Our workplaces have already been revolutionised by technology, but could it allow us to work closer to home? We speak to to futurist Jack Uldrich to find out how work technology will change our culture and lives
Q: How is technology going to change the way in that we work?
From my perspective, the really big change and the thing that is difficult to understand is how all of these technologies, from computer processing power, data storage, bandwidth, mobile devices, the internet of things, they’re not just individual technologies.
They are going to converge in some really unexpected ways and as a futurist – no-one can predict the future, I don’t claim to – but I really think we’re on the verge of the next work-related revolution.
The analogy I use is Gutenberg’s printing press. Gutenberg’s genius wasn’t that he created that out of thin air.
His genius was that he took four existing technologies, he took the line press, movable type, ink and paper and he converged those four into a technology that revolutionised the world. And when I think about computer and advances in computer processing power that is one technology.
“We’re going to start trading the idea of ownership for access to certain products and technologies”
The next one is data storage and that is cloud computing, so that is the second one. The third one is mobility and the number of smart devices that are going to continue to come on the planet, and then the fourth one is high speed internet access.
You begin playing around with those four technologies, I am just convinced that there is going to be a new platform from which we conduct our work. We’re already seeing just with cloud.
As a result of the four trends I just talked about – computer processing, power, mobility, storage – it’s transferring the automobile industry in some unexpected ways.
Daimler, the German automobile company, has discovered more and more young people in urban areas don’t want to own a car and they don’t really need to own a car anymore because they have smartphones and there’s GPS technology that allows them to locate a car that allows them to rent it for a couple of minutes at a time, so they are trading ownership for access to a vehicle and it is all of these technologies that are facilitating that transformation.
And, I think that sort of points to one of the subtle ways that business is going to change and customer behaviour is going to change. We’re going to start trading the idea of ownership for access to certain products and technologies.
Q: Given they are very distinct at present, how do you think these technologies will converge?
I think just in the context of work that this idea that we’re going to do our work anywhere in the world.
Absolutely anywhere, but we’re going to be able to collaborate with our colleagues and our co-workers who are also anywhere on this planet.
It’s going to have a really deep and profound impact on how we think about work. The amount of physical retail space that is dedicated to work environments is astounding, and then the impact on energy and climate.
Because of all these extra buildings and driving to and from them, powering them and cooling them, it is an extraordinary cost on society. Is that really the way we need to do work in this new environment?
“I really think we’re going to figure out how to make a lot more efficient use of the spaces that we need”
We’re already seeing the early shifts, but I really think we’re going to figure out how to make a lot more efficient use of the spaces that we need and what we’re going to come to discover is that we don’t need as many physical spaces as we do and that’s going to have an impact on real-estate, it’s going to have an impact on how we then travel to and from work because we then might not need to be doing as much of it.
Then the question comes about what do we do with all that excess space and here’s where as a futurist I just start on speculating on what some scenarios might be.
Because other technologies are getting better, LED lighting for example, sensor technology and advances in vertical farming or hydroponic farming, we might be able to convert a lot of buildings and grow produce in those buildings, so instead of growing things out on the countryside or on the other side of the world and then shipping those bananas or whatever to London, what happens if we can actually begin to repurpose those buildings to grow a fair amount of our produce in our local communities?
To me that is a sort of interesting possibility because that then further reduces the stress on the climate because we are not shipping bananas all the way across the ocean and were not putting them on trucks and delivering them to the grocery store and cooling them and storing them and packing them, we’re really growing them as close to the consumer as possible.
Q: What will this mean for the difference in our work and life balance?
To tell you the truth, as a futurist I always do this paradoxically. Most people plan for a future, because we’ve grown up in a world of relative scarcity, or we always think that things might be going away so we will just price them accordingly and the wealthy will be able to afford it an everyone else is out of luck, but I really think that in the future the biggest cultural challenge is going to be abundance.
We’re going to have an abundance of clean sustainable energy. I think we’re going to have an abundance of high-quality affordable education as a result in advances in online education and MOOCs (massive open online courses).
Healthcare in many cases is going to get significantly better to prevent disease from ever occurring in the first place, so I am really optimistic about these technologies.
“Abundance is going to drive some really strange cultural shifts“
But then I think the biggest cultural challenge is what then do we do in a world where our health is really good for a long period of time and I have access to the world’s best professors and I can get credit for those and I can teach myself new skills at virtually no cost and I am living in a house where I don’t have to really pay anything for energy as I am producing the energy myself.
Abundance is going to drive some really strange cultural shifts and I think a couple I see are how we have re-think what leisure is, today too many people view leisure as they’re done with work and they go and binge watch a Netflix series or go to a movie or a sporting event.
Those things are still going to exist, but I don’t think they are enough to provide people with deep meaning in their lives and so how do we create meaning with the excess time that we have, I don’t know the answer to that, but I think that culture, how we answer that question, will define what our culture is like.
Q: Will the work day change from a 9-5 concept, and how will more leisure time affect us?
One hundred years ago – at least in the US and I suspect in the UK – 50% of all Americans either lived or worked or were closely related to the agricultural industry, they lived or worked on farms, they didn’t think about work-life balance just because it was all together.
They worked and lived at the same time and in the same place, on the farm. It has really been the last hundred years that has been the historical anomaly.
That’s when we have suddenly lived in one place and then physically went to a different place to work, that’s what is odd.
“ We are going back in history where we are going to do a lot more of our work from our homes “
We are going back in history where we are going to do a lot more of our work from our homes and so I actually think that the whole question of work-life balance is going to fade away and we’re just going to acknowledge that work is part of life, and life is part of work and we will do work when we need to and we will have leisure when we don’t need to do work-related activates.
From the futurist perspective I think the question is going to fade away.
Q: Will there be any downsides this change in the way we work and resulting new technology?
The transition is going to be difficult and I don’t mean to downplay it. When I look at a lot of these technological advances in robotics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, is there going to be job displacement? Absolutely. And is it going to adversely affect people? Yes it will.
But during the industrial revolution that was a difficult transition period as a lot of people moved from rural areas to urban environments, it wasn’t easy but for the most part society in most parts handled that transition relatively well.
There were riots, there were strikes and strife but for the most part, in the industrial developed world, it has been managed well and so it is going to be a difficult transition but I think at the end of the day humans really are creative and we’re going to figure out how to navigate in to this new future and to figure out how to mould life and work into something that is sustainable for ourselves, our communities and ultimately the planet.
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