Chetan Goshalia, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, SqwidNet.

Let’s start with the parade of scary numbers and predictions that seem inescapable. The WEF estimates that by 2022, over 75 million jobs will be lost, hopefully to be replaced by 133 million new jobs. In the UK, one-fifth of all jobs are at serious risk of automation. An Accenture report places that figure for South Africa at 35% of jobs. And these are the optimistic figures; some radical futurists are talking about 99% automation.

In terms of solutions, there have been some creative ideas such as universal basic incomes, yet thus far, studies don’t support their effectiveness. Another argument is that people need to be upskilled, which sounds just dandy until you take in another fact: when the first industrial revolution occurred, the solution was also upskilling.

Since machines of that era didn’t really impact most human activities, the upskilling transition was feasible. But not for horses: the number of horses plunged worldwide and has never recovered, because horses can’t be upskilled into new jobs. AI automation may be creating the same dead end for future job seekers. In response, the argument has been that everyone should ‘learn to code’, a phrase that has become so derogatory Twitter now bans accounts using it.

‘Learn to code’ is patently absurd, because not everyone can be a programmer or STEM wiz. Surely there must be much more for people to do in the future than codify machine actions?

A future for non-technologists

“I believe that IOT can be a conduit for grassroots training and use cases,” says Chetan Goshalia, Chief Sales and Marketing Officer of SqwidNet. “The real miracle is not how good machines are becoming, but how the gap between the digital and physical worlds is closing. We’ve been talking about this for years now, about how sensors are becoming cheaper, platforms make services more accessible and connectivity glues everything together. So, we talk about smart homes and smart cities. But, what about smart jobs?”

What is a smart job? The future will have many roles for those who want to wade neck-deep into technology: data analysts, 3D printing designers, even emerging roles such as an organisational disruptor, who acts as an innovation consultant for companies, or an education guide, who is like a life coach but advises on educational choices.

The world of tomorrow is more modular and roles will be spread beyond the paradigm of a nine-to-five job. This happens to create room for other job opportunities as well: “Let’s say you are a plumber and you want to monitor the drip trays of your customers so you can preempt a geyser bursting. You don’t necessarily need to know coding to do that. By combining off-the-shelf sensors with a monitoring platform, you’re pretty much there. The technical design and knowledge could go to a freelance programmer.”

As technology becomes more available and affordable through cloud platforms, low-power WANs, turnkey consumer equipment, skill marketplaces and low-code environments, it starts to look much more feasible.

“Computational costs are collapsing. South Africa is producing more devices and sensors. But we must demonstrate the nuance IOT and digital offer. The more people know about technology, the faster we’ll start evolving jobs to fit into the future.”

Digital artisans

That is the key point here: while some jobs will disappear, many are still compatible with the future, if only they can find their alignment with it. Artisanal jobs such as plumbing and electrics not only fit into that mould, but they already display the entrepreneurial mindset that is critical to future jobs.

Skills such as communication, business management, design thinking and problem-solving may not be taught with many degrees, but are sure lessons in any artisan’s career. IOT can be the conduit that keeps them relevant in the future.

The places to start are in communities and at educational facilities. Contests and seminars that introduce people to the potential of IOT ecosystems spark new ideas, especially as they can use the context of local problems. Sqwidnet has been promoting IOT literacy through a number of events and contests. Bringing these closer to the people who can use them is critical.

“We technologists might have good ideas, but we don’t live in the environments where they matter,” Goshalia says. “If we can show people that they don’t necessarily have to be highly skilled to start seeing the advantage of these technologies, or that they can start creating change for their communities even with introductory IOT skills, amazing things can be accomplished.”

The future will shed many jobs. But the answer isn’t solely to upskill people. There is also room to improve existing jobs, if they can see the value and growing ease of adopting IOT solutions.