QUT ExecInsights – Stuart Cunningham on humanising the future

Distinguished Professor Stuart Cunningham, OAM, is a leading QUT researcher in media, cultural studies and the workforce of the future. Stuart speaks to Kate about how the humanities will be vital to creating a community and workforce capable of meeting the challenges of technology, population ageing, globalisation and climate change.

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Kate Joyner 0:06
Welcome to QUT ExecInsights, brought to you by QUTeX Professional and Executive Education for the real world. I’m your host Kate Joyner. Next week, the Australian Academy of the Humanities will meet in Brisbane, celebrating their 50th year with the theme “humanising the future”. The symposium will explore how the future is currently being imagined, and asked whether we can humanise the digital future. The conference is been convened by QUT Distinguished Professor Stuart Cunningham, who is my guest today. Stuart is a research leader in the Creative Industries faculty, and is internationally recognised for his contributions to media, communications and cultural studies. And for exemplifying their relevance to industry practice and government policy. His standing in the field has seen him appointed or elected to numerous national, state and international bodies, and awarded several honours, including the Order of Australia. Hi, Stuart.

Stuart Cunningham 0:58
Hi, Kate.

Kate Joyner 0:59
Good. Do you wear your Order of Australia pin? Is that…

Stuart Cunningham 1:04
I do when I wear a suit. But I don’t try to attach it to a shirt that I might change everyday.

Kate Joyner 1:11
I think if I had that pin, I think I would wear it at every possible opportunity.

Stuart Cunningham 1:16
Well, thank you.

Kate Joyner 1:18
So Stuart, we’re all fascinated as we are here in the Graduate School about what the world will look like in the future, and particularly what the world of work will look like. In fact, it’s a it’s a, you know, large line of consulting at the moment, everyone seems to have a view. But I’ve seen you observe that much of the narrative is about the impact of technology. So robots, AI, machine learning and so on. And it seems to come from the mindset that this is an inevitability of some kind. So technology will do these things to us as if we had no choice in the matter. So I think there’s an alternative story and I think you might be able to tell it. What might that alternative story be about the world and and work in the future?

Stuart Cunningham 1:59
Yes, it is. It is a fascinating thing, this propensity, this human propensity for believing that the world will transform, will transform itself through one or two major vectors, one or two major influences. We have as humans are a real propensity for buying into grand narratives. Now, you know, grand narratives take all sorts of forms, they can take the form of End of Days narratives, prognostications of the withering way of the State, people have been excited and reassured, and, frankly terrified of these end of days, these grand narratives of the fate of humankind.

And I suppose there was a time in the 1970s, it was it was called post modernism, when a French theorist Jean-François Lyotard, talked about an incredulity toward meta narratives. That is, we should scale down and think much more pragmatically and break down these big narratives. But really, humanity has, I think, shown a great predilection. And these days, we are, we are very much told that one of our great I think, one of the great grand narratives is that the fourth industrial revolution will take us into the future.

Now, this was set off, I think, or at least one of the the big factors that set this off was a very influential study in 2013, that said, that it was up to 47% of the US workforce was subject to substitution by automation, computerisation automation, and that really threw the cat among the pigeons. Interestingly, over this period of time since 2013, when that work was done, there’s been a kind of series of step backs as people have sought to really build on this, hone it, refine the thinking about how we can most usefully predict or plan for the future of work. And now, there is a much stronger sense that automation is one amongst many factors.

Technology by itself does not, is not going to create the future or destroy the future. Technology is embedded in a whole range of other major factors and, and so I’m particularly fascinated by a study that was done in 2017 by, published by Pearson, and a lot of work done by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts in the UK, led by a colleague of mine Hasan Bakhshi, who will speak at the conference that you’re talking about the symposium, the 50th anniversary symposium of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. In that work, four other major drivers along with automation, so, globalisation, urbanisation, the aging population and the green economy, were identified as being as important as automation.

Now, in a sense, that’s sort of self evident when we think about it, but really, is our grand narrative adequately nuanced to give us the tools and the confidence to move and the challenges to move into the future?

