In the spring of 2015, Justin Bieber brought a new type of technology to the attention of the world through the medium of Instagram. It was the ‘hoverboard’ or ‘Segway’. Bieber and a host of other celebrities rapidly popularised these new devices, then retailing for thousands of pounds, with videos of them riding on stage, around green rooms, and even through airports. The best ones were always of them falling off.
Within a couple of months, the Chinese manufacturers of these devices had ramped up, the designs had been cloned by competitors, and quick-thinking distributors had started to ship them to the UK by the container-load. The price fell from thousands to hundreds. These were going to be the big Christmas hit. Every news channel and newspaper carried explainers for the uninitiated.
Then it all went wrong. By October the Department for Transport had clarified the legal guidance on these devices: they couldn’t legally be ridden on the road or the pavement, or even in parks. Unless you had your own land, there really was nowhere to use them. Then a couple exploded, the result of low-quality batteries and electrical components used in a bid to bring the prices down further.
The market collapsed. The smart importers rapidly switched to the next thing. Some Chinese manufacturers went bust. Companies set up to service and repair these devices, expecting a growing market, found they had no customers. Some retailers took a big hit.
This is a story of high frequency change, a reality for tomorrow’s economy. The gale of creative destruction described by Josef Schumpeter now blows through with unprecedented force. Jobs, companies, even whole ecosystems, explode into life then contract into near-nonexistence in the space of just a few months.
This reality places incredible demands on the workforce of the future, and on those educating them. How do people cope with uncertainty? What are the core skills required to survive and thrive in such an environment? What will be the impact of rising automation? Can we really build a nation of Renaissance people, constantly adaptable to anything and constantly renewing their knowledge and skills?
If we are going to build that nation, then more than ever, we are going to need access to learning and training and retraining throughout life as industry changes, as technology advances, and as the world moves on. Colleges can be key to delivering that – working with employers, working with government, and working with individuals to make sure that not only do we have a workforce with the skills needed to survive and thrive, but also the emotional resilience to face the changing world. That requires thought and action today, from all of us, in politics and education, at work and at home.