Why the future of work needs 'impact entrepreneurs' - RSA

Why the future of work needs 'impact entrepreneurs'

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  • Employment
  • Enterprise

There are some who can only see the future of work through the prism of automation. But from this vantage point, the discussion can often descend into robot panic…

Some call it the age of artificial intelligence, others prefer the “fourth industrial revolution” or technological singularity. But what is notable in its absence from this future of work is human experience. When centred on the machine, the discourse becomes dehumanised and imbued with tech determinism (the assumption that people will be passive in the face of an inevitable machine age), while at the same time remaining too abstract for anyone to know what to do.

And yet “good work” is a profoundly human concept. At the RSA, we are most interested in the human experience of work and how people will be impacted by automation or new types of employment. Recent research from our Future Work Centre has explored the negative impacts of atypical work on women, how automation is hurting the high street, and the scale of economic insecurity felt by gig workers. Key to enabling good work futures for all is the ability to spot the early signals of both positive and negative futures, and find ways to support the positive ones before the negative ones take hold.

The future is now

Signs of the emergent future of work are all around us  just look outside. Here’s a quick glance at my world: my neighbour was a childminder and now works on a gig platform where negative ratings affect her earning potential; my hairstylist now works week nights on call rather than regular day shifts in a salon; my local bank has closed to be replaced with online banking; my supermarket shop ends at a self-service checkout; the pizza restaurant I take my kids to has a queue of delivery riders and no eat-in customers; and the Uber driver who drove me home last week does so to top up his bus driver’s salary. While this is limited to my personal   and very urban – experience, research shows that self employment, gig platforms and other forms of atypical work are growing everywhere and the fastest-growing forms of work are those that have the least security.

With such a rapidly shifting landscape, issues around precarious work and economic security become more acute. So what will it take to reimagine a safety net that is fit for future workers? New solutions won’t come about unless bold ideas are married with practical activity. But traditional policy responses can be too blunt and speculative design can be too distant. So what should we do to build this good work future? This is when we should seek out “impact entrepreneurs”.

Enter the impact entrepreneur 

Impact entrepreneurs are those who want to affect systems change – to take on population-level challenges, identifying emerging societal problems and building new solutions to test out to address them. It is these entrepreneurs who lay the path for policy-makers and others to follow. As Nicolas Colin, author of Hedge, says: “before the state can act, the field must be marked by a first generation of pioneers.” And such pioneers need an entrepreneur’s problem-solving spirit. As Colin argues, “innovators and activists are the only ones capable of doing the hard work at the early stage, namely spotting the new economic and social challenges of the day and discovering the basics of the new mechanisms that can effectively tackle them.”

Through a unique partnership with Alt/Now, the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth and and the Mastercard Impact Fund, the RSA Future Work Centre has spent the past year exploring how to support impact entrepreneurs who want to combat economic insecurity in the future of work. To do this we designed an 'Economic Security Impact Accelerator' and selected a range of participants from the RSA Future Work Awards to form a cohort of early stage ventures, fast-growing start-ups, social innovation projects and established social enterprises, all of whom were working on a part of the problem. 

We wanted to look at what a bright future of work might be – for everyone, not just those in paid employment. For this, the cohort organised around the concept of building a 21st century safety net and enabling “parity of esteem between employees in corporate life and independent workers in the digital economy”. This accelerator supported small-scale projects, but with a view to connecting a range of efforts to address the growing inequality in provision of services and benefits. In our cohort each participant focused on a significant challenge arising from modern work; as a collective, they covered the full gamut (as the below illustration shows).

Building the field 

At its simplest, the RSA’s role was to start to “building the field”. As Cassie Robinson has said, “field building” is to social impact what market making is in purely commercial environments: it creates the enabling conditions into which innovations can grow and thrive. The design of an alternative system to the current model of security for workers cannot be the work of entrepreneurs alone. Institutions and regulation are part of what enable solutions to work. Our accelerator aimed to support successful ventures –  but we were not solely focused on scale: we wanted to build networks and prototype the kind of institutional support that might be needed to enable the solutions. Working with Jennie Winhall and Charles Leadbeater from ALT/Now we designed the Economic Security Impact Accelerator as an amplifier (rather than the traditional venture capital funnel), and set the goal for the programme to help forge partnerships, build networks and use communications channels to shape the wider debate about the future of work.

The future of work is a systems innovation challenge and its biggest test will be in orchestrating a large-scale collective effort. Designing solutions in the context of an emergent challenge requires perseverance and cooperation. From this pilot programme we hoped to seed coalitions of impact entrepreneurs whose shared passion is economic security for all. For impact entrepreneurs, the ultimate measure of success is not the fabled unicorn – but the creation of a new shared platform for economic security. Success will come when workers feel more secure.

To find out more about the process and the cohort, read the full report. For more about this programme, watch the video of our 'How to be an impact entrepreneur' public event. We hope this provides food for thought, ideas for action and inspiration to join in the community in building a future of good work for all.

Download the report 

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  • The Australian Career Book Award - supported by the Royal Society of Arts Australia & NZ is holding the award presentation on October 26. The finalist books for 2019 touch on the relevant issues raised in the report. This is not generally from the policy perspective, but about how the individual navigates the choppy waters (I paraphrase) to be aware, prepared and better skilled for the Future Now. See the award tab at www.careermelbourne.com for the full list of finalist books. There will be some book reviews on the website after the event so people can get a snapshot the Australian discussion of Future Work issues.

  • Hi Rowan

    Your article is very useful  - our educational charity is designing a board game for 16+ age range as an extension of a game we run in schools called Build My Future for 13 year olds  (http://www.myfuturemychoice.co.uk/programmes/build-my-future). We are in the early stages of devising this new game (fund raising!) but would like to get you involved somehow if that is of interest to you.

    Bets wishes Hugh

  • " now security has become a commodity increasingly reserved for the highly skilled and networked" - the report assumes a fixed skill set/intelligence for many of the population which is just not true; but it is now urgent that everyone is able to maximise their cognitive development and education must support that process. Currently in the UK our rush to formal education and obsessive testing of complex pattern recognition (phonics and times tables) before children are developmentally ready if anything is blocking good development. 

    Our education and health systems for people of all ages needs to understand how to support and maintain our how population so that they can achieve high skill levels and all have choices in life.

  • Hi Rowan, I'm currently building a world's-first-and-only, ultra-high-impact future of work startup. Is there anyway the RSA can help promote and back/fund this social enterprise startup?

    I'm going to read this article and the report. Thanks!

  • Rowan,

    I thought this a well argued and thoughtful article and I appreciate the downloadable report. You raise important issues, but in a hopeful manner. It is for this type of thinking that I'm proud to be a RSA Fellow.  Keep up the good work and clear thinking.

    Ivan Filby

    President: Greenville University, USA.