Climate change

While policymakers debate, technology experts get to work

Dan Headrick
6 June 2016

6 min read

Although most of the attention at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21) focused on forging legally binding agreements to deal with the challenge of global climate change, technologists lobbied for quick action, clamoring to broadly implement proven techniques.

During the 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), informally known as the 2015 Paris Climate Conference or COP21, 195 countries adopted the world’s first legally binding global climate deal. But Stefaan Simons, dean of engineering at Brunel University London, was less focused on the agreements than on the unusual audiences spilling out the doors of events where he spoke: an enthusiastic group of engineers convinced that they already have many of the answers to battling climate change.

"There was this bottom-up sentiment among the participants,” Simon said of COP21, which committed governments to sharp limits on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the coming decades. “There were lots of groups representing networks of engineers, saying, ‘Yes, we do have the technology. Let’s get on with it. We are the practitioners, and we can do that.’ You could be skeptical, and a lot of people are, but at COP21 there was a recognition that we’ve got to get on with things."


Inspiring – but limited – examples of how engineering the right solutions can reduce humanity’s impact on the planet are cropping up everywhere.

In Zimbabwe, where daily temperatures on the African veld swing from 35 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (1.6 to 40 Celsius), termites build tall mounds that maintain the internal air temperature needed to cultivate the fungus they eat. In Harare, the country’s largest city, architects and engineers designed the Eastgate Centre shopping and office complex to mimic the termites’ self-cooling and self-heating mounds. The structure requires less than 10% of the energy of a conventional building of similar size. Greenhouse gases are slashed, rents are 20% less than for comparable space in the area’s traditional buildings, and the owners save millions each year on air-conditioning costs.

View of the metropolitan cable railway linking El Alto with La Paz in Bolivia (Image © Delkoo / Fotolia)

Half a world away and more than 4,100 meters (13,615 feet) above sea level in the altiplano highlands of the Andes, the city of El Alto, Bolivia, looks down upon the capital city of La Paz, 500 meters (1,700 feet) below. A bus trip to the capital, where family gardeners go to sell produce or buy supplies, can take one hour. But a new network of aerial cable cars has reduced the trip to between 10 and 17 minutes at substantially less cost than by train or bus.

In the bustling streets of Barcelona, meanwhile, city planners harnessing the Internet of Things have integrated computers and sensors placed in buses, bus stops, cars, parking lots and streetlights with a dynamic central management system, reducing the risk of traffic snarls, lowering automobile emissions, cutting power and energy costs, improving waste pickup and optimizing emergency response.


“Cities are the make or break point, the hub of economic activities, the hub of climate change issues,” said Brian Swett, director of cities and sustainable real estate in the Americas for Arup Group, a global urban design, planning, engineering, consulting and technical services company. Arup, which designed the termite-inspired Eastgate Centre, recently released a study in conjunction with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group detailing specific steps 66 cities and megacities have already undertaken to influence climate change.

“Mayors are taking more leadership positions, and they took leadership positions at the COP21 talks,” Swett said. “It was the largest gathering of heads of state and the largest gathering of mayors. It is phenomenal.”

Inspired by termite mounds that circulate cool air pulled from deep in the ground, the Eastgate Centre shopping and office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe, requires less than 10% of the energy of a conventional building of similar size. (Image © Arup)

Experts project that more than 9.5 billion people will populate Earth by 2050, and 70%-80% of them will live in cities. Cities occupy only 3% of the world’s land, but they emit up to 80% of the world’s greenhouse gases, consume 75% percent of all natural resources and generate half of all global waste. “We have a single generation to fix it,” Swett said.


From smart homes to smart cars, technology and the people who use it are already contributing to climate improvement efforts in hundreds of small ways. The trick now, experts say, is to massively scale the technologies that work.

“Smart homes and smart buildings use digital technologies to reduce energy consumption and better integrate renewables,” said Roberta Bigliani, associate vice president and head of Europe, Middle East and Africa for IDC Energy Insights. “Think about the very active role of many utilities in the world to develop electric vehicles and charge them with renewables, including decentralized resources.”

