Building Workable Futures

Institute for the Future Fellows prototype Positive Platforms for tomorrow’s on-demand economy

Marina Gorbis
Aug 30, 2017 · 4 min read

In less than ten years, according to some estimates, more than a half billion people will be trying to earn a living in the on-demand economy. It’s up to all of us to make sure this new economic system works for everyone.

In the on-demand economy, algorithms are deployed to identify and match those in need of something with those who can fulfill their needs. The creators of these systems have mastered the discipline of interaction design and brought it to new heights… when it comes to consumer experience. Uber, Munchery, Postmates, and many apps are exquisitely designed, sometimes even addictive for users. They make previously laborious processes effortless and seamless. No hassles with paying, calling, talking. Swipe your phone with a finger and voila: your ride, your meal, your handyman magically appear.

We must remember though that on-demand apps are more than platforms for consumption.

These platforms are quickly becoming our entry points for work, gateways to people’s livelihoods. Making them sustainable and equitable for everyone doesn’t just take great engineering. It demands great thinking from a variety of disciplines — economics, political science, sociology, etc. Only then can we develop what we at the Institute for the Future call “Positive Platforms.”

Positive Platforms are systems for on-demand work that not only maximize profits for their owners but also provide dignified and sustainable livelihoods for those who work on them.

To help spark trans-disciplinary research and development of Positive Platforms, IFTF’s Workable Futures Initiative with the support of the Ford Foundation hosted Positive Platforms Design Jams at our offices in Palo Alto while fellow travelers in our global network held satellite events at community hubs in Helsinki, Milan, Barcelona, Dublin, and other cities around the world. The Jams came on the heels of a recent IFTF report, “Voices of Workable Futures,” synthesizing ethnographic interviews with on-demand workers across the country and a public call-to-action, “10 Strategies for a Workable Future,” that offers an agenda for Positive Platform designers and policymakers.

During the Positive Platforms Jams, Designers, engineers, policymakers, and labor organizers gathered for two days to hack away on platform prototypes, replicable design frameworks, new financial tools, data management systems, and methods to tease out the hidden problems inherent in many platform models.

After the sessions were over, IFTF identified four groups to become IFTF Positive Platforms Fellows and supported them with up to $9000 in grants to push their concepts and ideas forward.

The IFTF Positive Platforms Fellows explored very different terrains in each of their projects. The following are descriptions of the research efforts and links to PDFs of the Fellows’ final reports:

  • Positive Platforms Identity: Map and analysis of the Italian ecosystem” by Valeria Loreti, Daniele Bucci, Chiara Agamennone (Milan, Italy)
    Focused on defining a “positive platform” by identifying the key attributes or affordances, the team categorized and analyzed platforms within the Italian ecosystem. This analysis, explained in their white paper and this Medium post, is meant to be a proof-of-concept so that others may apply their survey, taxonomy, and glossary to other platforms.

On the following episode of IFTF’s For Future Reference podcast, Simone Cicero, creator of the Platform Design Toolkit and collaborator on the IFTF Positive Platform Jams, and I are interviewed about why we so urgently need new kinds of platforms and how events like the Positive Platforms Jam can help us grapple with questions about the future that may not have been asked yet:

Answers to the societal scale challenges around the future of work won’t come from any one agency, discipline, or company. It will take collaboration, broad public engagement, smart policy, and an openness to reinventing old economic models. We can’t put the technologies enabling on-demand platforms back in the box, but all of us can have a hand in shaping the algorithms we embed in them, the platform design choices we make, and the policy and regulatory solutions we create. Let’s jam.

For more about IFTF’s Workable Futures Initiative, please visit

Subscribe to the IFTF podcast For Future Reference on: iTunes | RSS | Soundcloud

Urgent Futures

Dispatches from Institute for the Future, a nonprofit…

Urgent Futures

Dispatches from Institute for the Future, a nonprofit thinktank in Silicon Valley that helps organizations and the public think about the future to make better decisions in the present.

Marina Gorbis

Written by

Executive Director, Institute for the Future; author, Nature of the Future.

Urgent Futures

Dispatches from Institute for the Future, a nonprofit thinktank in Silicon Valley that helps organizations and the public think about the future to make better decisions in the present.