Kate Joyner 5:55
Yes. And there’s the challenge, also that I mean, is it each one of those drivers, and you know, more than technology, do we exercise agency? Do we make choices about a preferred future? Or does it hurtle us inevitably, to something that’s predetermined for us? So if we did have agency, what might that agency be? What choices do we have, do you think?

Stuart Cunningham 6:21
Well, yes. I mean, one of the problems with grand narratives is that, is that we think that they are beyond human agency, they are happening to us. And this is being played out, of course, in the, in the climate emergency, that scientists are

Kate Joyner 6:41
They just spoke about this morning, they’ve heightened the risk, the alarm level, I think, just this morning, I think.

Stuart Cunningham 6:47
That are drawing to our attention, with greater and greater urgency, the sense has always got to be, as we contemplate catastrophe, imminent catastrophe, we must also have the tools by which we can avert that catastrophe. And, and so the the question of agency, is extremely important. We have to really think through the ways in which beyond the, below the grand narratives and the clamorousness that they provoke in us, What are the planning systems? What are the knowledge systems that are in place to take us into the future? And when we think in these terms, we think of all the ways in which urban planning is subject to strong knowledge systems, that we as scholars, and those in universities can contribute to. Better urban planning.

How do we how do we deal with – these are all subjects that I, that I’m mentioning are going to be topics in our symposium next week – how do we have an urban planning approach that is really about the biosphere, as well as the future of humans? Cities are as much a part of the biosphere, and an increasingly important part of the biosphere as the rest of you know that our, in Australia, our countryside, our rural and regional, our seascapes, etc. Cities are part of the biosphere, how do we plan to ensure that the non human elements of cities are as important in our planning as the human elements? That’s, that’s very important around urban planning.

We, we need to think for example, when we are going to look at humanising the digital future, that the idea that the vast, these vast corporations, the so called GAFA, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, there are all sorts of other acronyms for these, these huge companies. The, you know, the top five or six companies in the world, by capital, capital expenditure are these digital companies. We have a strong grand narrative emerging that says, their algorithmic control and surveillance of us is leading us to new dystopias. Well, our human agency to deal with the the ways in which we can command greater control over our own private data, and how governments have to respond to these through regulation, appropriate levels of regulation of these companies, is very much an emerging agenda. So these are some examples of the ways in which human agency, I believe, are as important to focus on as we move into the future, the planning systems, the knowledge systems that we can contribute to and bring to bear on vast forces that seem to be beyond human control.

Kate Joyner 10:28
So with my, with my teacher hat on, what I’ve heard there is that we have to have the capacity for I think systems thinking, for critical thinking, and an idea about what is the good life, as philosophers would say. So that’s an that’s an abundance of what I think comes from the humanities student. So when we think about the skills of the future, I hear about the workforce of the future, and those statistics about, you know, job skills, displacement, and so forth, it’s frequently about a story about STEM. So science, technology, engineering and maths. But what I’ve heard you articulate there is a whole bundle of of other kinds of knowledges and understandings that we’ll need if we if we are to exert this human agency. And I think there’s some good research about that kind of idea which you might share with us.

Stuart Cunningham 11:16
Well, this is this is something that I’ve been working on for 20 years, here at QUT. I am often seen as someone who is doing the arm waving about “Well, don’t forget the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences.”

Kate Joyner 11:33
In fact, some people, our audience might be surprised that we have humanities here at QUT. It doesn’t fit with the idea about technology. But there you go. Or does it?

Stuart Cunningham 11:41
That’s a very good point. If I may simply say that, of the, of the last round of Australian Research Council Centres of Excellence, were participating in two of these new Centres of Excellence. One is called Automated Decision-Making and Society, which is dedicated, which we will be a major node of, is dedicated to exactly the kinds of questions that I’ve raised just there around the, the so called dystopian threats of the, of the vast digital corporations and their surveillance and control and, and, and detailed knowledge of, of humans who participate in them. And also of the new Centre of Excellence in The Digital Child which QUT will be leading

Kate Joyner 12:38
And that’s out of Creative Industries or Education?

