When we think of “the economy”, we tend to think about actions and interactions directed and organized by people, in a physical world of machines, factories, buildings, roads, airplanes, offices and houses and cars. This physical world is where production takes place, whether those products are goods or services. Phones are manufactured, planes take off, banks make loans, and meetings are held, whether on zoom or in a conference room.
Over the most recent decades, a digital infrastructure has been growing alongside this physical economy. Or perhaps the better analogy is that the digital economy is growing under the physical economy like a root system under a forest, unseen but penetrating ever further. W. Brian Arthur, in an essay in McKinsey Quarterly, characterized this growing digital infrastructure as a “deep and slow and silent” transformation.
Shifting his analogy from root system to information exchange, he described a “conversation conducted entirely among machines”. His illustration depicts a traveler checking in at an airport. By placing a credit card or a frequent flyer card into a machine, the traveler initiates a process that automatically generates a boarding pass, a receipt and a luggage tag. While this is going on, computers check the status of the traveler, the status of the flight, the traveler’s identity with TSA, the traveler’s seat choice and access to lounges. There may be an automatic check with passport control, and with ongoing flights. Several more “conversations” are automatically informed, such as one about weight distribution of the airplane and another about air traffic control. These conversations take place automatically among servers, switches, routers and other internet and telecommunications devices. They occur in a few seconds for this one traveler, while they are ongoing for all travelers and for the air transportation system, with the conversations becoming smarter and smarter and more and more informed as more data flows.
Professor Arthur sees this digital infrastructure, and the conversations running through it and the automated processes it enables, as “the second economy”. It does not produce anything tangible, but it enables a lot of tangible outcomes. It helps architects design buildings and helps construction companies and contractors to build them. It tracks sales and inventories and supports transportation systems to ship goods from one place to another. It supports banks making loans and doctors conducting surgeries. It’s a kind of neural system. It provides intelligence – a neural layer that can sense and compute information and respond and make appropriate changes. Rapidly, this neural layer will develop more and more intelligence to support what people do in the physical economy.
There’s a worry that he cites – and which is shared with many intellectual commentators: that there is an adverse impact on jobs. The greater productivity enabled by the neural layer of the economy means that overall physical output requires fewer people to produce it. Physical jobs for people will disappear. He calls for the welfare state to compensate for this development via income and wealth redistribution schemes.
But there is a totally different way to look at, and to welcome and celebrate, the development of the second economy. It is that those disappearing jobs will be replaced with entrepreneurship. The new, digitally-evolved neural layer will empower more creative entrepreneurship and more innovative value generation. Value is a subjective emotional experience of human beings, not of machines. It requires human empathy to understand the search for value, the desire for more satisfactory experiences, and it takes empathy to imagine and design the new solutions and offerings that can deliver this betterment in a human context. That’s the value that comes from entrepreneurship. What’s exciting about the new digital layer is that it helps entrepreneurs to generate more value.
Jim Spohrer, the Director Of Research at IBM’s Almaden Research Lab and head of Cognitive OpenTech, talks about digital assistants for entrepreneurs, and A.I.-based cognitive mediators capable of supplementing entrepreneurial capabilities – making entrepreneurs better at gathering the knowledge that they need to do business, better at negotiating, better at building business models and better at deploying them in new ways to serve customers. In Jim’s imagination, we’ll all have 100 smart digital assistants to help us in the near future. What will we be able to achieve? What will 1,000 entrepreneurs each with 100 digital assistants be able to achieve? How about 1 million or 10 million such augmented entrepreneurs?
One thing we can probably predict with confidence: those entrepreneurs with digital assistants will achieve more than the jobs displaced by automation. In fact, we can expect a new army of entrepreneurs to ride on the neural layer that Brian Arthur describes. They’ll be more empowered and more innovative and better at serving customers than the status quo of performing jobs in a hierarchy.
The best use of the term “Second Economy” is not for the digital automation infrastructure that is developing. We can make better use of the term to describe the entrepreneurial small and medium sized enterprises (SME), newly empowered by digital assistants, and newly expanded in numbers by people transferring from the jobs economy to the entrepreneurial economy. Together, this new service system will unleash new cascades of value-generating innovation for their customers, their communities and their employees. SME’s are already the second economy, in that they account for 50% of GDP and over half of new job creation in the U.S. They are already creating new economic value at a fast rate, yet they are largely forgotten while economic analysts focus on FAANG corporations and the New York Stock Exchange and the S&P 500.
In fact, we can expect that SME’s utilizing the digital assistance of the neural layer of the economy will become the First Economy, leading the way in innovation, job creation, and economic growth. The economy evolves as technology evolves, and the next cycle will raise digitally assisted entrepreneurship in first position.