Revolutionary change is a threat but also an opportunity for our economy

Artificial intelligence challenges assumptions about working life. Picture: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images
Artificial intelligence challenges assumptions about working life. Picture: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images
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If there was ever any doubt that we are living through an era of accelerating change for our economy, the events of the last few years will have ended it. It’s beyond doubt that the days of steady evolution are over, and the era of constant revolutionary change is upon us.

As we contemplate the future, we need to recognise the threats that continual disruption pose to our economic position, but must also see the opportunities that will be presented by an economy that will quickly move beyond the digital age. In starting out as the new Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI) chief executive, it’s the huge opportunity that change may present to our country that inspires me in my new role.

I am clear above all that SCDI’s role must be to lead the national debate on how we build economic and social prosperity for the long term. With more than 1,200 members from across industry and civil society, we are uniquely placed to inform and lead that conversation. We are Scotland’s social and economic forum, and our objective must be to support the creation of our national economic vision for our future in 2050.

The impact of demographic change and changing expectations for the labour market will pose real and deep-rooted questions about how we deliver the workforce our future economy needs, one that will be truly sustainable. The impact of artificial intelligence and the internet will change daily life in the workplace and society outside it in a way that could significantly disrupt our long-held assumptions about the balance between work and personal time. The changing way in which companies will expect to collaborate in order to exploit new commercial opportunities will challenge our assumptions on how we encourage, regulate and tax commercial activity.

These are big, global challenges, for sure, but as a nation I believe we are up to addressing them and bringing forward the answers that will result in an economy that works for every part of our society.

However, to deliver the answers we need, some things will have to change.

We need to move the debate over our future economic direction above the tactical and the reactive, on to a level which is strategic and focuses on the long term view. Too often the need to feed the 24-hour news cycle and be seen to be “doing something”, drives us all into short-termism, and responses which are long on PR and short on vision. We need to change that thinking, and that change needs to happen in government, in parliament, in businesses or in wider society. We are all actors in our economy.

Secondly, we need to commit to ending the belief that the needs of our economy and the needs of our society are different. They are not. In the future economy they should be seen as two sides of the same coin, not alternatives. For example, we need to think inside businesses and in wider society about how we can provide greater employment opportunities for the young and the elderly. To do so, and to provide strategic answers will be good for our society, providing fulfilling roles into the future for those who at present look like being excluded. But the right answers will also be good for business and the wider economy as we re-profile a workforce that is sustainable.

And thirdly, we need to retain an absolute focus on our future economy working for every part of the country. In particular, there is a real danger that the rural economy is left behind as the opportunities of the future unfold. This might be an area where we can bring together real expertise into a strategic commission and plan for a future where rural Scotland will be seen as a massive economic resource, not a marginal opportunity. As we move forward through the remainder of my first six months at SCDI, I hope there is much more we can say about this important theme.

The time for a real focus on the future economy is now. Under my leadership, SCDI will make no apologies for being a thorn in the side of those making nakedly short- term decisions. In the face of unfolding revolutionary change, the time is now right for us to start to own our economic future.

Mark Bevan is chief executive of SCDI, @SCDIceo