In a recent bulletin I linked to an article in Magenta, with the suggestion that:
Those interested in understanding how our world is changing with the development of more sophisticated and pervasive digital technologies might find this article an enjoyable insight.
Touching on emerging work practices, technological reach, the concept of flow and our relationship to the Internet, it provides plenty of food for thought. Are Google, AirbnB, Instagram and Facebook mere exceptions and outliers, or are they the first wave in a substantial pattern of change? How do we educate young people to excel in an environment that values, above all, creativity and self-regulation? How should we orientate ourselves to the perennial question of work-life balance? Is that even a sensible question when our work follows us around via portable and wearable technologies, everywhere we go? And what does it mean when a successful media professional admits, “Now I end up doing most of my creative work on the train. It’s the only place where I don’t have cell service.”
No easy answers, but it's a conversation that we cannot afford to ignore in school.
The article has stuck in my mind and I would like to return to it. It left an impression not least perhaps because it joins a series of books and reports that I have seen recently that take automation and what is being termed the ‘4th industrial revolution’ as their theme. Gerd Leonhard’s Technology vs. Humanity, Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage, Yong Zhao’s Never Send A Human to do a Machine’s Job, CITI and PwC’s recent publications on the effects of automation on the workplace … taken together they have profound implications for the likely skill and capacity profiles of people seeking to find themselves equipped for rewarding, stimulating employment in 2025 and beyond.
And by employment I mean not just ‘work’ as it is understood now, as salaried enterprise and exertion – an understanding that is almost certain to change – but the more general notion of being meaningfully engaged in satisfying activity which provides for a sense of purpose and commitment … and, let’s hope, joie de vivre.
Meanwhile, for those of us whose skills are replicable through algorithms, in whichever industry or profession we are working, the Price Waterhouse Cooper report, released in March of this year, makes for sobering reading.
PwC make the following estimates of jobs at high risk of automation in the UK economy in the next decade and a half:
Wholesale and retail trade
Administrative and support services
Professional scientific and technical
Public administration and defence
Financial and insurance
Information and communication
Arts and entertainment
These figures represent a significant number of people who face either long-term unemployment or urgent re-skilling. And, even for those who can re-skill, their reality will be an ever-accelerating cycle of employment punctuated by inactivity, as new technologies repeatedly expand into their niche. In a nutshell, it will be a world, for many, of great instability.
Skills that matter
With somewhere between a quarter and a half of jobs at risk to software ‘solutions’ across a wide range of industries, it’s worth asking which (or whose) skills, by virtue of being difficult to replace by machines, will remain in demand, ten or fifteen years from now.
The consensus in the literature is clear – it is the so-called “soft” skills that will be the abiding and deciding factor in whether a job is done by man or machine; that will spell the difference between shoo in and shove off.
‘Soft skills’ are the qualities that speak to the irreducibly complex human component in human affairs. By way of example, these might include the nuanced reading of other people’s intentions and preferences, the intuitive drawing of deep inferences from superficial information, the local knowledge won through reflective experience, the ironic inflection placed on well worn material, the dynamically shifting appreciation of morale and mood in both self and others, the minutely calibrated accommodation of people’s emerging needs. Here we have the employability wish list of the future.
All of which takes me back to the central question from the original bulletin – how do we educate students to be on the right side of the capacities curve in this brave new world?
I will not attempt answers here, as they would necessarily be premature. Rather, I will draw out an observation that is giving us pause for thought as we continue to seek for steps to take and innovations to pursue. The observation has two dimensions: one more obvious, and probably more assimilable, than the other. The obvious first …
New spaces, new practices
The article confirmed an impression that has been broadcast from Silicon Valley for several years now: that the scene is giving rise to new and previously unimaginable workspaces and environments. And within these new offices (if, indeed, they are best thought of as ‘offices’), many expectations of what employment should look and feel like are not merely being altered but revolutionized.
In these companies, the employees are predominantly young, either actually, in age, or by disposition, in approach and spirit. They are innovative and enterprising; iconoclastic and disruptive; free thinking and agile. They are trusted to understand the relationship between their own and their company's needs and priorities, and to act flexibly but with this responsibility in mind. They are encouraged to time and regulate their own day, taking rest when it suits them, even extending to naps and siestas.
