“So what do you do?” It’s a question that most of us have asked – or been asked – at some point. We often use it as an easy way to start a conversation and to establish some common ground.

But what if people thought our jobs seemed incomprehensible? I think that’s exactly what would happen if we could talk to somebody from the early 19th century and try to explain what working life looks like in 2016. In the same way, we’d probably struggle to understand a regular day in the 22nd century.

This quick thought experiment shows just how much has changed in our economies and societies over the past two hundred years – and indicates the level of transformation that is still to come.

26 billion connected devices by 2020

The latest Ericsson Mobility Report shows that there are now over 7 billion mobile subscriptions globally, and that over 90 percent of the world´s population will be covered by mobile broadband networks by 2021. As a direct result of technologies such as broadband, mobility and cloud, value chains are being reshaped, business models digitalized and previously unimaginable possibilities are created.

Information and communication technology (ICT) is, in short, enabling a radically new era. While it took 100 years to connect 1 billion places, only 25 years were required to connect 5 billion people. Today, not only places and people are connected, but things too – in fact, we forecast 26 billion connected devices in 2020.

The industrial age – where the competitive advantage of a company was primarily built on scale, ownership and concentration – is being rapidly replaced by the networked society, where people are using connectivity as the starting point for new ways of innovating, collaborating and socializing.

This explains why an online accommodation business that doesn’t own a single room now has a higher market valuation than any global hotel chain. Digital transformation is happening across industries – in TV and media, for example, where our research has found that over 50 percent of consumers now watch streamed on-demand video content at least once a day. And when was the last time you bought a CD from a store, rather than streaming your favorite music?

The future of our working lives

One frequently asked question is what all this means for our working lives. It’s true that many of today’s jobs will probably be affected by automated ICT processes at some point. But when we look again at our thought-experiment with the 19th century worker, it becomes clear that that we will simply do different things, rather than nothing at all.

Such is the nature of transformation in any era – as technology advances, economic productivity and employment always evolve too. This is as true today as it was at the beginning of the industrial age 200 years ago. There is also the additional consideration of multiplier effects, whereby each new high-tech job in a metropolitan area may actually create five additional jobs outside the high-tech industry.

Of course, other challenges remain. For example, how can the positive possibilities of ICT be maximized? Which skills do people, businesses and governments require? And how can regulation support innovation while protecting the rights of individuals?

Finding good answers to these questions requires a multi-stakeholder dialogue – nobody can solve them alone. I firmly believe that when companies, policymakers and civil society engage closely with each other, like they do in Davos during the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, we can develop effective, inclusive visions that bring the benefits of ICT to all.

Today, more action is urgently needed.

For policymakers, awareness levels of ICT’s long-term potential could be even higher. Commitment to national broadband plans, and frameworks for cross-ministry cooperation, can make a big difference, and should be accelerated wherever possible. Regulatory environments should support both the digitalization of established industries and the development of emerging sectors. In addition, more can be done to develop digital skillsets – both within governments and for citizens more broadly. By democratizing education and bringing learning to all, ICT can help cultivate and empower talent for the digital economy.

For companies, the priority is to disrupt yourself before others do it for you. New technologies mean new rules, and the winners will be those companies who proactively integrate ICT into the very fabric of their business. Ask yourself this – beyond simply making my processes more efficient, how can technology transform my business model and become a driving force for continual innovation, sustainability and value creation?

And as individuals, it’s essential that we embrace the transformational potential of ICT and actively participate in the possibilities it creates. This means taking responsibility for the systems with which we are becoming increasingly intertwined; holding stakeholders and participants accountable; improving products and infrastructure; and exploring new realms of entrepreneurship, social development and intellectual creativity.

Tackling global challenges

At the same time, individuals, policymakers and companies also need to leverage the potential of ICT to help address some of today’s most urgent global challenges, such as climate change and poverty reduction. Our latest research in this area, conducted together with the Earth Institute at Columbia University, indicates that ICT can help the world reach the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals more quickly.

In fact, the research finds that the quality of institutions can be defined by the extent to which they incorporate “cutting-edge solutions to facilitate the provision, transparency, openness and efficiency of public services”.

I believe that ICT can represent a positive, transformative force when implemented in an innovative, responsible and cooperative way. We have a vision of a networked society where every person and every industry is empowered to reach their full potential. We also fully recognize that we can only realize this vision in partnership with the wider community.

Today’s level of disruption may be unprecedented, but things will never move so slowly again. By working together, we can create positive impacts on a global scale at a faster pace and with higher impact than even before.

Author: Hans Vestberg, President & CEO, Ericsson. He is participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos.