When Martin Wolf, the FT’s venerable economics commentator, endorses a concept, it’s usually sensible to give it hearing. Today, he’s backing the idea that we’re a post-growth society. That the growth generated by the industrial revolution and advances of the 20th century simply cannot be matched by the changes being wrought by the current technological revolution.
The argument that jet engines, running water and electricity are all inventions and innovations that rapidly drove up productivity and that current technological innovations pale in comparison will appeal to many. It will receive a warm welcome from those who hark back to a time when we built things, who think the service sector part of the economy is illusory. However, it is wrong.
At first glance a lot of the benefits of technological innovation are incremental, but they enable productivity improvements far beyond those we have so far reaped. Capital is already global, yet despite the massive growth of cities, labour lags behind – people move around the world a fraction of the amount and the speed that resources do.
Technology mitigates this need for travel. It connects people in a way never before possible. It frees up time and forges closer bonds over greater bonds over greater distances. Very few companies have been able to capitalise on this yet but those who have, have found that international, collaborative working has driven innovation. GE is a prime example. Back in 2010, it created a private network to connect its 5,000 global marketers. It enabled people working in different divisions to share problems and create solutions that weren’t previously possible.
Collaborative workplace tools have the potential to change business structures and productivity in the same way the specialisation and rolling assembly lines did during previous periods of high innovation and growth.
A recent McKinsey Global Institute report stated that collaborative workplace tools could generate productivity gains of up to $1.3 tn in the consumer packaged goods, retail financial services, advanced manufacturing, and professional services sectors. There are hard numbers that support this prediction: Microsoft paid $1.2bn for Yammer, the social networking tool for businesses.
Collaborative tools are just one element of the changes that the internet and related technologies are enabling. Yet they alone have the potential to boost innovation and growth in key service sectors. The technological revolution is increasing not only our ability to innovate but the speed at which we can do so.