, commercial and educational spheres – the way we live, learn, interact and do business. Globally, the appropriate development and deployment of ICT enable significant cost savings and efficiency gains in all sectors (public and private). 

 
Beyond reducing operating costs and enhancing productivity, ICT enables the creation of new forms of value through the development of new services, products and new ways of working, learning and doing business. Through ICT, the world is globally-connected, resulting in the emergence of a global village. 

Digital technologies and data have been critical to the birth of innovations and innovative practices.  By enabling digital solutions and medical research and collaboration and digital solutions in the fight against coronavirus as well as enabling billions of people to go online to stay in touch, learn and work during the lockdowns and restrictions, ICT has been critical to the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Globally jobs are being lost. About 25 million jobs have gone during this COVID-19 era in the USA.  In 2019, the National Bureau of Statistics claimed that the unemployment rate rose to 23.1 per cent in 2019 in Nigeria. Last weekend, a commercial bank announced plans to lay off some workers before the CBN intervened. Looking at this scenario, can we say technology creates jobs? 
Unfortunately, the present shock to employment is pandemic driven. The immediate job losses are as a result of the impacts from the coronavirus pandemic. In just a few months, the coronavirus pandemic has totally changed the daily lives of people around the world. ⁠Lockdowns and restrictions lead to a lack of activity, operations, income and loss of jobs. 
Technology allowed many organisations amid lockdown orders to continue functioning through remote work, remote learning and other tasks that could be carried out remotely. Indeed it is a wake-up call – technology is indispensable. 

The reality of the new normal is that a new economy placing even more reliance on technology is emerging from the disruption. The way we work could be changed forever. The new work models could offer less reliance on physical structures, lower overheads, flexible schedules while still increasing productivity. In the new structures, some old jobs may no longer be relevant. 

 
It is undeniable that the pandemic is also a catalyst for massive change —economic, societal, personal, corporate and governmental. Organisations that can still survive and thrive in the new environment will have new structures and job requirements. Quite a few of the jobs that could be affected now are those requiring face-to-face interactions in physical offices to carry out tasks. Coronavirus has exposed our digital limitations like never before. There has always been resistance to remote working and learning. The present situation has however shown that remote work can be productive and more cost-efficient. 
 
Reducing the investment in physical office and facilities that really aren’t needed will obviously result in some job loss. But while there are job losses, the new environment creates remote work opportunities as well as jobs in the virtual and digital spaces – for users and providers. The future is digital. As technology keeps advancing and becoming more functional and cost-effective, ⁠society is going to use more technology and relevant jobs will be generated. Eventually, more jobs will be created in the economy than jobs lost. There will be more opportunities for creative thinkers and innovators in all spheres. Going forward, jobs will depend on relevance and impact. 
 
Rather than being viewed from the prism of loss of jobs, technology has enabled speed and relevance and continuity in this time of uncertainty and it is fundamental to the new normal. 

Going by what is happening globally, can we really say technology has increased the size of “economic surplus pie” and redistributed much to its consumers?
The pandemic is shrinking the global economy with the slowdown and significant reduction in economic and related activities around the world. Restrictions and lockdowns stunt economic growth. The impact on large and major economies raises the risk of a global recession. 
 
Economic and other structures will change due to the COVID-19 crisis. Even as economies struggle, the growing dependence on technology means the digital economy is on the rise. The technology share of global economic growth is bound to rise to grow. The old order is bound to change. There will certainly be redistribution in terms of changing global economic patterns. With fair practices and competition, consumers will certainly benefit. 

Are there specific areas where technology is creating jobs or will create jobs? 
Technology creates jobs through the provision of digital services and products in all sectors especially in areas where a lot still needs to be digitised. It is creating relevant jobs in virtual space for users, innovators, managers and entrepreneurs. This includes e-commerce – online shopping, online marketplaces, delivery of items; fintech – mobile or online payments, cashless transactions; education – educational websites, online classes, e-learning, e-books, etc; social sites, entertainment, sports, etc; and health technology-telemedicine, medical diagnosis and research, among other areas.

In what ways can technologies such as 5G, Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things and other emerging ones contribute significantly to growing the economy? 
Artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things, 5G and other emerging technologies are changing the global innovation infrastructure landscape. 4IR technologies are essential for the future. They are instrumental to the age of disruptive innovation. Emerging technology can improve people’s lives in many ways. And can also improve the performance of government and private sector organisations. It’s about how it brings value to your needs. 
 
When used on projects or specific use cases, they can decrease cost, improve speed, accuracy and responsiveness, reduce environmental harm, reduce human errors due to mundane or repetitive tasks, achieve real-time problem solving and boost safety. They can unlock new value and provide uncommon solutions to difficult issues. 

Quite importantly, in today’s data economy, where “data is the new oil”, Artificial Intelligence can be used to generate valuable insights from data. It is possible to predict demand, customer’s behaviour. It can assist with quick medical diagnosis and treatment and is being used to create medical COVID-19 solutions. Artificial intelligence can also improve customer service with the use of chatbots and recommendation systems.

Benefits of the Internet of Things include productivity improvement through the monitoring and control of the different processes, and also the collection of a large amount of data for predictive analysis. Value can be extracted – patterns, predictions and other insights – from raw digital information. 

5G, the latest generation of mobile communications offers a platform with greater speed, a lower latency and a greater ability to exploit the features of emerging technologies for our advantage.
With oil prices going down seriously across the globe, what hopes for FG on diversification? 

We have no choice but to diversify the economy to earn revenue, create jobs and boost economic growth. The future is digital, and it is essential for advantage in a globally competitive world. 
 
Digital technologies can create the avenue for an inclusive post-COVID economic recovery. Get policies right. Unleash the potential of the youth and actively promote youth innovation. Invest in capacity building and human capital in the tech sector. And ensure that we invest in making digital inclusion a reality. The digital divides are unhelpful, especially the rural digital divides, the gender digital divide.

The internet is crucial for remote work and learning. But what about those that have no access to the internet or digital resources?
In this regard, the new National Broadband Plan needs to be speedily and faithfully implemented. The impact and possibilities of ICT are determined by policy-making and decisive implementation. Prioritising the tech sector in practical terms is major. It is a necessity, not a luxury. It can be done. It just requires the political will. 

What advice do you have for organisations sacking workers and going automation? 
Every company must take digital seriously. Organisations should review their operations and invest in effective, meaningful and active digital transformation that meets their needs. They should explore digital solutions. No one size fits all. Reorganise to remain relevant and functional and to meet organisational objectives in line with the new normal. Sacking of workers should not be the default response. They should explore opportunities to retrain staff in line with new strategy and realities, promote innovation and imbibe the continuous innovation mindset. 

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