Blog and news
August 1, 2023

IFOW newsletter August 2023 | The view from IFOW

Dear all,

We hope that you are enjoying the summer and get an opportunity for a break before autumn comes around. With all that is going on in the Future of Work space, it promises to be a very full run-up to the end of the year.

The Pissarides Review into the Future of Work and Wellbeing - our major, multi-year project made possible by a grant from the Nuffield Foundation - is now moving into the phase of releasing research findings, and we are looking forward to sharing these with you over the coming months.

Across a number of workstreams, our team of leading academics have been doing pioneering work on automation risk and worker wellbeing, developing the UK’s first ‘Disruption Index’, a major survey of UK firms to better understand how human resource management impacts automation, and a survey of workers in local areas to explore how automation and AI are affecting their work and wellbeing.

We will shortly be publishing a series of literature reviews to underpin this work, and then working papers, explainers and briefings over the coming months. These will be supported by events for policymakers, industry leaders and academics to understand the implications of this work for the UK labour market at a key time for us as a country as we navigate this technological transition.

Our most recent event saw Sir Michael Barber (leading the government’s skills review), El Iza Mohamedou (Head of Skills, OECD), and Professor Mark Stuart (co-Director of Digit Research Centre) join Professor Jolene Skordis - one of the leads on the Pissarides Review - discuss the capability approach as a way of rethinking the UK skills picture. You can see a recording of the session below.

Anna and the IFOW team

Deep Dive: Reframing Automation - Why is technology not making us more productive?

A BBC report this week raised the question of why - given that we so often hear touted that we are in the midst of an unprecedented technological revolution - productivity isn’t also booming. “It feels like we are continuing to go through a huge period of innovation and technological advancement, but at the same time, productivity has slowed to a crawl. How can you explain this apparent paradox?

It is encouraging to see the inevitability of ‘technology = productivity’ being questioned. Interviewed for the piece, Professor Dame Diane Coyle raises skills as one dimension of the challenge — an area we covered in our July APPG on the Future of Work session (see video above) and in our explainer, ‘Reframing Skills.’

“High productivity growth,” the BBC article concludes, “will come only to those that learn how to use [technology] best.”

What this misses is that part of the problem may be the focus on 'low-road' routes to value capture through cognitive automation. As Professor Daron Acemoglu outlined at our January conference on the Future of Work and Wellbeing, advanced technologies such as AI are currently not being used to do new tasks that could quite radically change productivity, but quite routine clerical tasks, adding very little to productivity gains - though having a large impact on job quality:

Just published in the last two weeks, our new paper ‘Reframing Automation - a new model for anticipating risks and impacts’, offers an in-depth analysis of different types of automation and the kinds of value-creation that they could offer. In doing so, it highlights how different types of automation can impact the quality and conditions of work in significant ways, with different outcomes for different groups, and different impacts on productivity:

Front Cover of Reframing automation report

Interesting reads / watches / listens

Creating a Good-Jobs economy in the UK

As part of the Economy 2030 project, the Resolution Foundation has published an essay on “what a good-jobs economy could look like in the context of governance, innovation and growth in the UK”, highlighting four pillars that should be put in place to support this. IFOW has pioneered the promotion of Good Work as a cross-cutting policy objective and we are encouraged to see how this is being adopted by other organisations too.

Regulating Transformative Technologies

Daron Acemoglu and Todd Lensman have a working paper published this month that develops “a multi-sector technology adoption model to study the optimal regulation of transformative technologies when society can learn about these risks over time.” Understanding that it is “unclear whether slowing the development and adoption of a promising, transformative technology would ever make sense”, they set out to develop a framework to answer that question. 

Remote work across jobs, companies and space

The Centre for Economic Performance has published a new analysis of job postings that highlights remote or hybrid work, achieving far greater accuracy than previous methods. Using this data, they are then able to explore in greater detail the distribution of remote work, highlighting that it is “highly non-uniform across and within cities, industries, occupations, and companies. Even when zooming in on employers in the same industry competing for talent in the same occupations, we find large differences in the share of job postings that explicitly offer remote work.”

What is a foundation model?

The Ada Lovelace Institute has produced an ‘explainer’ on foundation models - also known as ‘General Purpose AI’ - of which ChatGPT is an example. Because foundation models can be built on top of different applications for many purposes, this makes them difficult to regulate. But it also means that regulation of them is very important. 

The data workforce in the developing world building LLMs

By reviewing disturbing, grotesque content, often for wages of just two to three dollars an hour, data workers in Kenya helped make ChatGPT safe. But what was the personal cost to them? This podcast episode from the Wall Street Journal investigates the digital sweatshops that AI tools rely on to create the data that they are trained on, and the outsourcing of traumatic data-work to the global south. In contrast, as Time reports, a start up in India is selling data to big tech companies and other clients at the market rate. But instead of keeping much of that cash as profit, it covers its costs and funnels the rest toward the rural poor. “I genuinely feel this is the quickest way to move millions of people out of poverty if done right,” says CEO, Manu Chopra.

How effective is current UK law in protecting from AI harms?

AWO has a new report out which analyses the UK’s current legal regime to test how effective it is at protecting individuals from AI harms. Their summary? “There are significant gaps in the effective protection from AI harms in the current regulatory regime, and [...] the Government’s proposed data protection reforms are set to make this worse.”

Employers’ Digital Practices at Work Survey

Mark Stuart, who spoke at our APPG event on skills a few weeks ago, is the lead author of a survey by Digit Futures of Work Research Centre on Digital Practices at Work. It finds that “employer investment in digital technologies appears to be positively associated with employment growth, future investment and employee involvement practices. However, only a minority of employers were ‘digital adopters’ with seemingly little appetite for future investment in AI. Employers’ investment in skills and training also appeared to be low.”

Events / Opportunities

CogX Festival - How Do We Get The Next 10 Years Right? (Sept 12th-14th)

We are pleased to partner again with CogX, whose cross-disciplinary festival of ideas this September looks at the challenges that we need to get right over the next decade. We helped develop their Future of Work stream and look forward to the wide-ranging programme that they have on offer this year.

Building Momentum in Birmingham and Beyond (14th September, Birmingham, and online)

Our friends at the Resolution Foundation are holding a series of events focused on different regions and the particular challenges that they face. The next focuses on Birmingham.

“The West Midlands has played a pivotal role in British history as a manufacturing hub, driving innovation and economic growth which led to dramatic improvements in people’s living standards. But its city region has struggled to maintain this role over recent decades, and productivity is now 11 per cent below the national average.” 

TED Tech London (18th-19th September, London)

We are thrilled to be partnering with Leaders Quest and TED to convene a workshop on creativity, innovation and the future of work as part of this major event on London’s Southbank. TED Tech is a new, two-day event bringing together technology, art and culture that brings ideas and insights from artists, builders, technologists and business leaders, helping us navigate the age of uncertainty.

TUC - Negotiating for a Just Transition (Course begins 2nd October)

This TUC course aims to equip union reps and officers to respond strategically to the challenge of giving workers a voice on the transition to a net-zero economy. The course will also develop understanding of the wider impact of the green transition on issues such as workplace skills, jobs, equality and health and safety


Anna Thomas


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