Innovation AND Jobs—They’re Not Mutually Exclusive


This article was written by David Nordfors, president of IIIJ Innovation and Communication; Sven Otto Littorin, former Minister for Employment of Sweden; and Anders Flodström, vice chair of the executive committee of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. Nordfors, Littorin, and Flodström are co-organizing the IIIJ International Summit on Innovation and Jobs, March 18-19, 2013, in Silicon Valley.

Innovation drives three quarters of the world’s GDP growth. It destroys old jobs and creates a need for new ones. But the old pegs are not fitting the new holes and unemployment is rising. We can’t stop people from innovating; we can’t pay people for doing unwanted work; and we can’t pay people for doing nothing. So we need innovation that creates wealth AND jobs.

How many economies are organized to do both? Few, today. But it can be done.

At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, four out of five Americans worked in agriculture. Now it’s three in a hundred. Mechanization transformed agriculture into a productive, innovative industry. Today people don’t complain about those lost jobs. Innovation created new industrial and white-collar jobs instead. Nations and societies reaped the benefits.

Information technology represents a new industrial revolution. Now white-collar jobs are vanishing, along with intellectual, service and manufacturing jobs. Teaching is going online, apps are replacing bricks-and-mortar services, and robots are replacing people. Supply chains globally are being optimized for efficiency. Better communications are simplifying global outsourcing. IT drives all of these phenomena.

The problem is that the world’s present labor-market systems can’t handle the accelerating rate of innovation. Jobs are evolving faster than educational and employment systems can adapt. The result is rising unemployment even as employers experience a shortage of appropriately skilled employees. Human capacity is under-used or wasted because old ways of matching people with jobs do not work in the innovation economy. Societies cannot just get rid of people the way companies do. So we need an economy that empowers everyone to create value.

Information technology can match people and opportunities in new, better ways, for example by leveraging Big Data to analyze trends, resources and opportunities or by developing better tools for matching people with jobs that fit. It’s time to go beyond standard job labels like “baker” or “software engineer” and match people with diverse knowledge, skill sets and talents with equally diverse opportunities. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were a “job dating service” that selected workers for their unique combinations of capabilities rather than their resemblance to cookie-cutter role models?

But prospective employees, too, must be trained to make better use of information technology. It has become the higher skill that enables people to acquire other skills and knowledge. IT is the key to lifelong learning, the only learning concept that meets the requirements of the constant change produced by the innovation economy. Today, many young people acquire such skills at home rather than in the classroom. Education needs to do a better job of training people in IT literacy, so that they can use information technology for augmenting their own intelligence and creativity, as well as working with others.

The reforms needed to foster innovation AND jobs are complex and will require collaboration across disciplines and stakeholder groups. Organizational culture is an issue: government departments for enterprise, employment, and education don’t talk much, for example. In science and education it is not easy to cross disciplines. In companies, innovation and HR operations are separate, especially in large organizations. Innovation economists don’t manage jobs; labor economists don’t handle innovation.

Here are just a few of the tasks ahead of us:

* Innovation economists need to agree on how to measure innovation’s contribution to job creation and job satisfaction.

* Labor economists need to consider the power of job creation to improve economic growth and fiscal balance, and find ways to to measure the return on investment in job creation.

* Leaders need to measure the success of innovation for jobs in terms of long-term improvements in what people need: satisfaction, happiness, health, and so on.

We need a common language for discussing the link between innovation, labor and quality of life. Leaders must mix disciplines and bridge cultures. It means a different paradigm for decision making. It’s less about filling the slots and more about bridging them, questioning them, and changing them, while continuing to consider all people valuable.

To address these issues, IIIJ Innovation and Communication is organizing an international summit on innovation and jobs, to take place March 18-19, 2013. We are bringing together 100 selected leaders from politics, academia, business and the media to discuss innovation and jobs. The summit has been made possible by a seed sponsorship from Google and Vint Cerf, who is the Chairman of the Executive Advisory Board, and will be hosted at SRI International in Menlo Park by SRI’s President Curtis Carlson. Other sponsors include Bloomberg Government and the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Xconomy is a summit media partner.

