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The client

Resolution Foundation, a London think tank

The client’s goals

To clarify and amplify the Resolution Foundation’s thought leadership in the areas of digital transformation, workplace productivity and national wage policy. This was amidst an atmosphere of potentially exaggerated claims in relation to these topics.

Key challenges

Obtaining suitable research data was a key challenge of this project. Additional challenges included the open-ended, cross-sectoral nature of the client’s goals, a constantly shifting policy landscape, and the development of persuasive outputs. In addition, part-way through this project, the UK government’s ‘Taylor Review’ sharpened our focus on the future role of digital and data in the workplace.

Methods

Working closely with the Foundation’s in-house staff, initial data was obtained from the World Bank, the Office for National Statistics and digital newspaper archives. We then drew on influential historical sources, including Morgan Stanley’s The Internet Report (1996-date), and turn-of-the-century KPMG technology forecasts. Additionally, we built on prior project experience and drew on sector-specific journals which contained valuable insights novel to the policy formulation arena. These sources were augmented with ten sector specialist interviews sourced from the Project Hindsight network.

Project scope

We identified suitable comparison events, such as the UK National Minimum Wage (NMW) policy, implemented in 1998-9, and the retrospective impact of the UK government 1998 internet growth policy, Britain’s Competitive Future. We also situated these policies in contemporary geopolitical context, such as the widespread impact of the 1997 ‘Asian tigers’ financial crisis and the 2000 ‘dotcom’ crash (both since overshadowed by the 2008 global financial crisis).

Findings

We provided three insights relevant to the client’s goals. First, we showed that prior predictions of the impact of digital technology on the workplace were over-estimates, and encouraged future stakeholders to use a more moderate tone in similar debates. Second, we showed that the UK ‘productivity puzzle’ was in fact a far older debate than generally realised and one relevant to many countries in addition to the UK (debate on this topic has since gravitated towards this conclusion). Third, we showed that employers met with the cost of the NMW by absorbing increased costs into operations rather than by investment in a forgotten innovation or technology. Indeed, contemporary agency surveys revealed that many employers were already paying wages at the NMW level. This supplied policymakers with evidence as to how to meeting the challenge of implementing the National Living Wage (2015-date).

Outcomes and impact

We published our 38-page report Don’t Believe the Hype: Work, Robots, History (2017) which is online here. It contained five appendices, including a historical comparison between the Taylor Review and similar government investigation stored in the UK National Archives. Don’t Believe the Hype: Work, Robots, History was launched with a briefing and debate at Resolution Foundation’s headquarters in London in December 2017. The event was attended by policy officers, academics, entrepreneurs, and campaign groups.

A key outcome of this work is that Project Hindsight is now recognised as a thought-leader on the buoyant strategy topic of ‘The Future of Work’. Subsequent engagements on this subject include Low Cost by Design (funded by the Higher Education Innovation Fund as part of the Ministry of Defence’s Combat Air Strategy), the Future of Work Hub (a Lewis Silkin project), and an advisory position on the UK Cabinet Office’s ‘Future of Work and the Government Estate’ strategy.