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Strange ideas about the future of employment

Strange ideas about the future of employment

Since we’re not (yet) able to predict the future, find out how we used strategic foresight research methods to explore employment in Canada over the next 10–15 years.
Jessica Thornton
Senior Projects Designer
Heather Russek
Director of Policy Innovation
April 9, 2019
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This piece was also published on Apolitical and can be found here.

How do trends related to brain enhancements, climate refugees, and rebalancing gender equality fit into our most recent report exploring the future of work?

Taking the first as an example, it would be easy to dismiss the idea of us all having brain implants in the next 10 – 15 years as the stuff of science fiction. But what if we told you that there is already a headset that allows you to make commands using your brain? Or that a startup called Kernel is developing a “neural prosthetic” that will expand human cognition by uniting our minds and bodies with machine interfaces? Additionally, American scientists have recently connected the brains of three people through something called BrainNet that enables them to share their thoughts.

What could happen if these technologies became widely adopted? How would learning change if your brain could quickly upload new information much like a computer does? What would happen to productivity levels if you were able to share thoughts with team members instead of attending meetings?

When thinking about the future, though it may sound obvious, it is important to remember that it does not exist yet. It is not a thing that can be predicted or known with any degree of certainty. Ideas that seem wild today may not be wild tomorrow. Alternatively, ideas that seem certain today could easily become obsolete within a short time period.

But just because we cannot see into the future, does not prevent us from trying to better understand the range of possibilities at play. This is the purpose of strategic foresight—a field of study dedicated to understanding futures.

As an institute committed to providing far-sighted insights about the future of Canada’s innovation economy, strategic foresight is a practice we have been experimenting with. Our new report, Turn and Face the Strange, uses a foresight research approach called horizon scanning1 to explore broad ideas about how employment in Canada might change in 10 – 15 years. As our award-winning foresight advisor Wendy Schultz explains, horizon scanning helps identify weak signals of change, identifying emerging opportunities to develop forward-looking policy and to assess prospective policy risks, security threats, and public vulnerabilities.2

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Conducted over the course of three months, we studied hundreds of secondary data points from academic journals, popular media, and fringe news sources, unearthing 600+ signals of change impacting Canada’s labour market. We synthesized this data into 31 trends, some of which are very well known such as AI, blockchain, 3D printing, whereas others like human augmentation, personal data ownership, and mainstream inclusive design are less discussed in relation to the changing nature of work.

This research was conducted as part of our Employment in 2030 initiative, with the purpose of framing the expert workshops taking place in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, and Northern Canada in collaboration with partners. However, we believe it will have much broader applicability, which is why we are sharing this information now.

In order to prepare fully for the future of work, it is critical to understand the broad range of potential changes on the horizon. Turn and Face the Strange paints a complex picture intended to spark exploratory and imaginative thinking, pushing leaders from all sectors to consider the potential for different trends to interact in ways that are not always obvious. This report is not a prediction of the future or a deep analysis of any one trend. Instead, it is meant to help readers think beyond what they currently know about the future of employment—to explore other possible impacts.

So the next time you hear stories about our need to develop innovative responses to global warming, consider how an influx of people displaced by climate change may impact Canada’s economy. While climate-related immigration is not currently part of the legal definition of a refugee, how might this change given that 22.5 million people each year are already forced to flee floods, storms and other weather events? What new opportunities would be driven by this arrival of talent with firsthand experience of climate change? How might that in turn position Canada as a leader in the climate change crisis?

The 31 trends presented in this report are by no means all-encompassing, but an attempt to capture a sample of the vast range of changes impacting employment in Canada. As readers continue to engage with these trends, we think it is important to also discuss what may be missing. To that point, please feel free to reach out and share your thoughts on other trends we could be exploring as part of our ongoing research.

Turn and Face the Strange is BII+E’s first project using strategic foresight to explore future-focused topics impacting Canada’s innovation economy. We look forward to working with others to build upon these ideas and to explore how strategic foresight can be applied to other topics.  


[1] Choo, C. W. (1999). The Art of Scanning the Environment. Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, 25(3), 13–19. Retrieved from http://choo.fis.utoronto.ca/fis/respub/asisbulletin/ASISbulletinES.pdf

[2] Schultz, W. (2006). The cultural contradictions of managing change: using horizon scanning in an evidence-based policy context. Foresight. 8:4. Emerald Group Publishing.

For media enquiries, please contact Coralie D’Souza, Director of Communications, Events + Community Relations at the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship.

Jessica Thornton
Senior Projects Designer
Heather Russek
Director of Policy Innovation
April 9, 2019
Print Page

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