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Lifelong learning key to Smart Nation

Behavioural economics as important as development of technical skills

In his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong underlined Singapore's vision to be a Smart Nation. The Smart Nation master plan favourably positions the country economically and socially for the future, where being "smart" defines most, if not all, aspects of our life.

What does it take for the workforce, businesses and citizens to thrive in a Smart Nation? Is there a risk that implementation of smart technologies will outpace the population's ability to learn and adapt?

With more smart projects identified across different domains, it is expected that the country's workforce landscape will shift. The development and implementation of smart projects will require more talent such as the likes of engineers, programmers, data analysts and technicians.

The Government is encouraging students to take up engineering and computer science. SkillsFuture and Professional Conversion Programmes also encourage technical skills development and career conversions for such roles.

Yet, for businesses to be smart and drive a competitive edge requires more than technical know-how and new technologies. Technologies must be augmented by behavioural insights and the understanding of patterns that drive consumer or societal behaviour.

Particularly, behavioural economics will become a growing resource as businesses seek to understand biases or the impact of social norms on consumer behaviour.

While technologies such as robots and artificial intelligence can enable improved productivity through automation, human capabilities such as empathy, connectivity and creativity will be needed to make sense of data and information to extract insights and develop solutions and drive innovation.

The World Economic Forum estimates that 5.1 million jobs across 14 major economies will be displaced by 2020.

Displacement of labour is hardly new as mechanisation has been reshaping work since the Industrial Revolution. What is different in the smart economy is the unprecedented impact of technologies on both blue- and white-collar jobs, and the speed of potential displacement.

The idea of performing "gigs" on a contractor or freelance basis will also become more commonplace as the notion of having a "job for life" becomes outmoded.

Catalysed by technological enablement, jobs could well be unbundled into tasks that are skills and knowledge-based, and as businesses take a modular approach to work, workers will have "roles", not "jobs".

In such a reshaped job economy, education qualifications and grades may become less reliable predictors of success than qualities such as perseverance to see things through, openness to collaborate, and the ability to energise a diverse team.

It is said that 50 per cent of what university students learn in their first year will be outdated by the third year of their study. Perhaps then the formal education years should focus on shaping the mindset of continual learning, embracing change and creative problem-solving.

Organisations will need to evolve their learning strategies and provide regular, accessible, practical and applicable skills development. Such skills development must be tied to specific talent shortages and needs of the businesses.

The country's success will rest on our collective ability to shift our mindset, embrace lifelong learning and prepare for the future of work.

The writer is EY Asean People Advisory Services Leader. The views here are the writer's and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organisation or its member firms. This article was published in The Business Times yesterday.

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