Why the future of work needs “impact entrepreneurs”

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 “singularity”, others prefer the “fourth industrial revolution” or the “age of artificial intelligence”. But what is notable in its absence is the human experience of work. 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 actually know what to do.

And yet, “good work” is a profoundly human concept. At the RSA,we are interested in this human experience of work and how people will be impacted by automation or new types of employment. Recent research from the 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 of work now and find ways to support the positive ones before the negative ones — the unfettered robot beasts of the machine age — 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 says: “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 between the RSA, Alt/Now and Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, the RSA Future Work Centre has spent the last 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 we will need a 21st Century Safety Net and a “parity of esteem between employees in corporate life and independent workers in the digital economy” and will require 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”. “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 — as the below illustration shows. 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. With Alt/Now we designed the Economic Security Impact Accelerator as an amplifier and set the goal for the programme 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

Head of Mission Oriented Innovation Network at UCL IIPP. Former Director of Innovation at the RSA, on Medium just me.