Monday, August 24, 2009

Crazy new world

This week British futurist Rohit Talwar published a list of tomorrow's jobs and asked colleagues and clients for comments.

Among the list were vertical farmers to grow hydroponic crops in cities. Personal entertainmment programmers to develop highly targeted/personalized news and entertainment services. Baby designers to personalise the characteristics and features of your unfertilized "child". And nano-medics to help repair worn-out cells with atomic scale replacement devices.

Sounds like science fiction? Not really. Just think back one hundred years. Eighty percent of farm production fed horses for transportation, electricity powered only 5% of factories and 10% of homes, the first “computers” were not due for another 40 years, and the internet was incomprensible. At the start of the 21st century, electricity, the motor car, the computer and the internet have totally transformed our lives.

U.S. labor statistics for the past 100 years tell the dramatic story of economic and social change. Hunter-gatherer jobs are now non-existent. Agricultural and mining jobs have plummeted from 20% to 3%. Industrial jobs have slumped from 31% to 19%. At the same time, services work has stayed static around 40% whereas knowledge careers has risen from 10% to 36% of total jobs. 

Yet one in six Americans will leave school this year unable to get a job because they can not read, write or count, use a computer or work in a team with others. And armies of highly qualified engineers, scientists and technicians in what were some of the world’s poorest countries are starting to create and implement new theories and ideas at a faster rate than the "more advanced" Western powers.

The world is changing so fast, that radical new ways are now necessary to make sense of what is happening. Newly created knowledge, powerful new technologies and ways of connecting people are driving many of our largest and most respected firms to extinction, along with a raft of familiar products, services and jobs.

The current chaos, is not just an economic problem, but is symptomatic of a major transformation of society that is underway.

Over the past 10,000 years since we were hunter-gatherers, human society has been transformed at least four times, as a result of a powerful partnership between the tools we create and the human brain. During this time, our genes – and our brain design - has changed less than 0.1 per cent but our tools have become an evolutionary juggernaut....from grunts, flints and spears to a myriad of languages, jumbo jets, movies, television, global corporations and the internet.

Four big waves of change are crashing down on top of us in quick succession. The last remnants of the Industrial Age. The recent Information Age. The newly emerging Knowledge Age. And a new era characterized by the wise application of knowledge. Most organisations are able to handle incremental change, which occurs between the major transitions. But few have developed the necessary skills to navigate the chaotic transitions.

With each new wave of change, we use our new knowledge to create new tools that are more powerful and knowledge intensive that ever before.

The new tools automate the work of the previous period AND further automate the work of earlier cultural/tool periods. It works as a kind of knowledge multiplier effect that ricochets all the way back through the system.

Here's a workshop to explore the possibilities:

1. Choose one of these new technologies. Nano-machines and atomic/molecular level manufacturing systems. Connected machines. Brain-machine interfaces. Direct genetic manipulation of all kinds of life. Replacement body parts. Personalised experiences delvery. Biologically manufactured foods. In what ways could you imagine/forsee how these technologies will change the way we work/learn/live?
2. Describe a new kind of job/career that the new technologies will make possible/necessary?
3. Who will be the new haves and the have nots? Who will be umeployable/no longer useful?
4. Which old kinds of jobs will the new tools and jobs make redundant.
5. What are the possible alternative consequences for society as it is currently organized? Its structure, way it makes decisions,
6. What kinds of changes do we need to make to education/learning in order to prepare people for this new kind of world?
7. What kinds of changes will we need to make to the political/administrative/judicial system to govern our new ways of living and interacting?
8. What kinds of changes will need to make to business, government and community production/delivery systems that feed, clothe, entertain and generally sustain/enrich human life?
9. What will be the biggest threat to human society?

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