In the Moment

The Future of Work: A Human-Centered Design Challenge

Simon Mhanna

Over the last two years I have been investigating the topic of the Future of Work. I’ve done a lot of research, and have organized and taken part in many conversations right across Canada. I’ve even been helping to design our own Future of Work right here at The Moment. After listening, engaging, and distilling, one thing is true: we don’t know what the future holds. But we can design for it. Here are some quick thoughts on what I’ve learned. 

Designing the Future of Work

The term itself, ‘The Future of Work,’ can elicit many different responses. Some imagine a dystopian future, where workers will be replaced by machines and algorithms; others take a more optimistic view, imagining that humans and robots will live in complete harmony. Whatever your outlook, we know that many aspects of the future are already here. And the unknown? Well, it’s mostly unpredictable.

It’s easy to look at the downside of change with what many headlines and predictions suggest, but one can’t overlook the signals that it is not all doom and gloom. Take Sweden as an example; they have adopted a core principle that favours “taking care of the people.” This has created a solid foundation for the nation to welcome AI without breaking a sweat in addressing the headline-inducing fears that come along with new technologies and new ways of working.

We are at a turning point in history. Although we say “The Future of Work is already here,” we know that we still have agency to shape it, develop it, and improve it. We still have choices to make that will impact what better looks like, and what kind of future we want for all of us.

It is critical to stretch our imagination and exercise our empathy in order to open up the space for possibilities, overcome our fears, and tap into our humanity — and rise up to the challenge of creating better futures for everyone.

As we take on the challenge of co-creating the Future of Work, the most important question to ask is this: What does it mean to be human in the Future of Work? What does it mean to create a Future of Work that works for its humans?

What does it mean to be human in the Future of Work? What does it mean to create a Future of Work that works for its humans?

How do we create a human-centered Future of Work? Where do we start? Let’s apply a human-centered design lens and see what designers can teach us.

1. Nothing about us without us

Human-centered design (HCD) provides a platform for organizations and communities to bring a creative and agile approach to helping people understand which problems to solve. Together, as designers and stakeholders, we co-create the solutions that matter and empower the people affected by bringing them into the creation and innovation process. Successful HCD relies on the authenticity and the commitment of those running the process to really listen to people and engage them in a safe space that allows them to participate and contribute freely and equally to the conversation.

Additionally, human-centered design frameworks suggest that in order to make great products, services, and experiences, one must first make great teams, and great teams are diverse and inclusive.

In his keynote at SFU Public Square on Feb 28, 2018 as part of the Brave New Work summit, Van Jones called for a more inclusive approach to create technologies that work, emphasizing the value of technology in general as a tool to help us navigate the new world of work. Van Jones spoke to the risks of elitism in the tech space and the losses that have occurred from excluding marginalized communities. In his invite to “stop wasting genius,” Jones repositioned our outlook on the “other.” Differences are in fact our greatest gifts.

Indeed, as human-centered design practitioners we find ourselves designing for people who are different from us, who have needs and pains that are quite different from ours. Their value systems may be also different. It is only by including “the others” in the design process that we manage to overcome our bias in order to co-create solutions that are relevant. We leverage the “genius” of all stakeholders and we acknowledge that the users are the only experts in their own experience.

For this work of the future to thrive, it is essential that the forces driving change, like tech companies, governments, and other institutions, partner with communities at all levels to co-create the future using a well-intentioned participatory and democratic process that allows access and empowers its citizens. Nothing about us, without us.

2. Adapt, pivot, adapt, pivot… grow

The Future of Work is here now and it is not going to slow down. One can’t really opt out of it as it touches many aspects of our lives. We have got to embrace change and keep up with its pace. The ability to adapt and to pivot will become key life skills, while longer-term strategies and plans will kiss the dust.

In this time of continuous transition, we look to HCD as a way to strengthen our resilience muscle, as individuals and organizations, to become change-ready. There is this inherent positive mindset to HCD that views every challenge as an exciting place full of opportunities. The creative mind uncovers abundant possibilities that are available to us and frames setbacks as learning. The responsiveness built into the HCD approach enables its participants to keep iterating, testing, integrating, learning, and fine-tuning — without discouragement. It may take a few rounds, but with each iteration we learn something new, adapt, and grow. The persevering nature of this iterative approach fuels new changes to the design, and when we achieve that point where the solution is in a good place, we’re able to bring it to life. But we know that eventually, it will be time to take it to the next level, and that’s ok too.

That’s what makes human-centered design such an amazing vehicle to tackle the challenges we’ll face with the Future of Work. When facing change, we’re given an opportunity to stretch out of our comfort zone, learn new skills, and grow. It is uncomfortable and full of uncertainty. The good news is that it leads to growth. The unfortunate part is that we are not all equally enabled to explore, investigate, and learn.

As the fear of losing jobs increases and the battle against technology spreads exponentially, alternative sources of income and social security will be increasingly useful mechanisms to support humans in times of disruption. Take for example the introduction of universal basic income as an early way of supporting people and creating incentives for them to take risks, learn new skills, and try new careers. If we temper the fear associated with change to support the people at the centre of the disruption, we’ll be better situated to adapt, pivot, and grow.

So in times of change we need to tackle how people view and approach change, and enable everyone to engage with it, but we must also provide the conditions in which people find the resilience and security to change.

3. Start with empathy, continue with care

At its core, human-centered design is empathetic. Empathy helps us gain a deeper understanding of people’s needs, both emotional and physical, and understand the world the way others see it and experience it. Through this design process everyone can learn empathy and apply it to learn about the problems and realities of the humans for whom we are designing, and then design truly human-centered solutions.

