Future of work

We need an innovation shock

ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, tells participants at a Ford Foundation and ILO event in New York that the world of work needs to innovate to meet the challenges of the future of work.

Statement | Ford Foundation, New York | 23 September 2019
Thank you to Darren Walker for a very warm and thoughtful introduction and for the hospitality shown by the Ford Foundation in having us all here this afternoon. But above all, for his leadership of the Ford Foundation in helping to address some of the, I think, critical issues that together we are here to address, as we think further about the future of work.

I say think further because in this, its Centenary year, the ILO has undertaken a fairly elaborate initiative around the future of work. I'm not going to trouble you with all of the details of it but we started by inviting our member States around the world to have national tripartite – government, employer and worker - dialogues about the future of work as they saw it from their particular perspectives.

We then established a Global Commission on the Future of Work under the joint presidency of Prime Minister Löfven of Sweden and President Ramaphosa of South Africa. That Global Commission delivered its report in January and on the basis of that and other inputs, our Conference in June adopted a Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work. That is, if you like, the processes that led us to where we are right now.

Now I think that the ILO was mindful as this debate took shape that we were dealing with issues which were important not only for the future of our own Organization but had I think particular resonance given the context in which the exercise was undertaken and was of critical importance to the future of our societies as a whole. We heard it said frequently in our deliberations that when we talk about the future of work we are already talking about issues which are of fundamental importance to the future of our societies.

The notion which Darren mentioned of reinvigorating the social contract, which holds us all together, was very much present in our discussions. Now the Declaration that was adopted in June, I think, sets before us a very important agenda for action. It puts forward what it describes as a human-centred agenda for the future of work. It's an agenda, which if I distil it to its fundamental components, calls for investments. Investments in three critical areas.
  • Investments in people - investments in their capacities to navigate the future transitions that the future of work will bring.
  • Secondly investments in the institutions of work, the regulations the mechanisms of bargaining processes - all of those things which make the world of work today what it is but which need looking at, as this transformative change takes hold.
  • And then thirdly investments in the sustainable employment of the future - the jobs of tomorrow. The most frequently asked question about the future of work is and continues to be - you may not think it's well placed but it is - where are the jobs of the future going to come from?
And we had to answer all of those questions, or at least do our best to. And so what you find in the ILO Declaration is a strong proposal for investments in these areas - and taken in the aggregate – a human-centred approach for the future of work that we want. That's all well and good. We have a document adopted in the meeting halls of Geneva. The acid test of the value of this process is what happens next.

It has been enormously encouraging for the International Labour Organization that the United Nations General Assembly has already adopted a resolution, which welcomes the ILO Declaration and which calls on member States to integrate the basic terms of that Declaration in their national policies and also calls on the different parts of the international system to mainstream the Declaration in its own work and clearly chimes - the content of the Declaration - very strongly with the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

So there is real momentum, I believe, as we draw near the close of the ILO Centenary year. There is real momentum in what we have achieved. And I think we can take some justifiable satisfaction in that but perhaps limited satisfaction necessarily. As I was crossing the road to come to the Ford Foundation from the UN about an hour ago, I ran into the Deputy Secretary-General and I asked her, what do you think of the Climate Action summit?

And she said, “yeah it's okay. But the important work is what happens tomorrow, the day after” and I'm tempted to say to you the same thing.

The importance of the good work that's been done at the ILO this year depends entirely on what happens next. And that's where I think this meeting and I think Darren is right to describe it as a marker in a forward journey. This meeting I hope will help us to think now about what are the solutions, what the innovative solutions we need to design can look like so that we give substance and reality to this, I think, very important agenda that the ILO and its member State governments, employers and workers have hammered out over the past year.

In that regard the key word I believe is innovation. Now the Global Commission on the Future of Work itself recommended that the ILO set up what it described in that report as an innovation lab. A facility within the ILO which would examine and try to put into place innovative solutions leveraging the technologies that we now have available for our use to design and put into operation the types of solutions that we need, to address emerging workplace - some of them new some of them not so new - emerging workplace difficulties and challenges.

The ILO in our own programme, within our own resources, is working hard to give substance to this notion of innovation facilities. But I have two things in mind. Firstly the ILO - this is a secret! – is a bit like an oil tanker, it doesn't change direction that quickly. So it does require a major effort on the part of the ILO and its political bosses who are sitting in the front row talking to each other. But it does- take an effort for us to change direction somewhat.

And secondly we need help. We understand very well that we need to partner, more than we've done in the past, more effectively than we've done in the past, with others who can bring solutions to the table can help us, can guide us - even fund us - who knows. So this is, I think, a point at which I want to throw out the idea. How can we all work together, better perhaps than we have in the past to define these innovative solutions that the ILO is committed to applying to the great challenges of the day?

What sort of things could we look at? Skills - we are clear that lifelong learning is a key to success in the future of work. Well, how can we deliver that lifelong learning process? How is it going to be done? Who's going to take responsibility? Who's going to finance it? Similarly on the issue today, of this Global Climate Summit, how are we going to make this just transition to a carbon neutral sustainable future happen? There's one place where we need innovative thinking and not just that - action. Anybody who listened to Greta this morning understands the urgency. Well it's in the question of climate change and just transition and I could go on.

But I think you see the point, I'm reminded, talking of the future of work, of the book written a few decades ago now on future shock. Well we need an innovation shock I think. We cannot simply continue on the pace of change that that has become habitual in our work up until this point. We have actually to apply to ourselves the types of transformative change, which are being applied to the world of work. So I'm really looking forward to listening to you all. Again thank you for being here, thanks to the Ford Foundation and I wish you all a very successful deliberation this afternoon.

Thank you.