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Discover The Future of Work

My last post explored innovation, i.e., what it is, why it matters, and why books and articles have been dedicated to it. This week I want to explore one of the most outstanding innovation schools of thought there ever was: The Bauhaus School. The multidisciplinary approach espoused by the Bauhaus helps reframe innovation as a connected set of ideas and practices, each building on the one that came before that can take seed, germinate, grow and change things at rapid speed.

What I find startling is The Bauhaus movement is now over 100 years old, celebrating its centenary in 1919 (maybe the centenary got lost in the first stirrings of the pandemic). Visionary architect Walter Gropius started the school in Weimar, Germany. Gropius, alongside the American Frank Lloyd Wright (check out his Falling Water house to appreciate true genius) and the Swiss-French Corbusier are considered pioneers of modernist architecture, urban planning and design. Side note: interestingly, Gropius couldn't draw, and he relied on collaborators and partners/interpreters throughout his career.

Many see the Bauhaus as a school of applied arts, noted for a refined functionalist approach to industrial design. But it goes deeper than that. At the school, Gropius brought together the eras' greatest painters, architects, designers, technologists, and furniture makers and began pushing the boundaries of taste and innovation through its famous multidisciplinary curriculum and its soon-to-be work from its world-famous students. And suppose you look at the chromatic pictures of Bauhaus students wandering around Dessau in Weimar Germany in the 1920s, where the campus was located. Everything from their clothes to their spiky hairstyles shouts modernity, so much so that they look like they've stepped out of a vegan café in Dalston or Kreuzberg one hundred years on (all they are missing is the ubiquitous smartphone).

The Bauhaus in the 1920s was at the intersection of social and economic transformation just as deep as that today. Profound even as digitization accelerates. And here is where it gets interesting. The first Bauhaus grew out of the stirrings of industrial mass consumption that had begun to define our late 20th-century consumer-based economy. Back then, the battle-cry of the Bauhaus was "art into industry," extending beauty and quality (i.e., into every home) through well designed, industrially produced objects. The sleek Bauhaus aesthetic emerged as recent transformative technologies (electrification, radio, telephones) rewired societal norms. Innovative materials like concrete, steel, and Bakelite plastics were increasingly used to build and furnish homes and castles of the age (concrete in construction, mass-market wireless sets, candlestick telephones, tubular furniture etc.) The Bauhaus movement came of age at the intersection of new technologies, new materials, and roiling societal change. Sound familiar? The socio-economic impacts of technology and materiality are eerily familiar:

  1. Recent transformative discoveries. For example, the success of the messenger RNA technique behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines hold out the tantalizingly possibility of bespoke treatments; or diets configured to precisely to your genome. We can (almost) bend biology to our will, treating diseases, editing genes, or grow meat in a lab that is entirely carbon neutral. And then there is AI, which shows impressive progress in a range of contexts, from predicting protein folding to GPT-3, the best natural language algorithm created to date. See our take on GPT-3 and other incredible technologies we profiled in The Work Ahead: The True Meaning of AI: Action and Insight.
  2. Booming investment in tech. Proof is emerging that the private sector spends more on computers, software, and R&D than on buildings and industrial gear for the first time in over a decade (moving from the physical to the virtual). Governments are giving more cash to scientists than they have for years (well, we have Covid to thank for that – but can you remember a time in recent history when science is as lionized as today?) Government-funded R&D spending is growing again, and investor enthusiasm for technology extends into climate change, medical diagnostics, logistics, biotechnology and semiconductors (see my take in The Work Ahead: Europe's Digital Ambitions Scale).
  3. Rapid technological adoption, i.e., people are using it. We thought things were changing rapidly, but the pandemic accelerated fundamental change in how we transact our lives. The pandemic triggered the mass adoption of digital payments, telemedicine, and industrial-scale automation--these are hallmarks of a modern, digital-first society that everyone (and I count myself here) thought had at least five years to run BC (Before Covid). It has been a reminder that adversity often forces society to advance—and the coming battle against climate change will spur more bold steps in how we as people, as employees and as citizens of the world come together (I know, cue Earth Song by Michael Jackson but, look, it needs to happen).

The world is due a second Bauhaus. The Bauhaus movement responded to the innovation opportunities offered as new construction materials (steel, poured concrete), electrification, telephones and motorcars, and the new ways of living in mass industrial society materialized (we call it the Budding effect). The second will grow out of the opportunities that digitizing our physical world brings. Imagine building digital twins, systems of systems, that could model and lessen the impact of climate change; what if we could personalize and tailor products and services with the implicit understanding that the transaction would be as climate neutral as possible? And imagine working for a company that put climate neutrality at the centre of its value proposition? What if the new Bauhaus provided an aesthetic for a modern firm that everyone understood instantly, just like when you see the Bauhaus logo today? The first Bauhaus lived by the maxim "Art into Industry"; the second will be "Green into Industry". It's just a thought, but it's an idea that's catching on, and I want to take it much further...