Paul Grainger, Co-director of the Centre for Education and Work, and Head of Innovation and Enterprise for the Department of Education, Practice and Society, UCL

Adapting to global reconstruction and reinvention through fostering regional networks of competence 

There is general assent that the present pandemic has accelerated economic and social changes that had been anticipated in theories around the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)[1].

Artificial Intelligence (AI), the driving force of the 4IR has suddenly increased its impact on the way we live, from working from home, video conferencing, tracking home deliveries, using 3D printers to produce vital equipment, mapping the virus’ genome, developing potential vaccines. AI is helping us through this global emergency.

The innovators among us must be encouraged to find the seeds of re-invention 

Within this new singularity, and when contagion is under control, communities well need to reinvent their economic lives. This will not be simply a process of reconstruction. Many established businesses and structures of economic activity will not survive the prolonged lockdown.

There will be changes in consumer priorities and values. These will be hard to predict but successful entrepreneurs will respond rapidly.

Health and care will assume a higher priority in the short term, supply chains will be shortened, systems of assembly will be reviewed, and virtual communication, creativity and entertainment will grow.

The structures of the old world will not be swept away. They will provide the frameworks for recovery: the seeds of re-invention lie within them. The innovators among us must be encouraged to find them.

Framing a curriculum for innovation 

Innovation cannot happen of itself. New ideas, processes, mechanisms depend upon a prevailing system or structure. For example, in a previous industrial revolution, inventing the motor car would have been futile in the absence of roads. The invention was contingent upon an established infrastructure, but supporting new, and at the time unforeseen applications.

In a similar way, at the time of the development of the internet there was no anticipation of the genesis of social media and its impact on both social and economic activity.

We will argue that those who best understand emerging systems, and their economic potential, albeit perhaps intuitively, are not necessarily existing employers (although we don’t want to undervalue their contribution) but those who have recently, and successfully entered the world of work, and are already driving through creative ideas and innovation within their networks and communities.

We need to use the energy and insight of these young people to help us frame a curriculum for innovation.

A number of studies have demonstrated that the geography of economic activity is largely regional but supported by global systems. This importance of place appears to derive from the interactions of key figures within a locality[2].

As economies recover, regeneration is built up from coordinated regional strategies involving entrepreneurial ventures, and key players within the regional system, including Further Education Colleges, entrepreneurs, sources of capital, employees, policy makers, civic leaders and customers[3].

The innovators of the future will work within two structural changes 

If creative people are to generate wealth for themselves and for wider society, the innovators of the future will work within two structural changes, which had already come to characterise this stage of the 4IR.

  1. News forms of employment and cooperative working
  2. New technologies deriving from the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

1. News forms of employment and cooperative working

With regard to employment, or, given the move towards self-employment, the way that work is organised, the ‘job for life’ concept is breaking down. The pandemic will accelerate this process as firms fail to re-emerge.

Large organisations with substantial numbers of permanent employees organised into hierarchies were already giving way to less structured forms of employment. For some, paid work, for example the delivery of professional services or the organisation of taxi bookings, is now arranged, and paid for, through on-line platforms. There is a continuing debate as to whether this constitutes legal employment or is a means of organising self-employment.

However, either way, it is work, and in the context of fragmenting structures, is likely to increase. A further growing phenomenon was Network Employment[4], either loose associations of colleagues (generally within a locality) who may provide work for each other, or tighter task driven teams that come together to deliver a limited term project: for example, a short video or developing a smart-phone App.

The members of this team will then re-cluster into new groupings to work on a further task. Furthermore, Self-employment itself was becoming increasingly viable across a range of occupations, often digitally based, or organised into a consultancy structure.

In a recent Policy Brief to the G20 in Argentina (Can education and skills development be more aligned locally reflecting local work patterns and business growth?) we noted that the vast majority of employment in the creative industries, one of the substantial economic growth areas internationally, is self-employment.

For these new forms of work job descriptions, if they exist at all, are flexible: the individual depends for their employment on the possession of skills and generation of new ideas which are congruent with the skills of others in order to deliver, collectively, an outcome of economic value. 

2. New technologies deriving from the development of Artificial Intelligence

The nature of these skills and ideas will be determined, in part, by developing technologies, and consequent re-thinking of business models.

It has always been dangerous to predict what new technologies will emerge and how they will impact on the future of work. At present data is the steam which is driving the new industrial revolution, but progress is unlikely to stop there.

For the foreseeable future, there is likely to be an increase in collaborations between human and machine, cooperation rather than replacement. In this collaboration the human determines a sense of purpose (where should the driverless car be going) and the machine performs the necessary tasks (Alexa hunting through Fleetwood Mac albums to locate the required song).

Technology delivers at a speed which makes possible things that were previously physically impossible, but the drive, the rationale, the design, the creativity remain human.

From both an employment perspective, and with regard to developing use of AI, there is a shift away from forming material things, working in wood or steel or stone (unless for artistic or conservation reasons) towards the skills of interaction and the realisation of creative ideas. These must fit within a wider system.

We have argued, in a further Policy Brief to the Argentine G20 (A new paradigm for skills development), that work and skills should be developed from the perspective of skills co-production located within a local community rather than the present approach of a skills supply (based on qualifications) which have been determined by previously established economic requirements.

