The roaring twenties: can tech innovations lead a global revival?

As struggling economies around the world adjust to a different model, investors are backing new technology not just to improve performance but to create a more equitable workplace

As organisations around the world nervously await an economic bounce-back in the aftermath of the global pandemic, a narrative is emerging in which various types of new technology will ride to the rescue. This narrative has a name – the ‘roaring twenties’ – and the story goes that a decade that has brought us little but anxiety thus far is set to accelerate with a whoosh of innovation to leave all our troubles behind.

As narratives go, this belief that the sunny uplands are within reach would be easier to accept if the recent records on technology were not so patchy. From state-sponsored cyber-attacks and social media extremism to slow growth in company productivity and stresses in healthcare delivery, technology has been part of the problem as often as it has been part of the solution.

‘Even the high-tech lustre of switching to remote working is wearing thin…’

Even the high-tech lustre of switching the world’s biggest companies to remote working and virtual  teams almost overnight during the coronavirus crisis is starting to wear thin the longer the hibernation at home goes on.

Nevertheless, serious commentators have voiced optimism about the future and called on governments intent on greater regulation to give tech a chance. According to The Economist, there are three main reasons to look on the bright side: first, the discovery of new technologies; second, investment in them; and, third, their adoption by workers and consumers alike.

Scientific spirits raised

So could new technology really prompt a lasting change of fortune? It is true that the global success in developing vaccines during the pandemic has done much to raise scientific spirits. A flurry of recent discoveries in such areas as medicine, artificial intelligence and urban mobility has reinstalled a belief in progress. Self-driving cars are on the road, the price of renewable energy is coming down and data-driven workplaces offering a better experience alongside careful cost control are on the horizon.

Booming investment in technology is another reason for cheer in innovation circles. America’s non-residential private sector spent more on computers, software and R&D in the second and third quarters of 2020 than on buildings and industrial equipment, reversing a decade-long trend. Investors are piling into tech stocks. In January 2021, Tesla founder Elon Musk briefly overtook Jeff Bezos of Amazon to become the world’s richest man before the Tesla share price fell.

Business sectors reshaped

Nobody can dispute either the rapid rate of adoption of new technologies from online shopping to video conferencing and telemedicine. Entire business sectors are being reshaped in the digital era, even if hard times on the high street, in managerial employment and in the office property market might dampen the economic mood.

The acid test at the macro level, of course, is whether these innovation trends will enrich societies, lift living standards and reduce inequalities that have been laid bare by the pandemic. Sceptics ask, can the ‘roaring twenties’ really roar?

‘The challenge now is for tech to be inclusive, human in scale and respectful of privacy…’

We know that digital platforms have played their part in increasing inequality by creating more precarious work in a gig economy. We know there are unresolved issues over data privacy and digital surveillance. The challenge now is for technology in the workplace to be fair, inclusive, human in scale, respectful of privacy, and relevant to our lives and not just the bottom line.

As WORKTECH Academy’s coverage can testify, there are enough tech start-ups and established innovation players out there to rise to this challenge and make a real difference as a new hybrid working model emerges. One hundred years ago, the roaring twenties – the 1920s that is – ended in disaster with the Wall Street Crash. We’ve already had enough global shocks this century to insist that the 2020s should unfold in a more positive fashion.

Jeremy Myerson is director of WORKTECH Academy and Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art
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