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An Overview of Our Series Kickoff Event: What’s the Future of Independent Workers?

The kickoff event for our new Future of Work series featured eight remarkable thought leaders in the space, and an audience of people both passionate and knowledgeable about this topic. In the introduction to the event in the above video, Reinvent Founder and CEO Peter Leyden laid out the origins and goals of the Future of Work project and presented the point of view for the series. The focal question of the series—”What can be done now to ensure that all independent workers thrive in the years ahead?”—served as an organizing principle for the evening’s programming, and will continue to guide our exploration and ideation throughout the year. The full introduction and set of opening remarks are available here.

As we embark on this project, we’re wary of replicating any of the work that has already been done in the Future of Work space, and eager to learn from the innovators and thought leaders who have been deeply engaged in this topic for years. The eight panelists we assembled each have complementary areas of expertise related to automation, education, flexible employment, and technology. The event was highly interactive and included not only two rounds of panels followed by Q&A, but also a breakout session in which attendees engaged in dialogue with our eight panelists.

Each panelist spoke for five minutes, addressing what they’ve learned in the past year about the challenges and opportunities faced by independent workers and where we should be applying new efforts to accelerate a transition to a system that helps independent workers thrive. The panelists covered a wide range of topics including providing stability for workers, helping workers become lifelong learners, and navigating the allocation of value between platforms and the people who work for them. We discussed what kind of economy we want to build in a world increasingly occupied by automation and robots, and what work-related policies we should ask innovative governors and mayors to pilot.

While all of our panelists shared fascinating insights which were vital to the collective learning that happened at our kickoff event, we’ll spotlight just two below—you can watch the full first panel here and the full second panel here.

In our first panel, Socos Co-Founder Dr. Vivienne Ming talked about her goal of building better people through machine learning and massive scale data. Many different populations comprise the on-demand worker demographic, Ming said. Ming sees an increasing split in the on-demand workforce between people who are already empowered and can easily jump between various jobs, and people who don’t have the skills necessary to do this. “If you think that 80 percent of our workforce will just go out and become lifelong learners because it’s in their own best interest, you are in for disaster,” said Ming. According to Ming, universal basic income will not solve the problem of job loss resulting from automation and globalization. We need to invest in all workers from the day they’re born, Ming argued, and not focus on solutions for people who have already “won the genetic lottery.” Ming believes that turning people into lifelong learners is about more than funding early education programs. “How do we turn the work itself into the development of that person?” Ming asked.

In our second panel, Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media and host of the Next:Economy conference, argued that we’re using the wrong metric—stock price—to measure our economy. “When we say technology is taking away jobs, we’ve got it wrong,” said O’Reilly. “Technology does whatever we tell it to do. And we are telling it to optimize for stock price.” O’Reilly believes that we can optimize the economy for people, but it will require a conscious choice, and effort, on our part. He argued that we need to start thinking bigger, because “rearranging things a bit is not going to be good enough.” O’Reilly made a case for changing the narrative, particularly in terms of how we label and thinking about value creation in the economy.

The biggest recent innovation in the world of independent work, O’Reilly argued, is platforms. While independent and contract work have always existed, the shift to workers receiving assignments through networked platforms like Task Rabbit and Uber is the main thing that’s new. Given the ever-increasing prominence of platforms, what can we do to improve the conditions for workers on these platforms? Or, as O’Reilly put it: “How do we navigate the allocation of value between platforms and the people who work for them? How do we measure the benefit to all participants in the ecosystem?”

After our two panels and Q&A sessions, new economy advisor April Rinne presented the eight questions drafted by each of the participants:

  • John Battelle: How do we find the will in our current political climate to think big thoughts about the future of work?
  • Sara Sutton Fell: How do we optimize the hybridization (remote vs. onsite, freelance vs. full-time) of the workforce for both employers and workers?
  • Paul Saffo: What kind of economy do we want to build in a world increasingly occupied by automation and robots?
  • Vivienne Ming: How do we help workers become lifelong learners from an early age?
  • Tim O’Reilly: How do we navigate the allocation of value between platforms and the people who work for them?
  • Kristin Sharp: What are the mechanisms we can use to provide stability for people in a world where work is more independently driven?
  • Donnie Fowler: What work-related policies should we ask innovative governors and mayors to pilot?
  • Geri Barrison: What do employers need to do to best hire and manage independent workforces?

The audience split into eight groups, each led by one of our panelists, for a twenty-minute breakout session to brainstorm solutions to the questions posed. At the end of the breakout sessions, we reconvened and shared insights from each of the breakout groups (you can watch the presentation of these findings here). All in all, our kickoff event was a productive and fruitful evening that wouldn’t have been possible without every one of the panelists and audience members gathered.

More quotes and photos from the event are available at #FutureofWorkers on Twitter. Be on the lookout for upcoming virtual interviews and roundtables revolving around the questions discussed at our kickoff event, as well as the next physical gathering this fall.