The RSA Future Work Awards — meeting anxiety with innovation

We celebrate a gathering wave of innovation around the world as people seek to fashion a better future work for themselves

By Charles Leadbeater

Watch the Future Work Awards ceremony, 6pm GMT - 6th February 2019

Hundreds of women from the poorest slums in Peru have found work thanks to Laboratoria, a pioneering programme to equip them for jobs in the digital economy. In Colombia, domestic servants have found regular work thanks to an organisation called Hogaru which employs them directly while it deals with the shifting demand from employers. All over the world companies are employing tens of thousands of people who have shown their ability to acquire new skills by earning micro credentials, open badges, issued by Credly. Meanwhile organisations such as Portify in the UK and We Mind in France are developing new financial tools to insure freelancers and the self-employed against the uncertainty of work in the gig economy.

These are just a handful of examples of a gathering wave of innovation around the world as people seek to fashion a better future work for themselves. We have captured a snapshot of that gathering wave through our inaugural RSA Future Work Awards, instigated by our partners Alt Now with the support of Social Capital Partners and our sponsors Barclays.

We were looking for new ways to shift power towards workers who have come to feel relatively powerless in the face of change

In the spring of 2018 our small team of researchers set out to find interesting and inspiring examples of innovation designed to create good work, especially for those facing insecure, poorly paid and uncertain futures. We wanted to find out whether there were promising innovations that offered new ways for people to get onto the front foot, so they could shape work to suit them rather than being forced always to take work on their employers’ terms. In the face of all the doom and gloom about our jobs being taken by clever, tireless robots, we wanted to find out if innovators, activists and entrepreneurs were responding by trying to provide people with a more optimistic account of a future they could shape. We were looking for new ways to shift power towards workers who have come to feel relatively powerless in the face of change, and in the process, we hoped to find solutions which would make companies and the economy as a whole more productive and less wasteful.

A global story of employment innovation happening now

What we found from the more than 400 entries we gathered is that innovation at work is coming from many kinds of organisations — companies, start-ups, social enterprises, campaigns — and from all over the world: from Nigeria to Pakistan, Mexico to the UK. The sense of mounting unease, anxiety and frustration about the future of work is being met by organisations who see this as an opportunity to innovate to address people’s frustrations and anxieties.

Yet most of this innovation is not about the future of work. It is not designed to protect people against the threats that AI and machine learning might pose to many mainstream jobs. Instead it is mainly concerned with the reality of work as it is now: to help people find a greater sense of security in a much more volatile and flexible labour market. How can we fashion good work — work that affords people a sense of security, autonomy and control — given the shifting sands of the modern labour market?

Although they are remarkably diverse the 28 awards winners stem from a shared insight that the old story, that good work involves people having full time jobs, built around a single occupation, which delivers a stable wage and solid sense of identity, no longer rings true. That set of relationships — job, wage, employer, insurance, pensions — is breaking down. Jobs are being broken down into tasks. Careers and occupations are becoming far less structured. Self-employment, freelancing, short term contracts, informal and independent forms of work are becoming much more common.

The winners of the Future Work Awards are trying to create good work out of these fluid and imperfect ingredients.

Take Hogaru as an example. Hogaru is an on-demand house cleaning service in Latin America that directly employs its cleaners. Hogaru insulates the cleaners from the risk of fluctuating income because it employs them directly, while allowing its customers to call for services on demand. Hogaru takes on the risk that most ‘gig economy’ platforms pass onto the workers. Hogaru occupies a middle ground between different organisational forms. It is not just a marketplace, yet neither is it a company in the traditional sense. It seeks to provide clients with flexibility while providing workers with security and belonging.

Several other winners operate in this middle ground, matching flexibility with security through forms of cooperative organisation. In Africa, Lynk is showing that self-employment in the informal economy does not have to mean atomisation and insecurity by providing cleaners, carpenters, nannies and electricians with an “entrepreneurship infrastructure” including training, loans, customer service, and an online identity for their business. Lynk has provided more than 20,000 jobs for more than 1,000 providers gathered on its platform. They have a shared interest in providing high quality solutions for clients.

The winners of the Future Work Awards are trying to create good work out of fluid and imperfect ingredients

One of the most promising in the UK is Indycube, a network of co-working spaces across Wales and England. Indycube’s more than 1000 self-employed members can access a benefits package through its partnership with the Community trade union which include invoice factoring, legal services, and HR support. It’s a cross between a shared workspace, a cooperative and a trade union.

Reskilling for the future

These new hybrid forms of organisation will not provide all the answers by any means. They will be complemented by innovations that remake other aspects of the jobs market, like skills and training, which are too rigid and cumbersome for modern workers.

Laboratoria, in the slums of Peru, is just one of a clutch of projects which show that through intensive training programmes people from disadvantaged backgrounds with few formal qualifications can access high paid jobs that require digital skills.

Pursuit, a digital skills programme for low income communities in New York City has adapted this model with an investment vehicle — the Job Outcomes Bond — where impact investors provide capital and receive a financial return based on job outcomes for the participants. Employers are also paying Pursuit to identify existing blue-collared workers within their company and retrain them to become well-paid software engineers. About 85% of enrolled participants graduate the Pursuit program and on average, graduates raise incomes from $18,000 pre-program to over $85,000 post-program. Eight out of ten alumni are retained in the tech industry one-year post placement.

Alongside more effective approaches to training others are developing new ways for people to show what they are capable of. Credly, for example, provides a way for companies to issue and trainees to earn badges of competence which can help them get jobs in a way that is both more flexible and more targeted than going to college. LRNG helps young people compile these badges into “playlists” for learning which show the progress they are making to be work ready. Since 2015, more than 45,000 young people and 550 organizations have used LRNG. In total, more than 133,000 playlists or learning experiences have been completed and more than 23,000 digital badges earned.