They dress casually and comfortably. They 'break out' frequently into impromptu work groups and 'gig' collaborations, liaising just long enough to see a project through before disbanding to switch focus. They welcome 'churn' and thrive on novelty.
They are materially well provisioned, with upmarket cafeterias, coffee machines, snack counters, and salad bars, to which they may sojourn when the fancy takes them. The physical environment is designed to mirror social and leisure venues, more like a den, a coffee shop or a lounge than an office, with detailed attention paid to aesthetics and haptics, so that colours, textures, contours and scale are modelled carefully best to support human ease and comfort.
In short, we might say that the notion of pleasure plays a shaping part in their working lives.
Reflecting on these developments, we can begin by asking to what extent school prepares young people for the environmental features noted above. Until recently, the correlation between the school experience of space and that of the office was, for many new entrants to the workforce, probably pretty accurate. After all, the majority of young people who entered employment in an office set-up, including the most high attaining graduates, would most likely have found themselves at a desk in a large, fairly impersonal, perhaps cubicalled, perhaps open-plan, space, kitted out mainly with 'functional’, generic furniture in shades of grey and wrought of steel.
There would have been the subdued, constrained hush of people quietly going about their business, not wanting to impact on or interfere with the similarly unvarying concentration of the other workers sharing the office.
And, indeed, this might still be the case in many conventional businesses. But is it likely still to be in five to ten years time? Is the model stable or should schools be making experimental forays into environments that resemble more the physical spaces crafted by Google, Netflix and Whatsapp in order to promote the kind of mindset that copes and then thrives within them? Is the material environment a significant factor in setting the scene for mental labour?
Which brings me to the second point of reflection – and probably the more difficult one to process within our current understanding of the kind of work practices that we believe we should be encouraging in schools.
Given the emphasis in school on what might best be termed ‘productivity’, i.e. having students engaged constantly and continually in activities that have outcomes and upshots and material products, is it possible to shift to a cognitive environment, even occasionally, that genuinely fosters creativity?
The place of creativity
What both research and experience tell us is that creativity is not something that can usefully be forced, nor something that responds simply to effort, nor something that comes on demand, nor something that tends to arise out of monotonous mental activity. Rather creative thinking depends on a process that features several distinct phases.
In an influential account, Graham Wallas detected four such phases, which he described as, first, preparation, which involves thoroughly immersing oneself in the problem area; second, incubation, in which no conscious work is done, but ideas and connections somehow bubble and combine on, as it were, the back-burner of consciousness; third, illumination, that sudden ‘eureka’ moment, when the light-bulb flashes and the idea arrives ‘out of the blue’; and, lastly, verification, in which the practicalities of the ‘brainwave’ are carefully unpacked and applied in the terms of the problem area.
At Google, Netflix, Facebook and all the others, it is the incubation phase that is so well served by the naps and siestas, the breaks at the cafeteria or the snack bar, the scooter rides down empty corridors, the games of ping pong, the mindfulness sessions, and the dog petting.
It seems to me that some equivalent should exist, at least once in a while, in schools and that, until it does, we are likely to struggle, truly, to foster those occasions on which authentic, mould-breaking, mind-blowing creativity happens.
Work spaces that prompt and support individual thinking, team collaboration, and pleasure for their users. Work practices that give time and permission for immersion, incubation and illumination. These would seem to be a vital part of what comes next for schools. At ICHK, no definitive answers yet, but we're exploring.
Figures are similar across all ‘developed’ economies in the rich world. For example, the CITI report predicts that somewhere in the region of 37% of jobs in Finland, 49% in the Netherlands and 51% in Germany are likely candidates for automation in the next 15 to 20 years.
From a personal point of view, I am a little reassured that education is predicted to suffer ‘only’ an 8.5% reduction in its workforce. While it hardly matters one way or another for someone of my age, I am relieved to know that my younger colleagues can feel a degree of confidence in their collective futures.
For example, from the CITI report Technology at Work, “The common denominator for low-risk jobs is that they are intensive in social and creative skills. In particular, generalist occupations requiring knowledge of human heuristics, and jobs involving the development of novel ideas and artifacts, are not yet readily automatable”. (p59)