Designing the future of work

Over at Democracy Journal, my Institute for the Future colleagues Marina Gorbis and Devin Fidler explore the "digital coordination economy" (aka the on-demand economy) and how "it may take deliberate design choices in platform architecture, business models, new civic services, and public policy to prevent this increasingly seamless “coordination economy” from becoming highly inequitable as well." From Democracy Journal:

As software takes an increasing role on both sides of transactions—ordering and producing—it promises to bring vastly more efficient coordination to these kinds of basic economic functions. This emerging digital coordination economy, with its efficient matching and fulfillment of both human and nonhuman needs, has the potential to generate tremendous economic growth.

However, as software engineers essentially author a growing segment of our economic operating system, it may take deliberate design choices in platform architecture, business models, new civic services, and public policy to prevent this increasingly seamless “coordination economy” from becoming highly inequitable as well. Already the growth of on-demand work has allowed investors and owners in some industrialized regions to reap substantial financial returns while many of the people using platforms to generate income streams are struggling to maintain their standard of living. Uber drivers, for example, have seen a drop in earnings in the United States over the last couple of years, even as the company continues to grow at a dramatic pace.

It is clear that the fundamental technologies driving the coordination economy are neither “good” nor “bad,” but rather offer a heady combination of opportunities and challenges. In order for society to thrive in this future, we will need a new design paradigm—a socio-technical framework in which the economic growth and societal benefits of an increasingly coordinated economy can be maximized. Such a paradigm could encompass: the technical design of platforms, regulatory frameworks necessary to both protect against inherent negative externalities and help distribute opportunities on a more equitable basis, efforts to foster the creation of new ecosystems of services, and public policies that support inclusive prosperity. Perhaps most importantly, it tries to create the most human value out of the big technological shifts that are advancing in stride.

"Prosperity By Design" (Democracy Journal)

For more on IFTF's research on the future of work, visit: Workable Futures Initiative

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  1. Scurra says:

    Alas, given that human nature hasn't changed over the six thousand or so years we have evidence for, the idea that it might change in a fraction of that time seems improbable to me.

    No economic or political system has really ever survived for more than a couple of generations before the, for want of a better word, sociopaths figure out how to game it. The lucky periods are the ones where the new system was largely already ready to take over; most of the time, however, bloody revolution (or, worse, full-scale war) was necessary first.

    I admire the optimism in this piece, but it feels to me as though we're already too late. Part of the problem is that the political systems in the US and the UK particularly (but elsewhere too) are disintegrating, meaning that the politicians who are supposed to monitor this sort of thing are being a little distracted (and/or being bought off, although I think that's a lot less of a problem than it is sometimes made out to be.)

  2. I agree. Over time US workers (and probably worldwide) become more and more efficient, but they share none of the profits from that increased productivity. What that means today is that wages have stagnated for forty years. But if productivity climbs further while demand drops (due to depressed wages,) the need for workers will evaporate. If one hundred guys could make all your Wal*Mart goods, do you think they would hire ten thousand? If they had their druthers, they'd hire 200 part-timers and deny them benefits.

    The Invisible Hand will not solve this problem, unless the solution is starvation. We've been trained for forty years to distrust government, but they will soon prove to be the only force pushing back. We have a presidential candidate who says that wages are too high. My guess is that things will get much, much worse before they get better.

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