KANBrief 1/20

Disruptive changes in technology, the economy and society

Professor Dr Joachim Breuer© EUROSHNET/André Wirsig
Prof. Dr. Joachim Breuer
President of the International Social Security Association (ISSA)

Can standardization keep up with the increasingly rapid pace of change of innovations, and still contribute in future to safety and health at work to the same degree as it is currently doing? The track on which this race is being run is very complex. Developments are now taking place that differ from change in the past in being disruptive in nature. Things change within a short space of time, and owing to radically new philosophies, no longer fit neatly into the existing system.

When talk is of changes affecting society, the focus often lies upon new technical developments. These are however only one aspect of the process as a whole. They are accompanied by social, cultural, legal and economic developments that are dependent upon technology, and vice-versa. This is tangible for example in the transport industry, in which complete business models across whole sectors are being destroyed and replaced by new models.

Employment and institutions in flux
A significant aspect of this disruption is that the number of people in atypical employment is growing. Atypical employment is that in which the status of the players is unclear: whether that of employer and employee with a conventional contract of employment, or of two contracting parties who have made contact on an online platform and entered into a contract for services.

It must be appreciated that this disruption is not limited to the companies themselves. Should the current pace of change increase, it will also have repercussions for the institutions that up to now have been involved in setting the rules. These particularly include the social partners, whose organizations are currently lobbying for users' knowledge to be incorporated into standardization. We need in fact to go back a step and point out that it is only through these organizations that employers and employees are able to articulate their interests in the first place. If disruption has now also reached these institutions and all that is left are contractors, who will form trade unions? If clients are all that is left on the employer side, how will they articulate their interests once the traditional employers' association has been consigned to history? In short, how can we ensure that workplace safety and health standards are met, irrespective of the form taken by the contractual arrangement between the parties? The International Social Security Association and the International Labour Organization are calling for adjustments to the framework conditions in order to ensure that persons in all forms of employment enjoy social security cover.

Europe – North America – Asia
The issue of disruption can however also be formulated in purely geographical terms, particularly from the perspective of the shift in the centre of the global economy to North America and especially to Asia. Artificial intelligence is an area in which the USA and China are leading the way, and we may soon no longer be able to catch up with them. This can be seen from the sums which the governments of these two countries are investing in research into artificial intelligence. The People's Republic of China is reportedly willing to spend US$60 billion a year on this research; Alphabet, the parent company of Google, spends US$21 billion. Where does Germany stand in comparison? At three billion – although experts assume that the sums available will not be taken advantage of. The situation is no better for the EU. What role can be assumed by Europe and European standards institutions when China and the USA are agreeing technical progress between themselves?

European values
The geographical shift may be accompanied by a shift in the values underpinning our system. These are of essential importance, particularly in the sphere of safety and health at work. What risks are we prepared to take? Where do we draw the line between precaution and freedom? The answer to these questions is very different, depending upon the cultural context. This applies to the Asian region, but also to the USA, as we have seen in the issue of chlorinated chicken in the context of the TTIP trade agreement.

If standardization is to remain an effective instrument for promoting safety and health worldwide in the face of the disruptions described above, it must expand and exploit its network of experts, users and social partners. Standardization can gather the required technical knowledge only through coordinated interaction between these players. To disseminate this knowledge effectively, it must act rapidly and proactively. By this means, and by accelerating its processes, standardization will be able to keep pace with technical developments and promote the implementation of innovations in practice, which in turn will support its acceptance.

Professor Dr Joachim Breuer

President of the International Social Security Association (ISSA)