Stuart Cunningham 12:40
It’s based in Education, it’s led by Susan Danby, Professor Susan Danby, our Creative Industries footprint is there as well through Associate Professor Michael Dezuanni, so Digital Child will be led out of QUT. It’s about supporting and, supporting and nurturing the digital child of the, of the future and so both very future oriented one in, one in early childhood, so zero to eight focussed that is the digital child. The other, a Centre of Excellence in Automated Decision-Making and Society, which ranges across four or five major areas of the economy – media, health, transport, for example. So, when it comes to the question of the contribution of the humanities, and of course, I come from the Communications and Media field of the humanities, these contributions are recognized as at the cutting edge of public investment in research and science in Australia. And so, I would like, I would like to get beyond the arm waving stage. You know, don’t forget the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, the so called HASS sector when everyone is talking about our future being determined by, there’s that that bad word determined again, you know, technologically determined by STEM, by STEM.

We really do need to get beyond these binaries. Now, when we, when we look at the, the work that I alluded to earlier, by Hasan Bakhshi of NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, we see that this work has really brought to bear some of the, the key skills requirements based on very sophisticated data analytical breakdowns of, of both expert knowledge and machine learning. So using the best quality, qualitative inputs and the, and best practice machine learning analysis, what are the outcomes, the outcomes? Well, what’s very striking is that creative skills and critical thinking are way at the top of the skills needed in the future. Now, lots of people are saying that it’s not new. But this is not coming from a special pleading point of view, it’s not coming from the Creative Industries, this is coming from people who are doing deep machine learning on vast databases in both the UK and the US.

So, creative skills and critical thinking, system skills as you say, system skills which are very much about learning how everything fits together. And, and when you think about that, you’re thinking of qualitative approaches such as case method, which of course, business faculty specialise in. Case method is a critical way in which system skills can be honed, refined and challenged. So system skills, creativity, the interpersonal and communication skills, sounds obvious, but seriously, very good interpersonal and communication skills are the basis of collaboration, which is another absolute desideratum about the future of work. So a lot of these studies have shown these things but when you, when you look at the deep componentry of the, of what skills will make up, what component skills will make up the jobs of the future. So breaking down the grand narrative is about 47% of known jobs may be subject to automation, that you break down to the skills components of jobs.

And there is a very strong story there to be told about, really, let’s get beyond the STEM/HASS, Humanities Arts and Social Sciences versus Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. And I would want to say that there’s an extremely good example of this in Queensland right at the moment. A study by the Queensland Government, CSIRO and Data61 called the New Smarts Study has has just come out. And right at the very start of it, it refers to some of the strongest research performance in, based in Queensland, on the national stage, QUT’s Communications and Media area is the top ranked national.

Kate Joyner 18:03
Yes, it is. Congratulations

Stuart Cunningham 18:06
Discipline. And it’s quoted there in that report as being the case. And we hear that these research strengths provide a strong foundation for growing Queensland’s knowledge economy. But nothing more in the report about Communications and Media.

Kate Joyner 18:23
Yes, and why they’re required?

Stuart Cunningham 18:26
Well, it just, it’s just a problem that the rest of the report, and this is pretty standard practice goes on to talk about STEM, STEM, STEM, STEM and STEM. And it simply doesn’t engage with the much more nuanced, much more exciting ways in which these disciplines sets across the broad STEM and the broad HASS fields need always to be brought together, for there to be any pathway towards commercialisation, pathways towards social embedding, social acceptance, and social adoption.

Kate Joyner 19:06
And that’s probably the most coherent argument I’ve heard for that, that kind of way of thinking, Stuart, so thank you for that. And it’s certainly and those kinds of skills we teach in the, in our Graduate Schools as well. So systems thinking actually is, um, is one of my, one of my teaching areas. So and, and growing in importance all the time. So government is certainly calling for systems thinking skills and critical thinking skills and communication skills. So, you know, what we would sometimes have called the soft skills but no longer soft. So the ability to work in a network, for example, how to be diplomatic, for example, how to communicate them in these networks, I think are incredibly important. And I’ll keep hand waving for them.