San Diego Gas & Electric in California, for example, plans to install 3,500 connected electric vehicle (EV) charging stations as part of the state’s goal of 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles by 2025. “Utilities have a fundamental role in de-carbonizing the society,” Bigliani said. “They can have a role in positively impacting consumer behaviors.“

Energy innovations also are moving agriculture off the farm and into the cities, reducing the need for transportation and its associated carbon outputs.
In 2015, in Singapore, for example, which imports 90% of its fruits and vegetables, Panasonic Factory Solutions Asia Pacific launched a high-tech, indoor, soil-based vegetable farm. Sharp Corporation has a similar operation to grow strawberries in Dubai. Sony, Toshiba and Fujitsu have transformed semiconductor facilities in Japan to grow hydroponic vegetables for local markets at more than twice the speed of traditional field production. In the United States, Green Sense Farms produces 26 harvests per year of lettuce, kale, arugula and herbs in a 30,000-square-foot Indiana warehouse without sunlight, soil, rain, pesticides or herbicides.

“We’re planning 100 farms in China and 50 farms in US,” said Robert Colangelo, the company’s founder and CEO. “With indoor farming, you’ve taken weather out of the equation. You’ve taken sunlight out of the equation.”


For centuries, farmers in the state of Kerala, along the Malabar Coast in southwest India, have cultivated rice in saline paddies that often lie below sea level. It’s a scene that drives the urgent counsel that C.M.A. Nayar, an electrical engineer and utilities industry expert who lives in Kerala, gives to his country’s government and business leaders as sea levels rise.

With teaming cities and far-flung rural populations, a developing industrial economy, growing wealth and rising populations, Nayar believes that India is ripe for carbon-capture technology, biomass and waste-to-energy processes and hydrogen fuels.

“Much will depend on our capacity to think out of the box and find innovative solutions through R&D to recycle CO2 and move toward a hydrogen economy,” he said. “This should be the top priority for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.”

Who pays the bills for such programs is a major hurdle, however. According to the “World Energy Outlook Special Briefing for COP21,” the energy sector alone will be called on to invest US$13.5 trillion over the next 15 years to satisfy the pledges made in Paris. US$8.3 trillion would go to improve efficiencies in transportation, buildings and industry, while the rest would go to de-carbonize the power sector.

For India, Nayar’s recommendations are concise: Boost electricity generation from renewable sources to deliver at least one-third of the electricity produced by conventional thermal power plants. Invest in biomass and waste-to-energy programs to capture CO2. Implement a legal framework requiring consumers to install green energy systems in homes and businesses. Develop a distributed energy power supply system throughout the country, especially in remote villages. Invest in clean coal and carbon-capture technologies to help established utilities upgrade their facilities.

“This may appear to be a herculean task,” Nayar said. “However, it will be possible if we have an integrated approach for waste disposal and electricity generation. India’s ability to respond to climate change, like other developing nations, also depends on wealthier nations that have the money and technology poor countries need.”


Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of California-based GreenBiz Group, which produces an annual “State of Green Business” report, met with many corporate CEOs during the Paris conference. He is convinced not only that companies need to help less prosperous countries go green, but that their efforts will reap economic rewards.

“Many companies have very long supply chains that extend to villages in Asia, Africa and South America, because they make some of the things we buy in the US, Europe and Japan,” Makower said. These markets form the base of a world economic pyramid that represents future markets. “Billions of people are coming into the middle class, not from the US but from Africa, India, Southeast Asia,” Makower said. “Improving their lives improves future markets, plain and simple.”

The Paris conference was different from past events in one significant way, Makower said. “Past conferences centered on how much this is going to cost,” he said. “This time it was all about opportunity. There are three big levers to pull to effect change at the scale we’re talking: technology, finance and policy. I don’t think there’s a technology barrier, and I don’t think there’s a finance barrier. So policy is a big area that needs to be addressed.”


One month after the COP21 delegates went home, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California added urgency to the convention’s work, reporting that the oceans have absorbed energy equal to half of the total man-made heat uptake since 1865 in just the past 18 years. That’s a man-made temperature burden equivalent to a Hiroshima-style bomb exploding every second for 75 consecutive years. The oceans, which absorb more than 90% of man-made heat energy, the Lawrence Livermore team said in an article published by CBC Canada, can’t take much more.
In 2018, the nations that met in Paris will convene to revisit the emissions-cutting ideas discussed during COP21. Technologists worldwide agree that many of the solutions already exist, however. What the world needs most is the will to implement them on a global scale. ◆

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From equipment to outcomes

IoT is shifting industrial equipment business models and profits online

Lindsay James

4 min read

Thanks to continued growth of the Internet of Things (IoT), today’s industrial engineering pioneers can sell far more than their machines. By guaranteeing uptime, offering pay-as-you-go services and more, they’re rewriting the rules of competition and profitability in their industry.