The challenge to educators post-pandemic is to develop their understanding of these emerging forms of employment, and how entrepreneurs, and thus work, are responding to the impact of technology.

Skills for the local community

This year provided us with a good example, pre-pandemic, but a useful model for post-COVID reinvention. UCL was approached by the National Technological University (NTU) of Córdoba, Argentina. They had a problem.

Engineering students were leaving their undergraduate courses early, as the skills they were learning did not relate to the developing Cordoban economy. Those who did complete formal certification were not getting the employment they anticipated.

Employers were complaining that these graduates did not have the requisite skills for their requirements: they would prefer to do their own training. In essence, the Cordoban regional economy was shifting rapidly from heavy capital industry towards lighter, more flexible, data-based engineering.

Cordoba’s relative isolation, at the western edge of Argentina, and changes to the Brazilian economy, had rendered to production of cars and aeroplanes non-economic, but software production and cyber-security were developing rapidly. Supported by the British Council, the two Universities ran a three-day workshop to consider how to realign the curriculum to meet local labour market needs.

The workshop invited successful alumni to join the staff and students of the NTU to discuss skills for the local community. The outcome was remarkable. Those who joined us were not employers as such, though many were self-employed, or ran very small businesses. Rather, they were, at the very least, economic survivors. They were mostly successful employees or entrepreneurs, exciting role models with a strong grasp of economic need and a vision for the skills environment of this remote region.

Silvia explains the stimulus for our workshop:

Employability has to be a key component of education systems in order to avoid skills mismatches 

There is a growing mantra that employers should be more involved in the delivery of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET).

Our Brief to the 2019 Japanese G20 (Rethinking pathways to employment) stressed the value of this:

"Employability has to be a key component of education systems in order to avoid skills mismatches on the labor market. In this sense, close cooperation between businesses and relevant government agencies and institutions is key to ensure that the curricula of training systems are in line with labor market needs."

But maybe we got it wrong. We quoted the acclaimed Report of the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning (CAVTL )[5], A further condition of excellent Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) is the need for a clear line of sight between the learning environment and the work environment.

For those of us who have sought to work with employers, while there have been fine and stimulating collaborations, it has not always been easy, and some employers have very limited views of the future, preferring to cling to the certainties of established practice.

Post-pandemic, many will seek to return to the way things were. What is stressed by the CAVTL report is the ‘work environment’.

Our access to the newly emerging work environments, where the real wisdom lies, is with those who have recently, successfully entered this environment: young survivors, successes, innovators. They know and understand, as it were, the scene.

Educators should not just look to employers for advice 

The clear implication is that educators should look not just to employers (many of whom are increasingly remote) for advice on developing appropriate TVET, but more directly we should look to our own immediate community, to our young successes, to our alumni.

For publicity purposes many TVET institutions use ‘case studies’ of recent leavers who have gone on to successful employment deploying them to support recruitment. These successful young people act as good role models.

But we don’t consult them in the way that we were able to do at the innovatory British Council workshop in Córdoba. We don’t interrogate them; we don’t use our expertise as educators to interpret their intuition and so articulate a design for an appropriate curriculum for the innovators of the future.

Learning from the innovators 

Thus, an aspect of a socially inclusive skills system is that we should learn from those who are the innovators amongst us. Recent alumni may be able to tell us a great deal to help inform our design of teaching and learning.

Doubtless, this happens everywhere on an informal basis, but it has not emerged through our examination of the Future of Work and Education for the Digital Age, the title of a G20 task force, now continuing its work under the Saudi presidency[6].

This Task Force is quite clear as to the sharply differing nature of skills systems and requirements globally: for example the aging of populations in advanced economies (a major feature of the Japanese G20), growing youth bulges in South Asia, Middle East, and Africa (to be explored in the Saudi presidency), the uneven spread of wealth and technology, or even access to the internet.

Yet within these differing communities, young people, in varying degrees, start a working life. They can lead us through how to obtain employment, and the nature of that employment. They can guide us to innovative co-operation with artificial intelligence and other devices.

But nowhere in the evidence given from the 47 countries that participate in the G20 did we hear of systematic arrangements to track and learn from the creative and innovative young people whose knowledge and understanding we have helped, as educators, to form.

We need to learn from them. We should develop our capacity to support and work with ‘start up’ businesses. We should facilitate networking. We can then update our knowledge of how technology is being used.

In short, we are recommending that a dialogue be established to retain alumni as part of an immersive learning community.

Silvia Lanza Castelli and Paul Grainger, Co-director of the Centre for Education and Work, and Head of Innovation and Enterprise for the Department of Education, Practice and Society, UCL


[1] A number of Policy Briefs on this subject are presently being prepared for the G20 Task Force on Economy, Education and Employment for the Digital Age, and will be in the public domain shortly.

[2] Agrawal, A.; Cockburn, I.; Galasso, A.; Oettl, A.). "Why are some regions more innovative than others? The role of small firms in the presence of large labs". Journal of Urban Economic s(2014. 81: 149–165

[3] K. Spours and P. Grainger A Social Ecosystem Model: A New Paradigm for Skills Development?

[4] BT Asheim, MS Gertler -The geography of innovation: regional innovation systems, The Oxford handbook of innovation, 2005 -

[5] It’s About Work,Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning, 2013

[6] T20, Task Force 6. Economy, Education and Employment and the Digital Age.

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