Just Out of Reach: The Elusive Quest to Measure the Digital Economy

Exploring what we know about digital technology's impact on labour and the economy — and how to best conceptualize and measure its impact in the future.
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Just Out of Reach: The Elusive Quest to Measure the Digital Economy
Steve Denney
Research Collaborator + Ph.D, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy
Viet Vu
Senior Economist
Contributors

About This Report

Digital technologies, from e-commerce to more efficient modes of communication, have been integral to economic growth and prosperity, but pre-digital era models and measurements fail to wholly understand its full impact. Understanding the impact of digital technology on workers, labour and the economy requires a new approach to capture the full range of economic activities that have taken place, and will take place. 

This latest report, Just Out of Reach: The Elusive Quest to Measure the Digital Economy, explores the literature on the digital economy, focusing on how we have come to know what we do about technology’s impact on labour and the economy more broadly. 

This report focuses on the approaches, frameworks, and specific measurements created to help conceptualize and measure the impact of technology, with specific attention to the ways technology either replaces labour or augments it. Using a method called a systematic review, our project team thoroughly reviewed, analyzed and synthesized 110 papers, reports, and other sources on how digital technology impacts labour. 

This knowledge synthesis will help researchers and policymakers understand existing measurements and data used to understand how technologies impact the economy, and how these frameworks have evolved over time.

Read this report to help you:
  • Learn about the evolution of theoretical frameworks, measurements, and data that have been developed to conceptualize and measure the digital economy 
  • Explore how digital technology may impact the nature of work, with specific attention to the ways it either replaces labour or augments it
  • Understand the uneven effects of digital technologies on different types of workers

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Key findings from the report:

  • Looking at the impact of technology on labour through a task-based model – where a process is broken into a series of tasks, each of which is potentially substituted with machines or complemented by them – technology is unlikely to automate entire jobs out of existence, but it may alter an occupation significantly. 
  • While significant advancements have been made in defining a consistent and useful taxonomy of tasks to aid researchers and policymakers, the sheer variety of tasks that exist within the economy makes direct and useful measurement difficult.
  • New data and methods have emerged in digital economy literature. Applications of methods in machine learning have generated new insights from existing data, leading to new data sources on occupational characteristics. These new sources, such as online job posting databases, not only capture highly detailed information on job attributes, but allow researchers to understand the emergence of new tasks and skills.

Our Funders and Partners

This research is co-funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Government of Canada’s Future Skills program, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Cette recherche est cofinancé par le Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines et le programme Compétences futures du Gouvernement du Canada, et le Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Steve Denney
Research Collaborator + Ph.D, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy
Viet Vu
Senior Economist
Contributors

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