The traditional industrial equipment (IE) business model is changing – and fast. In the relentless pursuit of new revenue streams to offset declining margins, and thanks to the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), leaders in the field are finding new ways to deliver greater value to manufacturing customers.

“Traditional productivity levers have been widely exhausted,” said Dominik Wee, Munich-based leader of the Digital in Automotive & Industrial initiative at global consulting firm McKinsey. “But IoT is opening up a whole new avenue of revenue. Networking physical objects through embedded sensors, actuators and other devices that can collect or transmit information about the objects generates a huge amount of effective data. A number of leading-edge IE companies are leveraging this opportunity to offer pay-as-you-go and subscription-based services that can differentiate them from competitors.”

The shift is coming just in time to avert a profit recession for IE manufacturers, said Paul Boris, head of Manufacturing Industries at GE Digital. “Previously, IE manufacturers have managed to achieve gains of 4%-5% in productivity year on year, but today it’s down to 1% overall. Plants and machines are running more efficiently than ever, so we need to find alternative ways of reducing waste and cost across the entire value chain. For us this meant leveraging IoT.”



GE has invested US$1 billion to turn the IoT into a new revenue engine, installing sensors and developing software systems for its power turbines, jet engines, locomotives, medical equipment and other machines; connecting them to the cloud; and analyzing the resulting flow of data to improve machine productivity and reliability. “One billion dollars represents a big swing for GE,” Matthias Heilmann, chief digital officer of GE Oil & Gas Digital Solutions, said in a recent MIT Sloan Management Review article, “GE’s Big Bet on Data and Analytics.” “It signals this is real, this is our future.”


The mountains of data generated by GE’s new sensor networks are actually changing the company’s business from selling machinery to selling outcomes, including efficiency and uptime.

“By leveraging the same IoT technologies that have helped our customers reap rewards, we’re improving the performance of our own 400+ manufacturing factories,” Boris said. “For example, we’ve just signed a 10-year agreement with Texas-based drilling services company Diamond Offshore, which transfers full accountability for blowout-preventer (BOP) performance to GE Oil & Gas. In this ‘Pressure Control by the Hour’ model, Diamond Offshore will pay GE Oil & Gas only when the BOP is available. We’re applying these very same tools and technologies to enable the digital thread inside our plants.”

Japanese robotics producer FANUC is using data collected by its Zero Downtime application from more than 6,000 robots installed at 26 General Motors auto plants to identify abnormal wear patterns. FANUC says the program has been 100% successful in detecting faults before production is shut down. (Image © FANUC)

Japanese robotics and factory automation producer FANUC – which supplies robots to some of the world’s biggest manufacturers, including General Motors (GM), Apple and Samsung – is also moving toward an outcomes-based business. “We’re just beginning to identify the opportunities,” said Joseph Gazzarato, director of FANUC America’s Zero Downtime (ZDT) Service Center. “We are piloting our ZDT application to collect data from more than 6,000 of GM’s robots in 26 factories. We monitor these robots to see if there’s any abnormal wear that could lead to a failure.”

If a potential failure is identified, Gazzarato said, “We send parts with support to address the issue before any downtime occurs.”

ZDT has already proven its worth. “We’ve been 100% successful in detecting faults,” Gazzarato said. “In one truck plant in particular, we prevented an outage that could have taken four hours to resolve. When you consider that a single minute of factory downtime costs GM up to US$20,000, then you begin to understand the ramifications.”

Global bearing manufacturer SKF, which is headquartered in Gothenburg, Sweden, is also reaping the rewards of an outcomes-based approach. “SKF technologies currently monitor over 1 million assets around the world, many remotely,” said John Schmidt, SKF’s president for industrial sales in the Americas. “We understand the complex language of the bearing and – since the bearing is at the heart of the machine – this can tell us the dynamic health of our customers’ machinery. Every customer is individual, so we offer a variety of ways to work with SKF. This ranges from simple product transactions and traditional service models to performance-based contracts.”


Andy Neely, head of the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge (UK), believes that programs like those underway at GE, FANUC and SKF represent a fundamental transformation in how the IE industry defines its mission.

