At The Attic, we recently caught up with Matthew Taylor, director of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) to talk about innovation and the future of the workplace. This topic is particularly timely as the government just responded to Matthew Taylor’s Good Work: Review of Modern Working Practices and published four consultation documents. At a time when the legal profession is increasingly turning to AI and automation, we discuss the meaning of innovation and how this will impact how we work.
What is the role of innovation in society and what should it be?
Innovation is about facing new challenges – whether they come from technology, climate or politics – and providing new solutions, but we should also continue to support human progress. We’ll always meet new challenges and we’ll always want to achieve more in life, but innovation should aim to bring a step forward for humanity.
The RSA has been involved with innovation for 260 years. This has involved, amongst others, different ways of working. There was no such thing as the welfare state when the RSA was founded in 1754. Ultimately, we are about ideas and actions behind social progress. As a progressive organisation, we continue to push progress. We do it via three key themes that we believe have the most impact for people: Creative Learning and Development, Public Services & Communities and Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing.
We also have a community of 29,000 fellows, who support us with their donations, forming networks and taking initiatives that the RSA support.
What is the best innovation you have seen recently?
The most innovative work that I’ve seen recently is not a product, it’s understanding an issue in a different way. This is the RSA’s work on economic insecurity. Economic security can be a powerful and effective way of understanding social problems.
What is the worst innovation you have seen recently?
In terms of worse innovations, a lots of things are pretty awful, such as products that damage the environment without doing much. About 10 years ago, I was particularly dismayed when I entered in an electronic shop and saw a digital photo frame. This is a photo frame that you have to charge and all it does is showing a rolling slideshow in people’s homes. To me, that just adds to the amount of junk in the world. More recently in 2017, I learned about a platform for retail workers that would portray shop workers as self-employed. It’s a terrible idea.
Talking about innovation and work, how did you see the future of the gig economy and of professions in general?
I am happy with the idea of the gig economy but we need a level playing field. The gig economy should not be about the capacity to avoid paying taxes. It should be about making sure that innovation and productivity get rewarded and to get to that stage, we need new policies. How can we have a sustainable fiscal and regulatory framework so that people can work? That’s an interesting question. The government commissioned a report on modern working practices in 2017 and some of my report touches on the gig economy.
Regarding the future of professions, it is pretty clear that they won’t disappear. However, the nature of professions will change because of artificial intelligence and robotics. It will be less about having and transferring knowledge, because machines are better at this than we are, and more about human creativity and communication. To which extent professions are altered remains to be seen. In The Age of Automation: Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Low-Skilled Work, the RSA discusses how robotics and AI could lead to a better way to work with the implementation of certain safeguards.
In your opinion, how will innovation drive productivity improvements?
Innovation should change productivity improvement, but companies that genuinely innovate should drive the wave of change and not, for instance, companies that bend the rules. Take Uber. Uber needs to work in a framework that’s in line with global policy goals and that treats people fairly.
Can innovation be beneficial to the low-skilled workers and how?
Yes, I’ve got a good recent example. Tesco has a new app that will allow staff to work wherever they want to work and that’s a great example of good innovation that enables people. Along those lines, I’m particularly interested in ‘worker tech,’ digital tools that enable the self-employed to support each other via platforms. It is my belief that worker tech will give these people a voice and help them organise themselves so they can get together, make demands together and communicate together.
What resources/programmes does the RSA offer to the professional community?
We are a professional community, with our 29,000 fellows, but we also bring inspiration, ideas and routes for engagement to them. We work hard to make it feel like the fellowship is not a private members club, but a group of people interested in working together and making the world a better place.