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Can Human-Centered Design Help Humans Prevail Over Machines In The Workplace?

How do we make humans central in the age of automation?

Can Human-Centered Design Help Humans Prevail Over Machines In The Workplace?
[All Images: Max Krasnov via Shutterstock]

From the beginnings of organized farming to the advent of organized labor, work has dramatically changed. It has fundamentally shifted even more as we moved from the industrial era into today’s technologically enabled on-demand reality. The ability to automate work and use artificial intelligence to augment everyday tasks is now here. And, the nature of change in the workforce is accelerating as robots start to walk outside factories, the whir of drones grows louder in the air, and driverless cars are poised to join us on the streets in cities nationwide.

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We are rapidly approaching an inflection point where the acceleration of these trends will bring about a sea change in the workforce. McKinsey Global Institute has estimated that by 2025, robots could produce an output equivalent to 40-75 million workers in both industrial and service roles. Companies like Google, Apple, Foxconn, and Amazon are investing heavily in robotics, and more will join them as technology advances. In fact, by 2017 there will already be an estimated 2 million industrial robots in operation worldwide.

These changes are incredibly impactful for all of us, and can cause concern and consternation. And, of course, fears around technological changes in the workforce wiping out jobs are not new: from the Luddites onward people have been talking about technology taking away jobs. Even so, we are still working, the economy is growing, and indicators show that life has gotten better for the vast majority of the world’s workers. However, with the current shift taking place, we must pose the question: Will this time be different?

There is certainly no end to studies that might make one think just that. A Pew Research canvassing of Internet and technology experts found that about half (48%) agree that networked, automated artificial intelligence applications and robots will displace more jobs than they create by 2025. A University of Oxford study found that 47% of U.S. jobs might be at risk within the next two decades due to advances in computers, automation, and AI.

Noted MIT scholars Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, as well as other leaders, make a compelling case that perhaps in this “Second Machine Age,” the scope of this change will be even more dramatic. They posit that technological advances will soon reach a point of exponential growth, and in doing so “open up new frontiers with unprecedented speed.”

Drastic and rapid change makes it easy to focus on what has and will be lost, but comparisons to the past do not have to dominate our narrative of tomorrow. Instead of asking ourselves which jobs will be replaced, we need to shift the conversation to answer the question: what jobs do we want humans to do?

We must move the policy discussion away from job retraining towards job rethinking. This begins with embracing the power of human-centered work. Human-centered work is the idea that humans have critical comparative advantages that must be embraced, nurtured, and developed. By embracing those things that machines can do better and bolstering the areas where we thrive—areas such as creativity, craftsmanship, and human judgment—we will be able to harness the power of these technological changes to create products and industries that are entirely new.

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Even though great swaths of the workforce could be automated, it does not follow that we as a society will always want to take that path. We could see entrepreneurship flourish in a new renaissance where automation unlocks more creativity and innovation in humans as people are freed from those repetitive tasks and rote production roles that we have been saddled with for generations. This is the future we must embrace and shepherd forward.

The workforce has evolved before. Look at the number of people in farming at the turn of the 20th century. In 1900, we had 41% of the U.S. population working in agriculture. By 2000, this number had dropped to less than 2%. Similarly, the percentage of workers in professional and technical jobs jumped five-fold over the course of the 20th century, and computer specialist careers that did not even exist have become a key part of the modern day workforce. History shows us that as classes of jobs fade away, new areas inevitably grow. And, in fact, as automation marches ahead, there are many trends that support just such a theses.

One expanding area can be seen in makers, people who are crafting the next great idea in their own home or in one of the many makerspaces growing all around the world. One recent estimate puts the current number of these spaces at around 2,000, demonstrating the growth in this creative endeavor. In our recent National League of Cities analysis of local economic conditions, we analyzed the growth of collaborative consumption and the maker movement in cities. What we found is that city leaders are excited by, and supporting, the entrepreneurship, increased economic activity, and improved services brought about by small scale manufacturing.

Will the maker movement be enough to stem the tide toward greater automation in the workforce? Of course not. On its own, it is just one area (albeit a growing one); instead, it is an indicator that further argues for a movement toward enhancing and growing human-centered work.

The meteoric growth of micromanufacturers and platforms like Etsy demonstrate this potential growth. Technology is creating an environment where customization can be brought more mainstream. This is not in competition with automation, nor will it roll back automation’s effects—instead, automation will make this future possible.

We need to focus more on what people bring to the table—a personal touch in sales and many other high-touch industries can expand and become more and more valuable as people seek out these day to day connections. Our experiences are already defining and enriching life more and more as millennial consumer habits have completely upended traditional marketing and retail expectations.

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Bolstering high-touch service industries and supporting the creative endeavors of our fellow citizens will become ever more important as policy decision points appear quicker and quicker in this era of disruption. Furthermore, it is a safe assumption that what we imagine as the future today will not totally come to pass—there are a wide range of potential career paths that are not even on our radar screens yet. Forecasting based on current trends can show us a great deal, but incredibly large and impactful areas sneak up on us all the time.

There is no doubt, however, that action will be needed by leaders at all levels of government to ensure that workers at all levels of society can have an opportunity to benefit from these changes. By considering which jobs humans do best and how we can bolster and support these industries as a society, we can advance the conversation past a reactionary stance and lay a foundation for future growth.

Governments should study what sort of training, infrastructure, and research investments these changes require. The recent conversation that has been raised anew around basic income needs to be further considered and explored. We need to rethink how we approach work across the spectrum–from service industry to professional jobs, white collar and blue collar–and what changes these areas will require in terms of new skills and education.

All of these ideas should be higher on the agenda as policy makers think about the effects these future shifts will have on all of us. Automation and artificial intelligence will no doubt have great impact on the future of work, play, and life. However, we shouldn’t jump to the assumption that this will be a net negative. We need to circle back and focus on what has always been unique about humans: creativity. It is high time to see ingenuity, craftsmanship, and connectivity as the critical differentiators, and move toward a future where we embrace and usher forward human-centered work.

About the author

Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the City Solutions and Applied Research Center at the National League of Cities. He oversees NLC’s research and partnership effort to strengthen the capacity of municipal leaders to create strong local economies, safe and vibrant neighborhoods, world-class infrastructure, and a sustainable environment.

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