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Re-thinking productivity: the role of human contribution in a post-labor environment

Several of my recent conversations have been around the future of work, the future of tourism, transportation, and various other economic inquiries. While the current economic paradigm continues its steady descent into the annals of history, we see every major institution trying to squeeze productivity from human capital. As everyone holds their breath waiting for a miraculous turnaround in our economy, new disruptions to our previous way of life continue to emerge. Consider the following:

Robotic Replacements
It’s not science fiction, its an economic reality. We tout innovation and rightly so. However, true to our exponential growth obsessed ideals, we are innovating our way into a post-labor reality. Robotics and artificial intelligence are replacing human labor demand in virtually every industry. When we think of robotic replacements we immediately think, “manufacturing.” Well, you may want to add a few service based jobs to the list as well. For example:

  • customer support specialists
  • healthcare workers
  • transportation
  • defense and military personnel

While much research and work has gone into creating a machine that can think and reason like human beings, there are several initiatives toward an emotionally intelligent machine. Imagine for a minute, you are on the phone with a customer service representative and that representative can immediately sense your realtime emotional needs. Not only that, but they are able to deduce in a matter of seconds how best to address your concern, resolve the tangible issue, and provide you with a completely selfless experience where you hang up with a significant boost to your emotional wellbeing. Now that’s customer service! In a world where the human touch seems further out of reach thanks to technology that does not require us to be present, artificial intelligence could quickly replace the “heart” deficit many of us are experiencing today. We are emotional spenders. Consider the economic implications involved.

3D Printing
3D printing technology continues to advance at an unprecedented rate. Imagine your next automobile purchase being completely virtual, giving you the ability to customize every aspect of your car even down the engraving pattern on the dash controls, internal lighting differentiation, a prescription glass windshield, and various other idiosyncrasies. Sounds far off in the distant future, right? Wrong. That technology is here today and they have already successfully printed a fully functional automobile that is built to last up to 30 years! It’s estimated that in the next decade the technology for in-home 3d printers will be likened to the economic accessibility of the PC. Instead of ordering a specific part for my broken washing machine, I will have the ability to print one. Pause for a moment and think of the impact this technology will have on modern day third party markets.

Open Source Information and Higher Education
It’s impossible to talk about the future of work and human productivity without addressing the role of education. The future of education is a social, political, and economic hot button these days. On average, over 70% of college graduates are returning home without a job and are strapped with massive loan debt. The open source and freeware movement continues to gain traction and education is at the heart of the issue. There have been several initiatives around alternative education systems, such as The Kahn Academy, MIT Open Courseware, and the latest to hit the scene (and potentially the most disruptive), P2PU.org. It’s a matter of relevance, and right now, the university system is irrelevant for the future work force. Consider this, if the open source movement continues on its current trajectory, the implications of a “free education” go far beyond the business of education. Here are a few potential implications resulting from a viral open source education platform:

Collapsing confidence in financial, educational, and political institutions coupled with accelerated advancement in technology have left most of us feeling disconnected and powerless. All too often, our narrow take on the future starts by defining where we are and where we’ve been, so that we might understand where we’re going. Although this is an important aspect of long-term planning, it follows a linear path of progression towards an intangible “location.” This creates the belief that the future is out of our control, reinforcing the risk averse, reactive strategy that is so prevalent in our society today. Rapid change, disruptive innovation, and increased uncertainty create several problems for those of us charged with leading organizations into the future. However, at the same time, rapid change, disruptive innovation, and increased uncertainty creates several new opportunities wherein concepts of human productivity, jobs, community, and economics, can be completely rethought, redesigned, and revived.

Our view of the future is directly tied to our perceived ability to influence outcomes, and because of that we as individuals must first understand who we are, who we were, and who we are becoming before we can understand where we are going.

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