I would like to thank Xiao Chang for contributing to this post.
In mid-19th century New York City, the informal limit on the height of buildings was six stories; people weren’t willing to climb any higher. Then along came Elisha Otis and his “hoisting machine.” The elevator broke that limit and the age of the skyscraper began. With a more productive use of land, the city enjoyed even stronger growth.
Today, productivity is about more than just the effective use of land. The story of recent times has been one of weak human labor productivity in the major economies, across business cycles and despite occasional bumps.
There are many physical and cognitive obstacles to human productivity in businesses. For example, injuries disrupt production processes, and fatigue reduces efficiency. A mix of new technologies is offering an opportunity to break current limits. For example, an exoskeleton that provides additional physical support to factory workers enables them to perform strenuous tasks longer; a seahorse-inspired tail with built-in artificial muscles that improves balance and strength; or a mix of robotic process automation and artificial intelligence (AI) that helps lawyers quickly analyze reams of information.
Technology can make us more productive when it comes to manual work and cognitive work, unlocking new economic value.
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Making people more effective at work
That led us to wonder whether a series of emerging technologies could truly change the game and break the current physical and cognitive limits to performing some jobs. We approached this with the idea that human limits can be expanded with the help of next-generation technologies.
Technology can make us more productive when it comes to manual work and cognitive work, unlocking new economic value. To quantify that potential value, we focused on the technology-driven time savings in different work activities.
Think, for instance, about technologies enabling us to learn faster and better, such as virtual reality (VR), transcranial stimulation, memory patches or even the temperature in an office.
To estimate their potential impacts, we defined a three-step approach:
Step 1: Identify work activities constrained by human limits.
We assumed if we could enhance the work activities that are both important and highly proficient, there would be significant impact on the economic output. We used the O*Net database, which broke down different occupations into tasks and activities common across various occupations.
Step 2: Assess the possibility of breaking the physical and cognitive limits to performing a job.
We conducted a qualitative assessment (including interviews, research and technology development projections) to determine the extent to which abilities required to perform activities can be enhanced by technology. And then, we calculated the “enhanceability ratio for all activities within each occupation.
Step 3: Based on the proportion of time to perform work activities in each occupation, we estimated tech-driven time savings.
We then matched the time savings per occupation with the industry structure to get the time-saving at country level. The results are spectacular: By converting the tech-driven time savings across all occupations, we found that overcoming human limits could increase 2030 GDP growth rates by at least 20% for the 10 studied economies, compared to the baseline forecast.
Buying time in the future
Will Warren Buffet’s wisdom “the only thing you cannot buy is time” be challenged by such a new approach to productivity?
If, as this new research suggests, nearly half the workers in developed economies could save a significant amount of time in their working day, you could indeed buy time.
Companies will need to support the rollout of these technologies with a fresh talent strategy that emphasizes developing a detailed and specific set of skills, accelerated learning, and an environment that boosts creativity. By improving these three factors and the way they interact, these technologies will help overcome many of the current limits to human performance and save time for most workers.
If nearly half the workers in developed economies could save a significant amount of time in their working day, you could indeed buy time.
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Most existing research focuses on value created within a current situation. We re-imagined what is possible driven by the convergence of next-generation technologies. Economic modeling, like we used to conduct this research, allows us to quantify the economic impact that can be unlocked by breaking human limits.