Why the future of work must be designed

  • Business Model Innovation
  • Design Thinking

Change is exponential. There’s no getting around it. As we continue to invent new technologies and innovate business models we create paradigm shifts that leave the old models in the dust.

However, we humans in the middle of all of this change – especially those of us on the margins or those most affected negatively by the change – often have a tough time keeping up. A big part of that is that we fear uncertainty that change brings, clinging to past paradigms as the only way forward.

This goes for working patterns as much as for business models. We fear autonomous vehicles as we can only somehow picture humans with their hands planted firmly on steering wheels. Similarly, we fear automation in factories and steel mini-mills as these technological innovations eliminate jobs. Taxicab companies push for heavy regulations on the Lyfts and Ubers of this world just as hotels lobby to push Airbnb out of the hoteling market.

Even those of us who lead the paradigm shifts, such as Elon Musk, founder, and CEO of Tesla and Space X, seem to have a tough time seeing paradigm shifts as foundations for new business models and strategies. In fact in an interview with CNBC, a US news outlet, Musk reasoned, “there is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that,” when asked about robots taking over human jobs. It’s not just Mr. Musk saying this either. Even Bill Gross, a billionaire investor, and well-known capitalist, has suggested the need for a universal basic income in light of our impending robot takeover.

I believe this is only partly true. If history has taught us anything it’s that disruptive paradigm shifting business models not only create a fortune for the first movers, they lay the foundation for other new business models, new market entrants, and new jobs to follow. Yes, robots will replace humans for many jobs, just as innovative farming equipment replaced humans and horses during the industrial revolution. However, in the wake of these changes, humans will be needed to create and deliver value in brand new ways for brand new business models.

Take for instance the collapse of the coal industry in Kentucky. According to the Kentucky Department for Energy Development and Independence, the price of coal collapsed by 75% since 2011, which has led to the loss of at least 26,000 U.S. coal mining jobs. This is devastating, to say the least. Never mind current promises, this is a problem without a simple solution, at least not where the coal market and related jobs are concerned.

Enter Bit Source, “a [Kentucky-based] software development company that designs, develops, and deploys websites, applications, games, tools, interactions, and software solutions”, that also happens to hire out-of-work coal miners as they often make great coders. As it turns out, while coal mining is indeed really tough work, it can also be very complex, requiring engineers who work with extremely sophisticated equipment. Not at all what most people think about when they imagine what coal miners do. Moreover, most coding these days does not require genius-level Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates-type entrepreneurs. Rather, much coding is about achieving some end goal by tying together building blocks of front-end and back-end code with specific logic in the middle. In many respects, this kind of coding is in many respects what we might call blue-collar work. Which, as it turns out, is something that many coal miners are well-suited for.

Though Bit Source has only hired a handful of coal miners-come-coders to date, the company has received more than 1,000 applications. In other words what we might be seeing is the foundation for an entirely new business model transformation. Why go to Silicon Valley and San Francisco for young coders just out of school when you can hire experienced, diligent coders in Kentucky for about a third the cost?

It’s also not just business models heavily dependent on so-called “blue-collar” elements that will be built on the foundations of paradigm shifts. So will we require new experiences – ones that cater to humans – to be designed and constructed around us. You don’t have to look very hard to see that this is already happening. Everything from the transportation we take to the events we attend and even our workplaces are being designed (and sometimes redesigned) to create the visceral experiences we desire but didn’t know we needed until now. Think about it this way: Lyft (or Uber) doesn’t exist because the company invented a way to get from A to B that’s different from what taxis provide. Rather, what Lyft does for us, as consumers, is focus on creating a great experience, especially when it comes to hailing and paying for a cab ride. Sure, they do so by also implementing a great multi-sided business model that invites car owners to get paid to drive people around. But, as a Lyft passenger, I could not care any less about the particulars of the Lyft business model any more than I could about how many taxi medallions have been issued in San Francisco, where I live.

This is to say that we are now firmly planted in what is called the experience economy. First coined by B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore, authors of a well-known Harvard Business Review article, titled “Welcome to the Experience Economy” as well as the book, The Experience Economy, the experience economy describes how businesses can no longer simply sell products or services to companies and expect to create a sustainable competitive advantage. Rather, companies in all sectors must sell experiences that create resonant memories for their customers.