The conference will inspire, give direction and purpose and build new contact networks. Technology, business and political leaders will mix. We aim at making this into a recurring event, with activities in between. The aim is to develop a global network of leaders that develop and share new solutions.

For more information about the summit and sponsorship opportunities, contact David Nordfors, [email protected]

David Nordfors is the CEO and Co-founder of IIIJ. Follow @dnordfors

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3 responses to “Innovation AND Jobs—They’re Not Mutually Exclusive”

  1. You are right that the pace of change is accelerating. But you are assuming that the creation of new jobs will match the number of jobs lost. The skills that employers need have certainly changed but that’s a specialized and smaller part of the workforce. The fact is that we are rapidly accelerating into a world where not all of us need to, or can be, working productively all the time. How do we deal with that world?

    • Tom – I am very happy to see you in this discussion! All people can provide value to others in new ways, but our economies are not organized to enable it. I hope to see you more in this discussion – your voice is important!

  2. I agree – this is a wicked problem, especially for moving beyond win/lose oil economics because the consequences of Global Climate Change forces human and natural systems on a pathway of mutual decline, or Co-Devolution.

    For example – a Call for Action: Larry Ellison Will Turn His Hawaiian Island Into A Big Experiment (Oct. 3, 2012)

    “I’m going to turn Lanai into a model for sustainable enterprise. And what I mean by that is—in Lanai, I own the water utility, I own the electric utility, and the electric utility is all going to be solar photovoltaic and solar thermal where it can convert sea water into fresh water. And then we have drip irrigation where we are going to have organic farms all over the island. Hopefully we are going to export produce—really the best, organic produce to Japan and elsewhere. And … we are going to support the local people and help them start these businesses. We will have electric cars. So it is going to be a little, if you will, laboratory for sustainability in businesses of small scale.” –Larry Ellison, CEO Oracle

    The growth of one system cannot continue to come at the other’s expense. We need a new model to guide the way we build the future
    so that the Human Network and the Natural System can develop and evolve together, in a pattern of “Co-Evolution.”

    Population and economic growth will accelerate. This creates the imperative to more effectively guide and manage the patterns and
    processes of that growth. Weaving together the Human Network and the Natural System will allow them to evolve together as systems.

    So your call to action is even more viable and pressing today as the scope and method of interaction and collaboration become increasingly distributed, networked, cross-functional, cross-disciplinary, cross-organizational, cross-cultural, interdependent, complex, and urgent on a global scale.

    “To improve our collective ability to solve the world’s problems, we must harness the immense promise and power of technology.” Bootstrapping Innovation provides a structure for empowering people to solve complex problems together — leveraging the untapped potential of people, knowledge, and tools — to help us make smarter choices, achieve more brilliant outcomes, and increase innovation capacity and overall effectiveness.” — Dr. Dougjas Engelbart (Founder Emeritus at

    His prescription for the technology is essentially a checklist of what is still missing in today’s tools that, when embedded in our knowledge ecosystems, will enable us to make quantum leap improvements in the way we work together on important challenges in business and society “Toward Boosting Our Collective IQ: A Knowledge-Centric Approach” (Mar. 10, 2011) – download at

    For instance, bootstrapping (e.g., systematically like powerful compounding interest A-Task; B-Improve A; C-Improve B to improve A collective intelligence to work on a global threat (3:22 min.)

    A) Collective Team Intelligence (5:17 min.)

    B) New Technology Means New Organizations (1:51 min.)

    C) The Collective Intelligence Genome (3:21 min.)

    Accordingly, we have always had great difficulty getting our minds around large, complex issues – so-called “wicked problems”. The sustainability of the planet and human civilization is clearly one such, where a failure to do good longrange thinking has prevented real progress in getting the interested parties to work together. We have also had great difficulty agreeing on fundamental underlying assumptions for dealing with wicked problems, as the history of political disagreement shows. But the development of foresight methodologies such as scenario building and computer modelling has begun to help outline ways of looking at our longrange difficulties and opportunities.

    As above so below, human and natural systems are on a path of mutual decline, or Co-Devolution.

    a) What is the future saying to me?
    b) With that in mind, who am I to become?
    c) What is now my purpose in life?