Designing the future of work

by Devin Fidler and Marina Gorbis

Today we are in the early stages of building a new infrastructure for work; think of it as a new operating system for creating value and getting things done. A combination of next-generation networking, distributed computing, and artificial intelligence (AI) is laying the groundwork for this transformation, catalyzing the emergence of a worldwide digital coordination economy. In this economy, algorithms are being deployed to identify and match those in need of something with those who can fulfill their needs, including both human and non-human agents. But this new operating system for coordinating human activities and creating new kinds of value could also be riddled with catastrophic bugs, pushing large swaths of the population to labor at subsistence levels, with no benefits and little predictability over their earning streams. Indeed, it will 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. The way out is by designing for prosperity. Over at Democracy Journal, we explore how design can — and must — be leveraged to make a future of work that works for all of us. Here’s an excerpt:

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 non-human 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.

Read more at Democracy Journal.

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

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