“There’s a noticeable shift from delivering products to solutions, outputs to outcomes, and transactions to relationships,” Neely said. “It’s a win-win scenario – IE providers get closer to their customers, achieve greater loyalty and increase revenue, and manufacturing customers experience better value for their money, greater uptime and improved efficiency.”

For IE organizations that have yet to make the IoT leap, however, expert observers believe the outlook may be bleak. Douglas Bellin, global lead for the Manufacturing and Energy industries at Cisco, observed in a recent blog post, for example, that “71% of manufacturers say IoT will have a significant impact or some impact on their business over the next five years…Yet, 24% have no companywide understanding of IoT. There’s a significant knowledge gap in how to best plan for and capitalize on these technologies.”



GE’s Boris said the lag is understandable, however. “There are undeniable challenges for those starting out on this path,” he said. “What’s key is to think carefully about which data paths to unlock first. In a manufacturing value chain there are so many small pieces of data that determine the true performance of an asset – it’s important to avoid the temptation to boil the ocean.”

What’s important, Wee said, is to get started. “The opportunity is huge, but there is a lot of uncertainty for companies, as there is with any emerging trend,” he said. “What’s clear is that those IE companies that don’t rethink their business models are at risk of jeopardizing their entire business.” ◆

Industrial Equipment Industry Solution Experiences from Dassault Systèmes:
PwC’s Colin Carroll on outcome-based pricing

Personalized education

Proponents argue that students learn best when lessons are wrapped in topics they enjoy

Rebecca Gibson

7 min read

Research has shown that the traditional ”one size fits all” teaching model does not work for many students. Today, many educational institutions are using digital technology to offer “personalized learning,” which helps students develop a broad set of competencies in the context of their personal interests.

At AltSchool, there are no textbooks and no whole-class lessons that teach one subject to every pupil in the same way. Instead children use digital tablets to support their real-world and immersive lessons, and document their learning via online personalized learning “playlists” they have co-developed with teachers and parents. Meanwhile, teachers use wallmounted cameras to capture students’ important learning moments and further their own professional development.

Launched in 2013 by former Google executive Max Ventilla, AltSchool is an expanding network of private “microschools” for primary and middle school students in the United States. AltSchool emphasizes student-driven, project-based learning and entrepreneurship.

It’s just one of a growing number of educational institutions worldwide that have adopted online platforms that empower students to pursue their own learning goals. Popular platforms include US-based learning management system Schoology, Canada-based D2L’s competency-focused Brightspace and US-based math software provider DreamBox.

Even Facebook has designed a platform for Summit Public Schools in California and Washington state to create classroom experiences focused on their students’ future ambitions.

“Personalized learning is a core tenet of the next-generation, adaptive-learning strategies that are redefining education by allowing students to focus on their interests,” said Sarah Luchs, K-12 (Kindergarten through 12th grade) program officer at Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), an initiative of the Colorado based nonprofit EDUCAUSE. “NGLC grants have already helped around 100 US schools deploy digital tools to give students the learning autonomy to fulfill their personal aspirations.”


North America doesn’t have the monopoly on personalized learning, however. In 2012, entrepreneur Maurice de Hond founded Onderwijs voor een Nieuwe Tijd (Education for a New Era, or O4NT) and the Steve JobsSchools network in the Netherlands after discovering that his young daughter would be taught in the same way his older son was during the 1980s.
“Why should young children, many of whom can competently use smart devices at an early age, be taught for 1980s life rather than to succeed in the future digital world?” de Hond said. “Instead of continuing to fill every child with the same information ‘just in case’ they need it, our teachers help students develop the ability to find and apply solutions to learning problems as they encounter them.”
The Steve JobsSchools first opened in August 2013 and now total 20 locations across the Netherlands. Children who attend the schools complete 45% of their learning through adaptive online programs on their digital tablets; the other 55% of learning occurs during 30-minute workshops. To ensure students meet the Dutch government’s academic standards, teachers meet with children and their parents every six weeks to refine each child’s individual learning development plan.



“Unlike in most schools, where parents only have twice-yearly discussions about their child’s progress with teachers, our system gives them a central role in their child’s education,” de Hond said. The approach is catching on: in 2016, 04NT will open schools in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; suburban Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa; and São Paulo, Brazil. “Many parents thank me for changing their child’s life. We’ve even got children whose misdiagnosed attention deficit disorders have been ‘cured’ because they’re in a more stimulating environment.”

