Imagine you’re tasked with creating a brand new city from scratch. A broad, meandering river cuts through a level plateau of arable land, and you’re responsible for whatever’s to come. What do you do first? Lay out a street grid? Install emergency services? Block off land for preservation and development? Think wisely, because your next decision may determine the fate of your city’s inhabitants for generations to come.
At its core, this is the same decision that local leaders of the world’s emerging megacities face today. They may not be starting from scratch, but tomorrow’s megacities face a similar potential for dynamic growth and expansion as yesterday’s frontier boom towns. So what should they do? What’s their #1 priority when focusing on future development? People.
According to a recent report from Mercer titled “People First: Driving Growth in Emerging Megacities,” we must prioritize humans (not robots) for a competitive advantage. We must design technology with humans at the center. To quote Pearly Siffel, Strategy and Geographic Expansion Leader at Mercer, “in the future, work will be less about ‘using’ technology and more about ‘interacting’ with technology.”
The Future of Work is people first, and here are three reasons why.
Technology is Fungible, People are Not
The well-worn axiom that AI will transform the future of work is more true today than ever before, but it misrepresents how the future will be transformed. What may start as a race to adopt and leverage AI in the workplace will inevitably end in a saturation of technology: as soon as one firm unlocks the full potential of automation, it’ll be a matter of time before their competitors replicate the model.
So who wins in a world where AI is in every office? The organizations with the best talent do.
Consumer and workforce demands will inevitably adapt to an AI-empowered future, and the real differentiator will be the human skills such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence and creative problem solving paired with technology.
A recent report by the World Economic Forum outlines the ten skills humans will need in order to create value in an increasingly automated world, and it’s a great reminder that people must remain the focus if we’re to build anything that works in the future of work. Tamara McCleary, Founder and CEO of Thulium, summarized this point so well in a recent conversation we had, “If we are distracted by all that glitters with the promise of a frictionless future with AI, then we will surely miss the mark.” So while technology may be an economic accelerator in the future of work, people are still the core drivers of sustained productivity.
When AI is Everywhere, People Will Still Go Somewhere
Everyone’s familiar with the dystopic tomorrowlands depicted in literature and film: techno-centric, automated megacities serviced by an army of robots where people are undervalued. This is not how I envision the future of work.
The proliferation of AI may mean that some jobs will be automated, but those displaced workers still represent remarkable potential to cities, employers, and economies. McKinsey estimates that disruption from digital transformation, automation and AI will force approximately 14% of the global workforce – 375 million workers (!) – to find new career directions. However, as the economy of the future becomes less murky and reskilling/upskilling becomes a staple of every career path, there will be a massive scramble to find talent to plug newly created roles in the workforce.
This new economy is why people-skills will be so sought after in the future of work, according to April Rudin, CEO and Founder of The Rudin Group. “AI will be a tool to empower humans instead of replace them, enabling people to spend time on the things they do best: making relationships, exercising judgment, expressing empathy, and using their problem-solving skills.” Those cities that remain people-focused will be the ones with talent on-hand, and they’ll be the ones to succeed.
A Clean Start Means a Leg Up
Think about the investment that today’s economic powerhouses have made in their broader commercial infrastructure. Think about public transportation systems, electrical and IT networking, private development and public zoning districts. Billions of pounds, dollars, yen, rupees, euros, and more spent on getting those cities ready for the economy of today. How will those investments pay off in the future of work?
Today’s emerging megacities are “unencumbered by the legacy systems of their larger and more established brethren,” according to Mercer’s People First research. While it may require massive investment to install the building blocks of a future-focused economy, there’s none of the wasted expense or necessary compromise that comes with retrofitting an outmoded city for the tech-enabled future. This means that those cities can focus time and resources on building attractive, people-centric cities where employees will want to live, work and raise families in the future. "It's hard to fathom the competitive advantage a modern, mass transportation system gives a city,” says Walter Jennings, CEO of Asia Insights Circle. “When economic reforms started in China, Shenzhen was a fishing village of 50,000 people. Today there are estimates of 12-16 million residents.”
Let’s return to the city planner. You’re overlooking your parcel of land, and you’re trying to envision the ideal city of the future. We may not know the street names, but we have a better sense of the guiding principles for your soon-to-be booming metropolis.
I leave you with my three takeaways, just one lens through which to explore the opportunities which lay ahead with people, technology and the emerging megacities that will power global growth.
- Build your city (or company) around people.
- Don’t discard valuable assets. There will always be a place for good talent in good places.
- Look for what will carry you into the future, not what’s carried others in the past.