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Understanding the social impacts of automation

Many fear that automation could lead to severe unemployment and that our education systems are not fit for purpose. To address these concerns, the EU-funded TECHNEQUALITY project is examining the potential social consequences of our digital age. The findings could help governments to devise policies that maximise economic growth to benefit citizens, whilst mitigating potential social harm.

© Maria #229435616, source: 2021

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“Our research answers some of the most urgent questions,” explains project coordinator Mark Levels, professor of Health, Education and Work at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. “For example, how do we prepare education systems for the future? How should we redesign social welfare systems? And can we pay for such social programmes?”

To answer these questions, the EU-funded TECHNEQUALITY project is not just studying how artificial intelligence (AI), such as robots, affects work. It is also looking at how automation may have an impact on various social groups of our society differently, and how technological innovations may accelerate social inequalities in the EU and beyond.

“Another thing that makes our project different is the way in which we model the impact of automation,” says Levels. “A lot of the literature assumes that if a task is automatable, it will at some point be lost to human workers. Instead, we take into account wider macro-trends on European labour markets. This allows us to make more realistic predictions.”

Informed policymakers

The members of the project are in close contact with policymakers at EU, national, regional and local level, to help co-create policies based on the project’s findings: “Our findings can inform regional, national and international governments about policy responses related to education and social welfare,” adds Levels.

Large corporations and unions have also been involved in the project, and their input is critical in view of upskilling and reskilling workers and ensuring well-being in the workplace, whilst gaining productivity by installing AI in businesses.

Project partners are focusing in particular on eight Dutch municipalities, and are assessing the impact of welfare arrangements like Participation Income: “I think the public and political debates about, for example, universal basic income schemes are still too often conducted along ideological lines,” explains Levels. “We wanted to improve the quality of these debates by producing empirical evidence about intended and unintended consequences of social welfare innovations.”

Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has been a serious complicating factor for such a complex international endeavour, the research team has continued carrying out its work: “One of the highlights for me has been the sense of community within the consortium,” says Levels. “We were able to bring together an all-star group of scientists from top institutions throughout the EU, who have had to collaborate at a distance and carry out complex analyses. Support from the EU has also been really great.”

Take action now

The project is now entering its third and final year, and much of the research is still ongoing. Nonetheless, it is clear from the project’s preliminary findings that while automation is tremendously important for economic growth in the EU, there are risks that it may also spawn societal volatility, increased social inequality, reduced social mobility and new social strife.

“We do forecast however that between 5 % and 44 % of all European jobs may disappear,” notes Levels. “How this development affects European societies will depend on many variables.”

Importantly, the project suggests that automation is a manageable risk. If governments take the right steps, European economies may boom and mass unemployment can probably be prevented: “If TECHNEQUALITY can aid governments in preparing for the future by helping them understand the intended and unintended consequences of policy responses, our mission will be a success,” says Levels.

“But governments do need to act now. In the coming year, a lot of TECHNEQUALITY’s analyses on education systems, skills, adult education, social welfare innovations and public finances will be delivered. So, stay tuned,” he adds.

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Project details

Project acronym
Project number
Project coordinator
Project participants:
United Kingdom
Total cost
€ 3 045 365
EU Contribution
€ 2 999 136
Project duration

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