A year after adopting personalized learning, the De Ontplooiing Steve JobsSchool in Amsterdam has recorded growth in students’ math and reading skills. However, director Jaap Pasmans said, the benefits extend far beyond academic achievement.

“Our children are happier and more motivated now that they’re focused on their interests,” Pasmans said. “I’d recommend this teaching model to everybody, because it gives you more time to coach each individual so they have the tools they need to learn core subjects by exploring their passions.”


Secondary school network Big Picture Education Australia (BPEA) has found that self-directed students are better prepared for higher education and employment. BPEA was established in 2006, joining a global network that began with the founding of Big Picture Learning in the US by Elliot Washor and Dennis Littky in 1996. At BPEA, advisers and parents help students to develop learning plans that tie their personal interests to Australia’s national curriculum and to the workplace. This requires students to participate in internships with personal mentors in the community twice a week for four years and present self-directed “Projects for Learning” four times per year.

“Many young Australians do not complete school, so we wanted a learning model that would encourage them to pursue passions but still be academically rigorous to allow them to pass national exams,” said Viv White, co-founder and co-managing director of BPEA, which has 40 schools across Australia. “Not only do the projects cover 80% of the subjects included in the national curriculum (the remaining 20% is covered in traditional classes), but the internships enable students to see how the skills they develop in school can be applied in their careers. This really motivates them to improve.”
Suspension rates have dropped, attendance and self-discipline have improved and students are making measurable progress, White said.

Internships with community mentors prepare Big Picture Education Australia’s (BPEA) students for life after school. (Image © BPEA)

Student testimonies on BPEA’s website also provide testament to the program’s widespread success. In Launceston, Tasmania, Shauna Carlon’s internship with celebrated Australian pastry chef Adriano Zumbo led her to study at one of Australia’s top hospitality, tourism and food institutes. Eighteen months after arriving in Tasmania, Nepalese student Sameer Pandey helped to develop a lighting system for a new factory during an engineering internship with multispecialist infrastructure consultancy Pitt & Sherry. Meanwhile 15-year-old Abby McLeod’s interest in TV crime drama “NCIS” prompted her to work with the police department and criminal law professors at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales
“I can map a lot of the stuff I’ve done back to the curriculum – there’s English because I’m doing a lot of writing, science because it’s based on biology, and I’ll be doing bloodspatter pattern analysis, which uses trigonometry and math, and the history of forensic science,” McLeod said in an interview for BPEA’s website. “Mum’s a lot happier to see that I’m learning so much. I’ve learned more in one term than I have in a year at other schools because when you really enjoy what you’re learning, it’s so much easier to come to school and work.”


Several reports have indicated that personalized and blended education systems based on modern technology platforms have both quantitative and qualitative benefits.

The Bill & Melinda Gates’ Foundation (BMGF) and RAND’s November 2014 report “Early Progress: Interim Report Personalized Learning,” indicated that students in 23 public charter schools across the US that received funding from the BMGF to implement personalized learning over a two-year period generally did better on a computerized reading and math assessment than similar students in comparable schools without personalized learning tools. Similarly, a study from California’s Clayton Christensen Institute – a nonprofit think tank dedicated to promoting disruptive innovation in education – found that personalized learning helped the graduation rate in Utah’s Washington County School District improve from 80% in 2012 to 88% in 2014. Meanwhile, US-based information services firm Hanover Research found that the personalized learning classrooms in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District in Wisconsin “demonstrated almost two full years of growth in one academic year.”


Benjamin Riley, founder of Texas-based Deans for Impact, isn’t convinced of the benefits of personalized learning. He cautions that many schools mistakenly expect “something magical” to happen simply by replacing textbooks with tablets. Deans for Impact focuses on transforming teacher training, an area its leaders believe can do more to improve student-learning outcomes than can be accomplished by adding technology to the mix.

“Educators worldwide have repeatedly piled resources into ‘innovative’ learning concepts without any evidence that they’ll be successful, and inevitably they fail,” Riley warned. “I’m worried that in 20 years, we’ll ask why we invested in personalized learning tools only to find they weren’t actually that helpful.”
Riley questions whether young students have the motivation to direct their learning, particularly in subjects they find difficult or that they dislike.