Technology both new and familiar is being deployed to create these solutions. In Brazil eduK is using video to provide hundreds of thousands of hours of vocational lessons for more than 100,000 subscribers. A good example of how new technology is being used comes from France, where Bob, is using artificial intelligence to analyse market demand to create personalised recommendations for unemployed people seeking work to enable them to get back into work more quickly.

Bob is just one of several projects which are using AI, big data and machine learning to analyse likely future demand for work and the best ways for workers and companies to meet this demand. A related example is Calayte, which uses AI rather than fallible human judgement to assess whether candidates are good potential tech hires. Catalyte’s pitch is that AI-enabled recruitment should be less prejudiced and thus fairer than human judgement.

Enhancing worker voice

Yet better training, skills and recruitment processes cannot provide a solution for everyone. Not all employers are far sighted and benign. Many of those in the least skilled, most flexible and insecure forms of employment are not represented by trade unions, which (with some notable exceptions) primarily represent full-time workers in large establishments. That is why there is also a growth in new forms of organisation to give people a stronger voice at work.

A prime example is the Contratados organisation in Mexico which supports seasonal workers travelling to the US with information about their rights and provides them with services which help them stand up for themselves. Developed by Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, the first transnational workers’ rights law centre based in Mexico, Contratados takes a holistic approach to migrant worker’s rights through pre-departure education, legal services, and policy advocacy. Its aim is to show workers how they can choose better employers. Contratados is building a job portal to enable workers to leave abusive work situations and find other, government-certified employers able to hire them.

Many of those in the least skilled, most flexible and insecure forms of employment are not represented by trade unions

In the UK, Organise have won plaudits and recruits for their successful campaigns to get employers to improve working conditions. Organise, provides workers with social media tools to collect their own data and create campaigns to push for change. In just a year, Organise won better maternity pay at ITV, a fairer way of getting wages for Tesco staff, a pay rise for UK McDonald’s and Amazon warehouse staff, gender pay gap wins at dozens of universities, and even fairer working conditions at a strip club. Millions of pounds were knocked off Ted Baker’s share price after Organise enabled a campaign against a culture of “enforced hugging”. They also helped grow a network of the lowest-paid workers in big companies like the Co-op group, Hermes and Uber to enable them to bring their ideas directly into meetings with the bosses. Expect more of this kind of organising.

The other big area of opportunity is to provide insecure workers with financial services which help them cope with their fluctuating and uncertain incomes, creating new forms of savings and insurance.

WeMind in France is a collective of 20,000+ freelancers which helps get them better deals on rented accommodation. In France, long-term renting is usually only a possibility for people with a permanent employment contract. WeMind has created a rent guarantee product which its members can provide to landlords who want to know the rent is going to be paid despite the fact that someone is freelance. Gig workers in the UK are also marginalised by financial service providers — their erratic incomes and ‘thin file’ credit histories disqualify them from essential products like fairly priced loans. Portify is an app that leverages open banking to provide alternative credit-risk scoring. It offers gig workers a range of financial services, including emergency credit when their bank balance is running critically low.

Where is all this headed?

There is no sign that the demand for better solutions will dry up any time soon. On the contrary, the future of work has all the hallmarks of a field ripe for sustained innovation: mounting frustration from poorly served customers, opportunities to use new technologies and forms of collaborative organisation to provide better solutions which work with the grain of a more flexible labour market.

As it stands, this is a nascent field. Although many of these projects, such as Organise and We Mind, Hogaru and Pursuit are gaining traction many are no more than startups and as such straws in the wind.

To gain scale and impact several things will have to come together. First, they will need a sustained flow of investment. In cooperatives that might come from their members, but it should also come from social impact funds, philanthropists and in time more commercial investors. More capital needs to be deployed more intelligently to grow this field.

Flexibility does not have to entail insecurity

For that to be possible, however, a second component needs to fall into place. These projects need to develop viable business and organisational models which show that they can be sustained through selling their services or generating membership dues for example.

Third, they will need a supporting legal and legislative framework, to clarify the rights of independent workers and the obligations of those who employ them or who pay for their services. Indeed, creating such a framework is one of the goals of many of these organisations, to show that flexibility does not have to entail insecurity. The UK government has signaled its intention to address this, embracing 51 out of the 53 recommendations from the Taylor Review, but there is plenty of scope for further action.

Fourth, projects in this field should soon start to complement one another, to create more complete, end-to-end solutions. Workers of the future might have their own playlists for learning from an organisation such as Pursuit replete with the open badges they have earned from suppliers such as Credly; they might turn to campaign organisations such as Organise to set higher standards for their treatment at work, seek insurance against fluctuating incomes by using products like Portify and band together in organisations like SMart, Indycube and WeMind in order to share risks and resources.

When these innovative solutions start to fit together, what could emerge is a new social, financial and organisational infrastructure to support 21st century work and workers, to compare with the trades unions, cooperatives and mutuals which emerged in the late 19th century during a previous period of upheaval and change.

The significance of that possibility should not be underestimated. Ten years into the US recovery from the great recession of 2008, median household incomes are in real terms still much what they were in 1999. Inequality is far starker than it was 30 years ago. Much of the populist rage which is threatening to marginalise mainstream political parties, overturn the status quo and destabilise the establishment is due to mounting insecurity and anxiety about work. That is both about and money — how will families earn the incomes they need to support themselves? — and meaning — how will people carve out a sense of identity and purpose in a world of more fluid, shifting work? The significance of the winners of the 2019 Future Work Awards is that they are making a start at answering those questions in a way that gives people hope of shaping their work for the better.

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We are the RSA. The royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce. We unite people and ideas to resolve the challenges of our time.

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