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A service robot working as an electronic porter, meeting and greeting guests at a hotel. Warehouse workers who receive their instructions via smart glasses. Or people engaged on a crowdworking basis to complete small tasks such as organising images on digital platforms. These are just a few scenarios encompassed by the term Industry 4.0. Though far from commonplace as yet, many people view the changes to the world of work that are being brought about by digitisation and artificial intelligence with concern. They ask themselves how their own work will change, and whether in fact their job will even exist in the future.

Future scenarios meet reality

A vision of work in the future.

Consequently, predictions such as those made by the economist Professor Holger Bonin and his colleagues at the Centre for European Economic Research in Mannheim caused quite a stir. They claimed that 42 percent of all workers in Germany do jobs that are highly likely to be automated in future.

By contrast, researchers who focus on the present day have found that the changes to the world of work are in fact happening only gradually. “Industry 4.0 is a political term, first and foremost”, points out Dr Martin Krzywdzinski, an industrial sociologist and expert in the sociology of work at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB). “The developments associated with it are still at a rudimentary stage, and are taking place at very different speeds depending on the companies and sectors in question.” The status of skilled workers in industry for example could be upgraded in future because their knowledge and experience are needed for the introduction of digital production processes.

Wearable computing in logistics

Krzywdzinski, who is part of the team running the WZB’s doctoral programme “Good Work”: Approaches to Shaping Tomorrow’s World of Work, sees one danger all the same. Employees in such jobs could find themselves exposed to increased stress due to “wearables” such as smart glasses that give instructions to workers or wristbands that have built-in mini-computers. Such devices make it easier to monitor staff because they record all the wearer’s movements. In a research project, Krzywdzinski is using case studies in logistics and industrial companies to explore how wearables affect work.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering (IAO) in Stuttgart is working on ways to resolve the numerous technical problems that still plague such interlinked IT solutions. To support small and medium-sized industrial enterprises as they move towards digitisation, the IAO has teamed up with the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA), the University of Stuttgart and corporate partners to establish the Future Work Lab. Various work stations allow visitors to find out for example how robots and humans work together on assembly lines.

Knowledge workers under pressure

Besides industry, it is the services sector above all that is characterised by the new technologies. At the same time it drives them forward itself, as three quarters of all jobs in Germany are now in this segment. Not only conventional services such as sales and shipping are provided there; knowledge-intensive products such as software are also developed. Such work is often organised in the form of projects – though this approach is in principle self-organised and team-oriented, it can also subject the “knowledge workers” to levels of stress that can make them ill. This happens when digitally-supported project management is too rigid or mechanistic. In the research project “Good Agile Project Work” (only in German), sociologist Professor Sabine Pfeiffer and business data processing specialist Professor Mareike Schoop from the University of Hohenheimare jointly developing criteria for successful project-based work that will benefit everyone involved.

Germany’s Science Year 2018 (only in German) also reflects the fundamental role that work plays in our societies. Its focus is “Working Worlds of the Future”. Through this initiative, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research is funding projects that address a wider public. Martin Krzywdzinski from the WZB has already drawn one conclusion that should be of interest to us all: “Contrary to what we often assume, digitisation may in fact not be a disruptive process at all, but a gradual one.” There are many opportunities to shape a transformation that takes place step by step.

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