By no means is this a simple concept, especially for companies that have developed and sold functional products for so long. But, companies who have done this well, like Disney, Apple, Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, Rent The Runway, and even Tesla, have become examples that others try to follow. What this all means is that as new paradigm shifting business models take hold, especially ones that displace jobs, there will likely be new experience-based business models that are built on their backs; one’s that require humans to do the designing and implementing. For instance, as more focus is placed on moving people, by the likes of new services such as autonomous Uber or Lyft cars, there will be a need for people to help design and implement experiences within those cars and probably in the built environment that capture rider’s imagination, make them feel relaxed or exhilarated or wanting to purchase something etc.

In a Forbes article published in 2015, titled “The Uberpreneur: How An Uber Driver Makes $252,000 A Year”, the author describes how he met “Gavin Escolar, a charismatic Filipino man with a laugh that’s even louder than his orange-and-red striped dress shirt”, who also happens to be an Uberpreneur. That is to say, Escobar uses his car as a “mobile showroom” to “promote his jewelry business”. In essence, because Uber’s business model allows for individuality (as part of the experience) in ways that taxis seldom do, it’s also created a new way for small business owners, like Escobar, to meet with potential clients. What Uber and Escobar have done is designed and implemented experiences on top of experiences that come with real value that others, like me, are willing and wanting to exchange my own personal value (i.e. money) for.

Of course, you’re probably already thinking, “That’s nice. But, when Uber (or Lyft) rolls out its autonomous fleet with automated back massagers in a few years, people like Escobar are hosed.” That may be. But, we humans are still going to require physical ways to interact with one another. Perhaps in the future rather than meeting at a fixed place, like a coffee shop or restaurant, we will be picked up by an autonomous moving living room, like an Uber RV, that has been designed and crafted by other humans to look like Café de la Paix, in Paris. And, while we might certainly be okay with a robot-driven Nespresso machine (or Café X) on most days, perhaps for special occasions the Café de la Paix Uber RV employs real baristas that can prepare coffee with a nuanced experience like no robot can. And, yes, virtual reality will also meld with automation to replace some of this experience. But, we’ll need people – empathetic, creative, industrious, hard working humans to do most of this. For this, we will require new business models.

Sure, this article makes the world sound rosy. I am optimistic by nature. But I also believe my optimism is closer to reality than the dystopian futures we most often talk about (and fear). History has proven time and time again that paradigm shifting business models fuel more progress in the future than do incremental changes. The key to making these changes work for us is to look at technological advances and the paradigm shifting, exponential business models that are born of them as the foundations for new business models.

To do this we require not just an open mind and a willingness to change, but new tools, skills, and an agile, learn-through-experimentation mindset that is most often employed by designers. “Why designers?” you might ask. This is because designers fundamentally look at the world as a set of opportunities bounded by constraints. Designers employ a repeatable process to find unique and qualified value to be exchanged. This process emphasizes real-world experimentation (with real people), learning, and iteration over third party reports and lengthy documents that set in stone untested strategies. The tools that designers use, like the ones described in my new-ish book, Design a Better Business, are visual and always meant to facilitate collaboration and sharing in order to create an environment where ideas are expanded on one another. In this same vein, designers favor getting ideas out in the open early rather than sequestering ideas as treasures not to be shared with anyone else. After all, as investor Chris Sacca once famously said on the popular show, Shark Tank, “Ideas are cheap, execution is everything.”

Most of all, designers seek to create the conditions by which businesses thrive, grow, and evolve in the face of uncertainty and change. In fact, people who don a designer’s mindset view uncertainty as the canvas by which to create opportunities for the future. They do so by approaching challenges in a systematic way, focusing more on doing rather than on planning and prediction.

At the end of the day, the rate change is increasing rapidly. Believing that there are simple, singular answers to the challenges we face is not only unwise. This totally negates the chance to come together to harness uncertainty in order to create new opportunities for us, as humans. And, if we’re going to continue living together on this planet (or another) it’s imperative that we view the future for the opportunities it brings and not just for the challenges.

What do you think? How might we co-design (or co-create) the future of work together?


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