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Inspiring Trend 4 October Oct 2017 1119 4 October 2017

Andrea Garnero, OECD: “Watch out for technophobia: the fear of innovation can be more harmful than innovation itself”

Nothing could be worse than closing up like a clam and trying to stem technology because we find it intimidating. All this does is make us lose contact with the frontier of innovation, and turn away the best young talents

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Andrea Garnero is a young economist working for the Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs of the OECD. He is one of the few economists to air his doubts - or rather, his certainties - on the million-dollar question that forms the basis of any opinion on the digital revolution: does it create or cut jobs? There are those, like the Nobel Prize winning economist Daron Acemoglu, who believe that for every robot per thousand workers, up to six workers will lose their jobs. Then there are those, like the director of the Italian Institute of Technology Roberto Cingolani, who maintain that robots will save mankind through “exoskeletons designed to help people walk, or remote control systems designed to help perform surgical operations without having to cut the chest open”.

“It is very difficult to talk about work in this phase of ongoing transformation,” Mr Garnero admits. “There are plenty of estimates around. Some say that robotics will steal as many as 50% of our jobs. Estimates from the OECD suggest that 9% of jobs are at risk, but these figures do not consider the new jobs that will be created. All of these estimates can be questioned. The point is to understand what we need to metabolise change instead of creating panic." However, he makes no attempt to dodge the challenge. Nor does he deny the existence of the problem: “Yes, technology is a serious problem, let us make no mistake. But no less than the effect of globalisation, which involves different production processes being carried out in different parts of the world, each adding value to the goods produced: in other words, the global value chain. And then there’s our ageing population, which poses significant issues in terms of welfare and pensions.”

Although it may seem like a paradox, the main problem is that fear of innovation creates more trouble than innovation itself. In other words, if we become fossilised on existing technologies and refuse to learn about new ones, we risk lagging behind, without realising that at some point we will in any case be overpowered by them: “Most than jobs losses, I would worry about the speed of change,” Mr Garnero explains. “If the change occurs over a whole generation, we can take it on board rather easily. If it occurs in just a few years, instead, things are much more complicated, especially for older workers who are less inclined to change”.

If we become fossilised on existing technologies and refuse to learn about new ones, we risk lagging behind, without realising that at some point we will in any case be overpowered by them.

Andrea Garnero, economist

This is a very serious problem for Italy. The Global Shapers Annual Survey of the World Economic Forum - perhaps the most accurate survey in capturing the demands, dreams, ideals and values of the generation born into the digital, globalised world - states that Italy holds little attraction for the generation of globalised digital natives. When these young people are asked in which country they think they could fulfil their desires for the future, they mention the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, France, Spain, Sweden and Holland, just to mention the first ten.

The reasons? There are many, ranging from sluggish bureaucracy to a traditionalist social sphere. But it is above all the former that we should worry about, because it is the most insidious. Globalised digital natives are optimistic about technology. In Italy, instead, there is endless talk about taxes on robots that will steal our jobs, while the truth of the matter is that eight out of ten young people think that technology will create new ones. At this point, their only choice is to go elsewhere, and to let our technophobic country to remain a prisoner of its fears.