Future Visions is the series that explores the surreal world of tomorrow through the finest minds of today. Our final chapter sees us explore the thoughts of futurist Ben Hammersley, who argues we should stop trying to prepare for 2037 and start focusing on tomorrow.
Meet our expert, Ben Hammersley. Ben is a British internet technologist, journalist, author, broadcaster and futurist. He is a frequent contributor to many publications including Wired Magazine and BBC.
This is my vision of the workplace in 20 years’ time...
The greatest danger for a futurist is to approach this sort of thing with an eye to fantasy products. It would be easy to talk of meetings in virtual reality, computer-brain interfaces, artificial intelligences as colleagues, flying cars or whatever. But that both under and over estimates the potential for different forms of change.
We habitually underestimate the technological changes that happen over a 20 year timeframe, and we overestimate the universality of social changes over that same period. There’s a mismatch that happens when we talk about the workplace, with a specific flavour: the open-plan, youth-dominated, Slack-using, air quotes creative workspace being considered cutting edge and anything else dangerously retrograde. It’s tempting to think those trends will continue, and so talk about a workplace of 2037 being hot-desking and instant messenger, only more so.
The death of the open-plan office
I don't think this is true, for various reasons. Firstly, we learn more and more every day about the psychological optimisation of different types of work. The need for quiet, for rest, for correct stimulation, for a sense of meaning and for other specifically human qualities - by which we are consciously or not influenced. I believe, for example, that the open-plan office is a finance-director’s dream retrofitted with bullshit justifications around it being good for creativity. It’s patently, and scientifically provably not so, the realisation of such will take another 20 years to shake through the business world. The same for company-wide chat systems, or hot-desking, or even a good deal of social media: an enormous amount of today’s cutting edge business social practices will become laughable over the next 20 years.
The only thing that won’t change will be human nature - and it’s our ever more sophisticated understanding of this that will drive the most change to the workplace over the next 20 years. Combined with the ageing demographics of the developed world and the disruption from technology I will address in a moment, the biggest change will be social and political, questioning the underlying beliefs of work itself, rather than just adopting new layers of tech over existing structures.
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But, ok, tech, sure. 2017 is really the starting year for commercially available AI, machine learning, and so on. The choices about whether or not to adapt this technology into mainstream business settings will be a political one.
So, again, the only thing we can say about 2037 with any certainty is that bits of it will be just the same as today, and bits of it will (from the perspective of 2017) seem either abhorrent, or remarkably enlightened. The point is, work, and the structures within work - who is the boss, who makes the decisions, on whose behalf, and so on - will continue to evolve. The technology layered on top of those fundamentals is trivial, and you can blag those when you get to them.
Nurture your future
The future isn’t set. We’re not on a fundamentally inevitable path, with no choice as to where we will end up. Our future is made today, with our every decision. And so it’s not a matter of coming to grips with something - studying as if for a final exam sometime in 2037 - rather, it’s by actively and mindfully engaging with what is possible right now and at every step along the way that we can define the world.
The old cliché is that the best way to predict the future is to invent it. That’s nice, but it’s more subtle than that: the best way to create a prosperous future is to nurture it. More strikingly, I think, if we don’t continually address the fundamental questions about work - what is it, how do we do it, how can we improve it - then those questions will be answered for us, and by people who do not have our best interests at heart. The future of work isn’t going to be simply today’s socio-economic philosophies with an added layer of shiny gadgetry. It’s going to be a fundamentally new way of thinking about the world. And so without engaging with that evolution, starting today, we risk allowing it to be captured by radical assholes. Considering the future is where we will spend the rest of our lives, leaving it to the assholes to build would be careless.
How to prepare yourself for change...
Quite simply, you cannot prepare for 20 years’ time. You can only prepare for tomorrow - by constantly and actively questioning everything you do today. So that’s what you have to do: maintain a mental, physical, and legal nimbleness that allows - or even forces - you to be reassessing and course correcting, on a day to day basis. Those 20 years will pass, and you will be well placed. But you’ll also be well placed for the 20 years after that as well.
In Zen, we might call this state of mind, “Beginner’s Mind”. An MBA graduate might channel Andy Grove of Intel in saying that only the paranoid survive. Whichever narrative you use to give structure to this form of operating, whichever story you tell yourself, it remains the same: you have to accept that change is constant and part of the process, and actively go with it, day by day.