In reality we know that no one can actually experience what others experience. But by engaging our empathy, we can attempt to get as close as possible – we put ourselves in their shoes – and we do this by shedding away our own preconceived ideas of “the other” and by authentically desiring to understand their ideas, thoughts, and needs.

The Future of Work is creating complex new systems and we are on the precipice of a paradigm shift — altering existing societal, economic, and political establishments. One must really understand the drivers behind people’s behaviours, whether they are in favour of or against the change, and the new realities these behaviours and outlooks create. It is not enough to create policies and regulations to protect people from harm and undo damage that results from unregulated interventions or unethical competitions to power. We must actively shape the future with our societies and its humans in mind.

The French philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote: “When man is able to accomplish anything at all, there is no value which can be proposed to him; when the means of action are absolute, no goal of action is imaginable. Power eliminates, in proportion to its growth, the boundary between good and evil, between the just and the unjust.” And I truly believe that we are witnessing an erosion of values led by a hunger for power and defiance of our limits as humans right now.

So as we find the way forward, empathy will help us to put aside our selfishness and egocentricity. It will instill a powerful sense of imagination for us to be able to see through the other’s eyes. It will teach humility so we can seek to abandon our biases and self-serving plans. It will amplify or awareness of the other.

Empathy is an innate quality in all people. When practiced, it leads to care. Care is that genuine concern about the state of others, that drive us to take positive action and assist the other. At the Brave New Work summit, Charles Leadbeater said: “My worry isn’t that robots will replace us but that we’ll be kept on to do the low-paid work that robots can’t do”.

In order to create a Future of Work in which everyone thrives, we must build a sense of care, a deep concern and desire to want to help, nurture, and provide assistance. This requires a level of emotional insight.

So what does it all mean?

In conclusion, I believe we are failing to stretch our thinking. We are failing to be proactive and become true pioneers. We are failing to envision a human future that captures the imagination of all people. We are failing because our view of the economy is narrow and limited to current events, our connections to the other are not deep enough, and our dreams for our countries and societies are grounded in what is possible today and not what we aspire for tomorrow. We settle for incremental change that is beneficial to us in an age where disruption is shaking our humanity to its core. We are complicit in creating an unbalanced future that favours some people over others.

It is time to reimagine and strengthen our values.

It is time to get together and design principles that guide our future endeavours with intention.

It is time to form a point of view on how we (humans) will co-exist with technology and AI.

It is time to unite around a human and humane purpose in a world where everything seems possible.

We need a new human-centered destination and a compass to guide us through the transitions. We can’t achieve that if we don’t ask better questions, and if we don’t engage in a more thoughtful and valiant discourse.

To responsibly design for humanity and engage in a truly human-centered design process, it is time we ask the question: is the future we are creating good? Does it make people’s lives better?

Is the future we are creating good? Does it make people’s lives better?

I would suggest also that it is wise to shift the conversation from “What will the Future of Work be?” to “How are you going to navigate the Future of Work?” We urgently need to look at human-centered design as a set of principles that will help us tap into our humanity to reconnect and amplify our human capacities. We’re looking at one of the greatest human-centered design challenges of our lifetime. The Future of Work must be human first.

 

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Here is some more information about the Future of Work events I’ve attended and participated in over the last two years, and some resources you might find useful if you’re interested in the topic:

Creating our Future at The Moment

As an Innovation Designer at The Moment, I get to be part of an ongoing experiment in organization design and around incubating our future. We look at different ways of working and organizing. We prototype some of the practices to ensure our change agenda succeeds. And we do this all in light of finding the best ways to fulfil our potential as a team with a shared purpose. You can read about the start of The Moment’s teal journey here – and keep an eye on this space for future posts on our transition to Holacracy.

In January 2018, we convened practitioners in the innovation space to discuss and share experiences around the practice of self-management. The event drew out a unique community, and we facilitated dialogue around new ways of organizing and work (See Beyond Hierarchy: Self-Management & The Future of Work).

Brave New Work – Community Summit 2018

I was invited to participate in the national summit “Brave New Work”, held in Vancouver this past Spring that explored the Future of Work. I also had the pleasure of joining 80 experts and leaders from across Canada at a 2-day gathering entitled Reframe work. As a team we examined how Canada can lead in forming new systems for good work and engage Canadians in building the new models we want to see.

The Reframe Work gathering tackled various subjects such as harnessing the potential of automation and AI to promote good work, making Canada the best place for non-standard work employment, supporting the Canadian workforce to thrive through transitions, and creating opportunities for everyone to benefit from the wealth created by the rise of technology, among others. For more information about the Reframe Work conference, you can download the report “From Insights to Action” here.

The Toronto Offsite Design Festival

As Programs Lead for the Toronto Design Offsite Festival I organized and hosted several events:

(There’s lots of content available from all of these events — be sure to check them out!).

At TO DO, we just launched the call for submissions for the 2019 Symposium. The TO DO Talks – Symposium for the second year explores the Future of Work theme. We welcome diverse perspectives and responses, with a specific emphasis on values, ethics, education, access, and inclusion.

If you’re interested in participating in the upcoming Future of Work symposium at the Toronto Offsite Design Festival, you can learn more about the call here: http://todesignoffsite.com/2019-symposium/

 

The Future of Work is a hot topic, and one that I’m continuing to think about and work within. I hope to continue to conversation – you can share your thoughts with me on twitter @simonmhanna or via the comments below.

 

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