Each week, the Work/Place podcast explores new ways of organizing work. Check out our summary of the latest episode.
On this week’s episode of Work/Place, the podcast was joined by Edward Burtynsky, one of the world’s most accomplished contemporary photographers. Edward is best known for his incredible body of work depicting the impact of human life on the planet. His photographs are included in the collection of over 60 major museums globally, and his collaborations in film include Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes (2006); Watermark (2013); and the third film in the trilogy, ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch.
Each week, Work/Place explores a mini soundscape that takes listeners into some future mechanism of work or industry. This week, listeners heard an interaction between a character named Dom and ‘Naya’, a service designed to match users to a job or ‘path’ that aligns more fully with their personal values.
This soundscape was a bit different, in that it brought to light what the working world will look like ten years from now—when the impacts of climate change have become even more immediate.
Naya provided Dom with a few options—to work in agricultural computing, join the Green New Deal’s seawall planning committee, or go work on the ground in Ghana to extract valuable minerals from electronic waste. Dom, highly critical of anything to do with big business, and uninterested in an office job, went with the ‘un-manufacturing’ job in Ghana.
Work/Place dissected Dom’s interaction with Naya, and along the way captured some essential insights. How will the future of work and the future of our planet collide? We’ll break down the conversation below.
The Urgency of Sustainable Work
Naya presented each of the guests of Work/Place with a vision of the future that seemed less like a utopian fantasy, and more like a stark reality. Given his experience depicting industrial landscapes across the globe, Edward was the first to point out that the future Naya depicted seems to be creeping into our present. “The future means that pretty much all our efforts are going [towards] mitigating a planetary disaster … people are really now waking up to the fact that there is no planet B.”
Edward also pointed out that some of the futures that many people (Naya’s client Dom included) are uncomfortable with, like GMOs, are harsh realities that we’ll have to face in order to avoid drought and famine. Clinton agreed. “I think of all the soundscapes we’ve heard so far, this is the most realistic one… these are necessities now.”
Although it’s difficult to talk about the state of the climate without a healthy dose of doom and gloom, Edward, Kofi, and Clinton seemed chalk full of ideas (some of which are already in existence) to address these immediate concerns. From fusion generators to self-sustaining solar-powered homes, attempts to engineer our way out of climate disaster are well under way.
However, the topic that kept coming up in discussion was our society’s collective obsession with waste, and the need for what Edward called a “virtuous loop” of industry. More than anything, industrial designers need to focus their energy on building everything in a way that can be extracted and re-used in order to sustain resources indefinitely.
What Climate Change Means for the Workforce of the Future
How does this future—one with startling new forms of technology and an intense focus on sustainable resources—incorporate humans and their jobs?
Kofi was interested in how discerning Dom was with the job options presented to him by Naya. “I think what was quite interesting was how disgruntled he was and also how informed he was.” Kofi pointed out that perhaps we’ve never thought about our jobs in terms of the planet before—and this attitude might rapidly change in the future.
Syd pointed out that in the present, there seems to be no way around jobs that are harmful to the planet—and wondered aloud whether a movement towards ‘degrowth’ or ‘un-manufacturing’ could alter this reality.
"How does this future—one with startling new forms of technology and an intense focus on sustainable resources—incorporate humans and their jobs?"
The problem with this? It doesn’t jibe with the realities of the current economy. “Are there jobs in de-growth? Can you keep people employed when you’re trying not to use stuff?” Edward asked. “We built a kind of economy that says, if you can provide me this, I’ll give you that.” In other words, in an economy reliant on production and consumption, virtuous jobs are few and far between.
And, what’s more concerning than the need for ‘virtuous’ jobs, is whether jobs themselves will exist at all. Fears around the automation of work remain rampant—and it seems like Naya doesn’t consider this possibility at all. Edward remained confident that upskilling is possible, noting that we now live in a market where workers are forced to adapt to “kinetic markets” where technology is constantly shifting the nature of work.
Clinton thought about automation differently, noting that it might not be such a bad thing. “Every time we automate away jobs, they were jobs that we didn’t really want … what happens when we unleash the creativity of millions of people who are just doing manual labor, and give them UBI?”
Of course, the challenge with all of these potential futures is that they require a complete transformation of economic systems—whether we’re upskilling into sustainable industries, practicing de-growth, or distributing universal basic income, an enormous push from public institutions seems to be inevitable.
The Responsibility of Governments
Edward was the first to point out that the biggest barrier to mitigating climate disaster is our reliance on an economy that doesn’t incentivize caring for the environment. In our world, it’s not cheap to do the right thing. That means that governments have an enormous role in shifting the narrative. “What [governments] do best is tax behaviour we don’t want, and incentivize the behaviour that we do want, and flip market forces.”
Kofi pointed out that perhaps in the soundscape, Naya is a government creation, being used to distribute human resources towards different environmental efforts.
But government involvement in work and industry seems less like a ‘potential future’ and more like a necessity. If every industrial service or product in the future needs to be beneficial (or at least not harmful) to the planet, then bottom-line assessments will become irrelevant.
It’s not just about incentivizing corporations and individuals to do the right thing, either. Kofi noted that education will play a huge role in this economic overhaul. “Let’s get people understanding what our effect is, and what we actually contribute.”
Kofi, Clinton, and Edward agreed that the very real future Naya presented seems to be reliant on governments that have fully reimagined the global economy.
This week’s soundscape got real. The episode was less about imagining a potential future, and more about coming to terms with a real one. Naya served as a reminder that the climate will, irrefutably, be the central force that shapes the future of our economy, our workforce, and our systems of governance. Let’s just hope we’re ready for it.