The Work/Place Podcast: Substrate with Radha Mistry

Each week, the Work/Place Podcast explores new ways of organizing work. Check out our summary of the latest episode.

Work/Place is a podcast about where and how we work, with host Sydney Allen-Ash and Lane Founders, Clinton Robinson and Kofi Gyekye. This week, Work/Place was joined by Practice Leader for Foresight at Autodesk, Radha Mistry. Rhada explores the impact of emerging technologies, and how they will change the way we design and make things in the future. 

This week’s episode started with an advertisement for a conceptual community called ‘the Substrate’. This mini soundscape, created by Toronto-based foresight studio From Later, served as a jumping off point for a discussion about the potential of tech and automation to improve (or disrupt) our working and living environments.

What is the Substrate?

Imagine a co-working, co-living space that promises not just work/life balance—but work/life integration. A space designed to provide for your every need, from healthcare to child rearing, where opportunities to contribute and give back to your community abound. 

This is the promise of the Substrate—a space for living and working that provides for all of its residents’ needs on seemingly every level of Maslow’s hierarchy. Not only is survival taken care of through food and health services, there are also ‘daydream venues’ and ‘affinity stations’ to keep you entertained. The Substrate advertises the possibility to explore new hobbies and interests, many of which are deeply connected to nature (did we mention it has a vertical garden?) And, notably, the Substrate seems to champion a more ethical approach to the future of work, offering jobs in trades and blue-collar sectors—roles that most futurists envision being wiped out by AI.

Sound too good to be true? Turns out it probably is. Below, we’ll break down some of the major themes (and problems) that cropped up during Work/Place’s discussion of the Substrate. 

Building vs. Integration 

One of the first things guest Radha, whose background is in architecture, noticed about the Substrate was how it attempts to impose a built environment on its residents, in order to replicate something more natural. She pointed out that architects are often trying to change human behaviour through built environments, but these projects often fail as humans have a tendency to chart their own courses. The concept of a vertical garden, for instance, seems like more of an architect’s dream (mimicking a desire to ‘build upward’) rather than something that might actually integrate into the life of the community. Further to that—Rhada pointed out that you can’t supplement the ‘real’ outdoors for something artificial.

Kofi and Clinton expanded on this idea, noting that often tech—which is supposed to simplify our lives—creates more friction than ease, and pulls us further away from nature. Kofi pointed out that the promise of tech is seamlessness—stuff that makes your life easier. But in reality, we’ve created more and more gadgets that are clunky and difficult to integrate together. It seems we spend more and more time tending to our tech, which limits the time we have to actually live—away from our screens. 

An obvious problem with spaces like the Substrate is that they appear to provide for everything in new, shiny ways, but forget the fact that much of what is required for a well-balanced life can’t be built, or imposed upon us through design. 

In other words, we should be thinking more about the power of technology to streamline, remove friction, and grant us more time to connect with the natural world. Kofi, Clinton and Radha seemed to feel that the Substrate might be too artificial—too ‘built’—to accomplish this goal.

Automation Anxiety 

In a similar vein to the theme around building versus integrating, Clinton talked about how one of the joys of technology is its ability to ‘automate out’ annoying tasks, or things we simply don’t want to deal with. Having said that, the more our technology advances, the more humans realize they want to live in less sterile and more spontaneous environments. In other words, it’s a fine line between automation that helps, and automation that harms. 

The more pressing issue with automation is of course, fear and anxiety around how it will impact the labour market. This conversation has been happening for centuries—and Radha pointed out that workers have almost always been able to ‘skill up’ and adapt to changing work environments. However, it’s notable that the Substrate doesn’t account for automation—and actually advertises the fact that they’re looking for trades workers to join their community. 

Building on this question, Radha proposed that whenever we think about the future of work and technology, we should always take time to consider who we might leave behind in our quest for convenience and efficiency. She brought up the fact that historically, many roles that we now think of as blue collar were once extremely coveted trades that were viewed as essential to the functioning of the wider community. 

Perhaps the Substrate is trying to bring us back to this time by championing certain skilled trades—and that’s an intriguing tactic. When thinking about what we should and shouldn’t automate, it’s interesting to think about how some skills, which require time, care, and attention (despite being manual or repetitive) could be valued in a community, rather than being offloaded to AI. 

The Thin Line Between Utopia and Dystopia 

At the very end of the discussion, Sydney asked a key question that got her guests thinking about what might make a utopian community appear dystopian: Who owns the Substrate?

And further to that, who manages it? Who decides who gets to be a part of it, and what are its end goals? Kofi, Clinton and Radha agreed that any true utopian environment can’t be owned by a corporation, or any elite group with its own set of interests (which may or may not include turning a profit). A for the people, by the people, style of governance seems preferable—otherwise there’s the risk of venturing into dark, 1984 territory. 

In fact, the overarching theme of the entire discussion was whether the Substrate represented a utopian or dystopian future—two ideas that often seem to overlap. 

Clinton noted that the whole idea of a perfectly integrated living and working space seemed to be an extension of what we might call ‘toxic startup culture’—a workplace that offers a ton of ‘perks’ that are essentially designed to keep you at your most productive, and in that sense might not really be perks at all. 

For Radha, this brought up the image of the film Wall-E, where humans have been perfectly optimized to serve the needs of capitalism, at the expense of their bodies and minds. Radha came back to the idea that many of the things we need as humans are basic—food, a hug, and notably, meaningful connection. 

Clinton put it perfectly using the image of soylent. The Substrate is like a meal replacement, in that it provides for everything that you need, but it doesn’t make you feel human (like say, a spaghetti bolognese might). This bizarre metaphor seems to get at the very core of why Clinton, Kofi and Radha all found the Substrate to be dystopian—it lacks humanity. 

Conclusion: Would You Live in the Substrate? 

As you might’ve guessed, it’s a no from the folks at Work/Place. Mainly, the Substrate fails to live up to it’s utopian appeal by not offering a real (rather than synthetic) closeness to nature and humanity. While it’s approach to labour and automation is definitely worth exploring, the overall takeaway from this episode seems to be that utopia should always be served with a side of healthy scepticism.

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