Booms, Busts & Bots: Navigating the Global Economy in 2030

The tenth annual Bertelsmann Foundation conference peered into the future to discuss how best to navigate the disruptions to our economies and societies caused by technological innovation and digitization. 

WASHINGTON, DC (April 18, 2018) – During the week of the IMF and World Bank Spring Meetings, the Bertelsmann Foundation held its tenth annual conference and reception at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.. This year, the conference was titled “Booms, Busts and Bots: Navigating the Global Economy in 2030”, inspired by the challenges generated by a globalized economy facing disruption by technological innovation. Liz Mohn, vice chair of the Bertelsmann Stiftungs’s executive board, and Bertelsmann Foundation President and CEO Aart De Geus joined guests from the diplomatic community, the private sector, NGOs, universities, the media and the U.S. government to discuss these challenges and potential solutions.

Following a short video about the Bertelsmann Foundation, Aart De Geus opened the conference with remarks on the daunting nature of the fast-paced change brought by the digital economy. He added that this is not the first time such disruption has occurred in the economies of the U.S. and Europe, and our response must be to curtail the negative effects with lessons from the past. “As in the industrial revolution,” he said, “the digital revolution urges us to remake capitalism into a human version of itself.”

As in the industrial revolution, the digital revolution urges us to remake capitalism into a human version of itself.

Keynote speaker Andrew Keen, one of the world’s best-known commentators on the pervasive use of digital technology and its effect on our societies, cultures and political discourses, drew from his latest book How to Fix the Future, to present his outlook on 2030. In regards to what the world will be like then, Keen said, “The only thing I can say for sure is that one law will be driving us there. The engine getting us to 2030 […] is what technologists call Moore’s Law.” This law, he explained, states that the power of computer chips doubles about every 18 months. In light of this accelerating computing might, Keen explained, technological change will likely always outpace our ability to respond adequately. However, we must make the effort to discuss how we can mitigate the negative effects of the digitization of the global economy.

Referring to Aart De Geus’s remarks on humanizing capitalism in the digital age, Keen noted that in order to ensure that we remain human, we must understand what being human means. “Humanity is trending,” he said, “although no one can quite define what humanity means. For me humanity means having goals, having agency.” In a world of smart machines, Mr. Keen concluded, human agency is key, because agency is something machines cannot have.

In a world of smart machines, human agency is key, because agency is something machines cannot have.

Following the keynote, a short video about the positive and negative impacts of digital technology set the stage for the panel discussion. The Bertelsmann Foundation-produced video highlighted the enormous amount of data created every day by internet users—around 2.5 exabytes—and the value this data has for private companies and governments that are becoming more adept at mining and using it.

After the video, Latvian Finance Minister Dana Reizniece-Ozola, Burning Glass Technologies CEO Matt Sigelman, ILO Deputy Director for Policy Deborah Greenfield and moderator Sam Fleming, U.S. economics editor for the Financial Times, discussed what they saw as the main sources of disruption in digital economy. Deborah Greenfield began by drawing a parallel between the year the ILO was founded, a time of great uncertainty after the first World War, with today’s environment of labor market disruption and fear over the impact of technology. In regards to our own time, Ms. Greenfield said, “The defining challenge that we have is the enormous divide between how technology is advancing in economically advanced countries and how it is really lagging behind in the developing and emerging economies.”

Minister Reizniece-Ozola pointed to experience in her home country of Latvia to speak about the impact of the digital revolution. “By 2030, there will be 800 million jobs replaced by technology,” she said, “but this will happen not only for the sake of the technology itself.” She argued that there is also the objective need for such a transformation in the labor market as machines and software take jobs to replace productivity lost due to an ageing population and outsourcing. Reizniece-Ozola added that changes in the labor market will necessitate changes in support structures provided by governments and other organizations like trade unions. As more people take up flexible, or gig, employment, social support will need to adapt. “The existing social benefit systems are created for the conventional, stable working relationship,” not the unstable working situations that are the hallmarks of the digital economy.

Matt Sigelman provided a perspective from the private sector, echoing the importance of adapting social support to the new digital economy and adding emphasis on making changes to education and training. “The job market overall is defined not so much by jobs, but by the skills that underlie those jobs,” he said, and those skills are changing as technology is integrated into more professions. IT and design skills are now entering the required skillsets of many jobs not previously associated with technological prowess. The question, Sigelman argued, becomes: How will job-seekers attain those skills in the future?

IT and design skills are now entering the required skill sets of many jobs not previously associated with technological prowess.  How will job-seekers attain those skills in the future?

At the conclusion of the conference, guests moved to the Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard of the National Portrait Gallery for refreshments, where Bertelsmann Foundation President and CEO Aart De Geus addressed the audience a second time, wrapping up the conference and inviting guests to enjoy the reception.


Nathan Crist
Manager, Digital Communications
Researcher, Transatlantic Relations