“Just as a tennis player needs a coach to identify and correct common mistakes in their technique, students need a teacher to jump in when they’re struggling or challenge them when they’re bored,” he explained. “I watched pupils at schools in both New York and New Zealand give elaborate multimedia presentations, but they couldn’t answer my basic questions about the topics they’d covered. I’ve no doubt these students acquired beneficial skills, but they simply learned how to make a presentation. Education should focus on skilled teachers imparting knowledge so that it can be recalled easily; using fancy technology to make learning ‘cool’ isn’t necessarily the best way to do this.”



NGLC’s Luchs, however, argues that when implemented and monitored correctly, personalized learning technologies can empower children to use their natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation to acquire and retain knowledge.

“Typically, teachers who enable pupils to choose when, what and how to learn see much better levels of student engagement,” Luchs said. “Effective personalized education systems should offer customized, self-paced learning opportunities that are responsive to individual students’ needs, interests and progress.”

Jim Flanagan, chief learning services officer at global nonprofit International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), believes that students need both: personalized learning systems are only effective when supported by human interaction with skilled teachers.

“If students are to remain motivated, technology must be applied in a highly adaptive way that’s balanced with human interaction,” he said. “For example, a student might use Khan Academy [an online provider of free, educational YouTube videos] to increase math skills, but they may need one-to-one support from a teacher when they hit a challenging topic.”


Personalized learning advocates like ITSE’s Flanagan anticipate that the trend of students directing their own educations will continue to grow.
“Students expect schools to provide the same customized services they experience in their personal lives and, in the future, they’ll have more opportunities to demonstrate competency outside of traditional education models,” he said. “More parents and teachers will see beyond educating children in the archaic ways they learned, and instead consider how they’d like to be educated for today’s world.”
BPEA’s White agrees: “More schools will see that students need to focus on their interests in a family-like environment where the skills they’re developing are valued by peers, teachers and the wider community. Personalized education models like Big Picture really will give our young people the power and motivation to co-create the future.” ◆

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Technology and training

Programs to help displaced employees learn new skills face a wide variety of challenges

Charles Wallace

5 min read

As automation and technology replace more jobs in more industries, displaced workers are finding that the programs intended to help them retrain are riddled with gaps and inconsistencies. In some parts of the world, available training doesn’t match available jobs. In others, funding and accessibility are inadequate. Everywhere, however, the challenges – and the numbers of people in need of help – are poised to multiply exponentially.

Automation, artificial intelligence and robots are increasingly replacing workers in performing routine tasks. Just ask the travel agents who have been displaced by booking websites, assembly line workers replaced by websites, and the professional drivers whose jobs will soon be eliminated by autonomous vehicles. 

How bad will it be? According to one unpublished study quoted by the BBC in August 2015, the coming wave of technological breakthroughs endanger up to 47% of US employment. Y Combinator, an organization promoting the idea that every person on Earth should receive a minimum income, paints an even bleaker picture. “We think there could be a possibility where 95% — or a vast majority — of people won’t be able to contribute to the workforce,” said Matt Krisiloff, manager of Y Combinator’s basic income project. “We need to start preparing for that transformation.”

As the trend picks up speed, two burning questions face companies and governments alike: how to retrain displaced employees for new careers and how to ensure that workers who keep their jobs can update their skills throughout their working lifetime.

In the United States, for example, the federal government has two signature pieces of legislation aimed at helping out-of-work individuals: the 2015 Trade Adjustment Assistance Reauthorization Act, designed to assist employees who lost their jobs due to cheaper imported goods; and the Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act of 2014. Both programs provide financial assistance to train or retrain displaced workers. Because of overlapping jurisdictions, the burden of retraining employees laid off due to technology, however, falls largely on state and local governments, which receive financial support from the federal government.


The BBC reported in August 2015 that the coming wave of technological advances endangers nearly half of all US jobs.

“Retraining through our nation’s community colleges is a way to reduce the skills gaps” of at least some displaced workers and increase their earnings, Robert LaLonde of the University of Chicago and Daniel Sullivan of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago wrote in a recent paper about retraining. “Although workers may still experience significant earnings losses relative to their previous positions, training can be a socially desirable investment that can help trim these losses, and can have positive effects on their communities.”

