Open to the future of work

The first of two reports from a Victoria University of Wellington co-hosted conference on the future of work

The future belongs to Levin Public Library. One future, at any rate – part of the digital transformation of New Zealand envisaged by Don Christie, head of open source software specialist Catalyst IT and co-chair of NZRise, an organisation he helped set up to represent the country’s digital businesses.

Christie was speaking at Work in Progress: Workplace Leadership in the New Collar Future, a one-day conference co-hosted by Victoria University of Wellington as a response to research by its Working Capital project in partnership with the Wellington Regional Strategy Office and the Wellington Gold Awards.

The conference took place against a backdrop of keynote speaker Finance Minister Grant Robertson announcing in his opening address terms of reference for the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into “how New Zealand can maximise the opportunities and manage the risks of disruptive technological change and its impact on the future of work and the workforce”.

Christie told the conference the technological change of open source software could be a boon to New Zealand businesses.

“We hear on and on that all the big research and so on is done in Silicon Valley and China,” he said. “That’s not true. All the big development work being done globally is on open source platforms.”

As the future of work sees a reduction in the traditional jobs we have come to know and love, we will see steady growth in the jobs that provide human experience and space will be the critical environment.

It isn’t just a matter of New Zealand businesses adopting open source software, said Christie. They should also be adapting it and initiating new software.

“We can add our own value,” he said.

“This is business transformation. New Zealand businesses need to think about what they can add to these platforms and how they can make our unique situation apply on a global scale. And there are plenty of companies now in Wellington that follow this journey and have made very successful business models out of it. But we need to accelerate that. And we need to change our stance on that so government, corporates and so on are using the technology by default but also creating that technology.”

In 1999, Levin Public Library developed a library management system, said Christie.

“They made it open source and it’s now used in thousands and thousands of libraries across the globe. It runs the entire Turkish public library system.”

Christie also predicted increasing internet disaggregation whereby “we apply tools that already exist to create platforms that are very localised”.

This might include micro-clouds or “software that will basically give you the capability of Twitter and Instagram and so on, plus at the same time interacting with those platforms if you want to, but giving you much more control over your data, your trust networks and your security than those platforms will ever do”, he said.

“It really pains me to say this, but Australia is ahead of us. The Australian Digital Transformation Agency has a directive to make source code open. My challenge to everyone in this room today, whether you are in business or government, is just to think about one piece of software, one line of code, one little thing you’ve written, and just make it open, share it, build something people can collaborate on, and see what happens. Because it’s only by creating our own network effects that we’ll be able to survive the next wave of digital transformation.”

In his conference talk, Toby Spendiff from information technology solutions company Intergen highlighted a conundrum dubbed Martec’s Law by American marketing technologist Scott Brinker.

Brinker observed that technology changes exponentially (fast) while organisations change logarithmically (slow).

“Management of those organisations,” said Spendiff, “need to be very careful about the technologies they select and bring into the organisation, and how they bring them in, because the organisations’ capacity for change is limited. Unfortunately, if that gap becomes too wide and the organisation takes too long, then potentially the organisation needs a significant reset or they will basically be disrupted in the marketplace.”

Spendiff, Intergen’s General Manager of Enterprise Solutions, spoke about the digital transformation roadmap the company created for New Zealand’s largest gas network, First Gas.

The map let First Gas know where it was going and gave it the confidence to innovate, he said.

“They understood that all the basics had been taken care of and there was a plan for that, and they said okay, now we can start to look into virtual reality and drones and some of the other areas they really wanted to but were concerned they didn’t really have the time or didn’t think it was the right priority.”

Technology, said Spendiff, “has to be grounded by the business and the strategy of the organisation and the needs of the people doing the work. There’s no point just bringing in technology for technology’s sake”.

He stressed that transformation is a journey not a destination and requires constant re-evaluation.

The journey Sam Leske took the conference on was into space, where “the future of work is really exciting and the possibilities are endless”.

Leske, Director of Intelligence, Planning and Coordination Services at the Ministry for Primary Industries and President of the New Zealand Institute of Intelligence Professionals, said, “Aside from the vulnerability of having our species on only one tiny sliver of habitability, only a few kilometres thick, on this planet, there are boundless economic opportunities lurking in space. And we’re just on the cusp of having the technology and the will to exploit this.”

Dependence on rockets to get cargo into space means it costs between US$500 and US$10,000 a kilogram, he said, but, if new technology such as a space elevator Japanese researchers are working on is successful, that could be reduced to under US$100 a kilogram.

This might enable more things to be built in space and in turn reduce the need for things to be launched into space from Earth.

“It might seem very far-fetched,” said Leske, “but I can assure you there are many people around the world working on how they might capture an asteroid and mine it and then sell the raw materials to operators of space stations.”

One concept, he said, is to secure an asteroid, wrap it in a ‘blanket’ to heat it, capture the evaporated water and then condense it.

“The economics start to stack up when you consider NASA spends about US$10,000 a litre of water on the international space station. Capturing 200,000 litres of water from a very small asteroid is quite conceivable. It doesn’t need to be very big and that water can be sold to temper the price of what NASA currently pays or return US$200 million.”

Demand for the space elevator and for building things in space will be driven by people wanting to go into space themselves, said Leske.

“It’s not efficient or even that sensible for humans to go into space. We are not built for it and it’s dangerous. But that won’t stop us. The desire to experience space will outweigh the technological problems and will be the critical driver in the development of launch options and ultimately space-based work.

“I think a useful analogy here is to sailing. Why do people hop into flimsy little sailing boats and get blown about the harbour? It’s not about getting from A to B, it’s not about comfort, but it’s about pursuit of skill, of competition, and a thirst for knowledge. It’s about the experience. As the future of work sees a reduction in the traditional jobs we have come to know and love, we will see steady growth in the jobs that provide human experience and space will be the critical environment. Because, well, there’s plenty of space.”

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