Stuart Cunningham 19:52
Yes, I’d like to, I’d like to really move the debate from soft versus hard. They’re not helpful to knowledge systems, the idea that there are as elaborated as important knowledge systems that derived from the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, as they do from the STEM disciplines and those knowledge systems in combination are what, if they’re done rigorously, ethically and with hopefully a bit of luck, we can avert some of the, the catastrophic scenarios that futurologists often paint us, paint for us.

Kate Joyner 20:35
In the time we’ve got left, Stuart, so you’ve mentioned a couple of really exciting new research areas. So the Digital Child and, and your other, you know, successful ARC. So what kinds of questions are we asking in the Creative Industries faculty at the moment? So what’s exciting researchers in that area?

Stuart Cunningham 20:52
Well, as I’ve said earlier, the fact that Automated Decision-Making and Society, led by our good colleagues that we’ve worked with for a long time at, at RMIT. But with QUT as the, as the second node of this Centre of Excellence, this, this is really exciting work. It builds on the earlier Centre of Excellence, which was the first Centre of Excellence led by the humanities, which I lead from 2005 to 2014. That was called Creative Industries and Innovation. Where, where we were, we spent eight or nine years folding the creative industries into the broader innovation system, which, to allude to earlier comments has always been very STEM-centric, but which increasingly, people who, who study innovation systems and those who seek to put them into practice, in practical terms, increasingly see the importance of bringing the two bodies of knowledge, the two sets of knowledge systems together. So we see that we, we achieved some important things in that work. In the first Centre of Excellence. Now we’ve we’ve been part of winning another one, which is really very much about the ways in which automated systems can be both a problem, as I was alluding to earlier with the with the Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple kind of conundrums we face about their business model. This is the most successful business model yet invented in the in the in the digital era, their business model is to suck data from us, and provide us in many cases with brilliant free services. So we’re looking, you know, we’re just looking at how do we, how much price are we prepared to pay in that area? So there’s, there are downsides. But there are there are significant upsides as well.

How do we how do we get blockchain working for us not just in FinTech, but also around questions of smart contracting, around opportunities for independent artists, for example, to ensure that they are paid properly, in perpetuity for their work. This is one of the areas that, that we’ll be talking about next, next week at the symposium. So that’s, there’s some examples of, I think, exciting work in, in our field.

And of course, the Digital Child, as I’ve said, is, is a very important piece of work led out of, out of QUT, which will, which will the centerpiece of which is a longitudinal study, going from birth through to eight years, the expected lifetime of the center, looking at the ways in which a child from birth through to year eight is a whole panel selection of these children in Australia. This is rich data, new data on on the ways in which the digital is affecting childhood.

Look, the last thing that I want to say that that I’m very, very much focused on in my research is exactly about jobs and the future of work and the place of the creative industries as a job creator, a job generator. We do statistical work in this area. We do qualitative work in this area. And it’s a very strong story. The creative industries are by employment, growing at twice the rate of the national economy and they are a place where resilient, relatively non substitutable by automation jobs being created and there, and we are finding these jobs in all sorts of places around Australia and not just in the inner-city tech hubs.

Kate Joyner 25:22
Fantastic. Well, thanks so much, Stuart. And I wish you well for your 50th symposium next week. And I think one of the many things that I’ve learned but what I’ve learned many things, but one of the joys of the interview was to hear the word desideratum. I’ll be pondering that word for some time. So thanks very much Stuart.

Stuart Cunningham 25:38
Okay. Thanks very much, Kate.


Dr Kate Joyner is the Interim Director, Corporate Programs and Learning Innovation in the Graduate School of Business, QUT. Kate provides academic leadership for the Public Sector Management Program and delivers executive education in the areas of leadership, systems thinking and strategy. Kate’s speciality is developing leaders and leadership groups for the challenges of the 21st century.

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