The eighteenth century bore witness to the first formalization of economic thought. In the same century we designed steam engines that enabled wider automation of repetitive tasks. The first Industrial Revolution was confirmed, as was the notion that our economic system was stable, controllable and, due to such automation, would result in an infinite linear progression of human development. This notion influenced the design of our cities, organizations, economic and even educational systems. We grouped factories in industrial districts, developing centralized plants to facilitate management and logistics. Workers made the daily trip from home to their workspace, enabling economic growth and prompting the boom of urban areas. We evidently invested in this notion, but from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first – has everything gone to plan?.
Before we look at the reality of our economic systems today, let’s define ‘work’. My definition is two-fold: we can define it as the effort an individual makes to earn a living and the way each of us contribute to society. This is why work is a core component of our culture, one that society orbits around. Take the example of a new office building: as each new office building pops up, an entire ecosystem emerges around it: restaurants, shopping malls, parking lots, etc. But to be manageable, the system needs to be measurable.
Plenty of planning, time and resources goes into each new physical business ecosystem to ensure it flourishes. Often, the return on such an investment can be measured by calculating how many people (and their disposable income) will work and travel there. Work acts as an attractor and a stabilizer - it’s a type of gravity, towards which our economic system will naturally gravitate and continuously cycle through. That is, unless it’s disrupted...
In the last few years we’ve seen a sudden increase in the number of co-working spaces worldwide, jumping from 1,000 in 2011 to more than 15,000 in 2018. This explosive growth was mainly due to increased access to internet broadband, allowing people to work anywhere they want. This trend alone is rapidly shifting work from the physical economy to what we call the digital economy.
What we’re witnessing here is a phased transition. This can be defined as a small change in a quantitative input variable that results in a qualitative change in the system state. The transition of ice to steam is one example of a phased transition. At some critical temperature, a small change in the system’s input temperature results in a systemic change in the substance, after which it is governed by a new set of parameters with a new set of properties.
The transition of work we’re currently seeing is shifting the core of our economic system, redefining the set of parameters that govern it, adding new layers of complexity to our organizations, work relations and everything that orbit around what we mean by ‘work’. From solid to liquid state (no pun intended, Baumann folks ;)).
Up until recently, the workforce followed regular patterns of economic behavior. We can easily observe this phenomenon on the commute: back and forth to work like a grandfather clock; a stable routine, predictable schedules and planned vacations, which are all straight-forward to measure. But now, the ‘office’ is in the cloud and managers are being replaced by algorithms. As workers are freed of fixed workspaces, their economic activities can only be measured by their interactions with this cloud. Why? Because there’s no schedule anymore, no regular pattern of economic behavior... A job that was supposed to be done in an office in New York can be done from a beach in Thailand, or on a device on the commute or even on holiday with the family. The digital environment has already become the main method of contact between humans for a wide range of activities – such as banking, entertainment, education, driving – but, crucially, the parameters and properties of this new economic system are still being set.
At the dawn of this new era we’re seeing Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, smart sensors, Internet of Things (IoT) and so many other emerging technologies disrupting one market after the next. We will use these emerging technologies in the coming years to measure this new complex environment.
A final note - it shouldn’t just be technology changing our relationship with work. We, as working individuals, need to be cognizant of the shifting paradigms, of the lack of routine and guiding patterns of behavior, because is upon us to design what the Future of Work will be. Realizing that change is happening and how it’s happening will bring us not only a new perspective on what we collectively mean by ‘work’, but what we mean by being human.