The IFTF Blog
How We’ll Build a Workable Future
Knight Foundation grant launches initiative to make the on-demand economy work for everyone
In the wake of World War II, anthropologist Margaret Mead famously wrote: "All of us who grew up before the war are immigrants in time, immigrants from an earlier world, living in an age essentially different from any we knew before."
Today, many of us feel like immigrants again as the very underpinnings of our society shift and a fundamentally new technology infrastructure reshapes the way we work, the way we think about jobs and labor, and in a broader sense, the way we organize as a society to get things done. To map this shift and the technology and policy choices it presses upon us, the Knight Foundation has awarded IFTF a $250,000 seed grant for its Workable Futures Initiative.
A decade ago, workers in the U.S. and Europe worried about the trend to outsource jobs overseas. Today, companies like UpWork and LiveOps can assemble teams in the cloud in minutes to provide sales and customer support, help with editorial work, conduct research, and perform many other tasks. These new digital platforms are beginning to function as real-time global online staffing agencies that bridge borders and integrate the global workforce at levels never seen before.
Meanwhile, coordination platforms at the core of on-demand services such as Uber, Lyft, and Shyp are multiplying almost daily, powered by smart synchronization algorithms that can route tasks to those who are best qualified and available to perform them anywhere they’re needed.
Together these platforms are breaking down jobs into tasks that are accomplished not by employees but by armies of so-called taskers, efficiently organized to produce and deliver products and services with convenience and at speeds never seen before. Automation is displacing workers from routine manufacturing and service jobs, and new technologies—from smart algorithms to ubiquitous sensors and data, virtual reality, and new media formats—are transforming not just what people do but the nature of work itself. They are reinventing the meaning of jobs as we’ve known them.
This is a threshold moment. We urgently need to understand the emerging work patterns and to blueprint a generation of positive platforms that can create opportunities and enable sustainable livelihoods for broad swaths of the population. The new work platforms, after all, are not pre-ordained. They are designed by humans, and we can shape their design with the goals of opportunity, equity, and fair pay in mind.
Toward this end, with the support of the seed grant from the Knight Foundation, the Workable Futures Initiative will bring together policy makers and platform developers with social inventors and workplace pioneers. The goal is create a deeper understanding of this emerging labor economy and ensure that the foundational shifts in the way we organize work will lead to a more positive future for everyone. Drawing on insights from futures ethnography with the immigrants in this new labor economy and collaborating with developers of its underlying platforms, we will work to imagine, design, and prototype positive platforms that will meet the broad range of goals for a healthy productive society.
We’ll be tapping the perspectives of our Advisors—from the Honorable Gavin Newsome, Lieutenant-Governor of the State of California and the Knight Foundation’s own Carol Coletta, Vice President of Community and National Initiatives, to Mary Kay Henry at Service Employees International Union and Stephane Kasriel at Upwork (formerly oDesk). These and other world-class advisors will help us bring the diversity of perspectives that this task demands.
On the ground, we’re interviewing people who work in the platform economy to understand, in depth, how they make the choices of which platforms to use and why. What are the impacts of these choices on their households and their communities? What are the lives they aspire to and how will workable platforms help them get there? And ultimately, what new worker archetypes will redefine the lives of millions?
Building on the answers to these questions, the Workable Futures Initiative will convene a broad cross-section of policy makers, platform developers, change advocates, and social inventors to prototype positive platforms for workable futures.
As immigrants in a new world of work, we have a brief window to make the future we want. We can be thrown into the emerging landscape of work as castaways, naked, dazed, and ill-equipped to cope with a hostile environment. Or we can arrive as enlightened immigrants, open to the new opportunities and ready to build a new culture. This is the goal of the Workable Futures Initiative: to look beyond today’s workforce disruptions toward positive platforms for the next generation of people who work.
- Learn more about IFTF's Workable Futures Initiative
- Follow the conversation @iftf and #workablefutures
- Read the IFTF press release
- Check out the Knight Foundation announcement
- See the Knight Foundation press release
- Media contact: Jean Hagan (firstname.lastname@example.org or 650-854-6422)
- General information: contact Sean Ness (email@example.com or 650-233-9517)
Image Credit: "protest?" by Flickr User f_lynx / Alex Naanou