Washington state, for example, on the northwest US coast, has what is known as a “workforce training and education coordinating board” that works with 34 community colleges and technical schools throughout the state. The students, who numbered nearly 11,000 last year, include laid-off workers learning new skills and employed workers receiving “upskilling” to move their careers to the next level, according to Kendra Hodgson, policy associate with the board.

“The bedrock mission is to educate people to a higher level of skill and knowledge,” Hodgson said, adding that businesses work with individual colleges to produce curricula that meet their staffing needs. For example, when local hospitals reported a severe shortage of nurses a decade ago, she said, a number of schools geared up to teach nursing until the shortages were addressed.


Europe has the most elaborate training opportunities, thanks to the region’s taxpayer-financed social welfare programs, which are more generous than those in North America and Asia. The European Union has set a target for at least 40% of its population aged 30-34 to be qualified to at least a university-level education by 2020, said Steven Bainbridge, vocational expert at the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training, which is known by its French initials, CEDEFOP, and is based in Thessaloniki, Greece. He said that the EU will probably exceed its target.

“We’ve succeeded in raising the qualification levels but there is some debate about whether people are doing [retraining in] the right thing, because we still have shortages in science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Bainbridge said. “On the other side, we’ve had a rise in people who are overqualified for their jobs.” One reason, he said, is that during the recent recession, when highly skilled workers were willing to take jobs below their skill levels, employers were in hiring mode.

Retraining adults who lost jobs due to automation is “another major problem we have,” Bainbridge said. Publicly funded training programs often are not linked to the labor markets to determine which skills are in greatest demand and then train displaced workers for those jobs.

As a result, some companies in Europe are taking measures into their own hands. Vattenfall, a leading Swedish electricity generator, set up an internal support organization for 445 laid-off workers and provided SKR 205 million (US$23.7 million; €21 million) to provide them with vocational training. The workers received a skills assessment; a tutor then created a specialized course of study for each worker.


One of the most elaborate training programs in Europe is Germany’s vocational program, which is tracked and measured by BIBB. BIBB sets standards for the country’s elaborate system of apprenticeships, a dual system of vocational high schools and universities working with companies for on-the-job training.

BIBB currently is drawing up plans for determining the job qualifications for Industry 4.0, also known as “hyperconnected industry” or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), said Gert Zinke, a BIBB spokesman.

Retraining adults who lost jobs due to automation is a major challenge that is likely to grow. (Image © BraunS / iStock) 

“The new qualification requirements demand a comprehensive understanding of systems and processes, which are not now being addressed by the firms providing the training,” Zinke said. Since robots are doing much of the actual production work, jobs also will require employees to be skilled in topics that include robot maintenance and repairs, factory scheduling and operations planning. The new curricula should be finished, he said, within the next two years.

Many German companies, however, are already designing and building their machines for the IIoT and connecting existing machinery to the IIoT for predictive maintenance. 


Another issue being hotly debated involves ongoing training for workers to ensure their skills remain up to date, in the same way that airline pilots and specialist physicians are required to obtain yearly certification with the latest methods and technology. 

Till Leopold, project leader of the human skills initiative at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, says more industries globally are requiring continuous recertification, but that others have yet to determine which skills updates to require.

“Some industries are ahead of the curve and some are struggling,” Leopold said. Determining requirements, he said, is best left to each industry because they know better than government regulators what skills are required. 

In Denmark, however, the government gives workers two weeks of training every year to ensure that their skills are up to date with global standards. In Asia, the government of Singapore, which is keen to preserve the nation’s reputation as an Asian hub of excellence, now gives workers a “SkillsFuture Qualification Award” of as much as Singapore $1,000 (US$750; €660) if they complete a job training course and receive a specialist diploma.


Increasingly, Leopold said, workers who still can’t find jobs are turning to hyperconnected businesses for contract work. These self-employment options include driving for on-demand car service Uber or working on a freelance basis for websites that match employers and workers for contract jobs in marketing, accounting, medical recordkeeping and other service-related fields. As a result, more employees are being held responsible for their own training.

Another trend, being reported mainly in the US and Europe, is a growing emphasis in education on outputs rather than inputs. In the future, he said, employers will be less interested in knowing applicants’ grade-point averages and the courses they took than in knowing the skills– the output – a prospective worker can deliver. This will permit employees to have more portable careers, Leopold said, because their qualifications will be more universally recognized and applicable. ◆

From the International Monetary Fund: “Toil & Technology”

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