With the conclusion of midterm elections less than 24 hours ago, we’ve heard a lot about the right and wrong ways to turn around the economy. Two years after the adrenaline-pumping, game-changing 2008 elections, the economy is still in the dumps and the main political issue. Republican or Democrat, Tea Party or party pooper, I think we’ve all had enough of home foreclosures, job loss and struggling businesses to last a lifetime.
From my perspective, it seems that the situation is beginning to improve-even if the headlines and commentators point to catastrophe. We get it, there are no simple, quick-fix solutions. A healthy economy will take time and hard work. It will take bickering, business savvy and investment bravery. It would also be nice if the whole thing would take off, now!
Harvard experts now tell us a complete economic turnaround may take something else: imagination http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/10/bright-ideas.
In the past month, Harvard President, Drew Faust, led a panel of economic authorities on big and small ways that might help jump-start the American economy.
Their proposals include:
- Rewrite the U.S. tax code, creating a single income tax and a carbon tax.
- Create a national homebuyers’ insurance plan to protect owners during fiscal turmoil.
- Underwrite a boom in green business to conserve energy and create jobs, for two-pronged savings.
- Investigate how Internet innovations can provide business solutions.
- Refashion the notion of urban design so that it addresses both enjoyment and employment.
- Explore the downturns moral dimensions to evaluate what really matters in a fulfilling life.
There are some interesting thoughts here-although I doubt many of these would all lead to a “brighter” tomorrow. That being said, I’d like to focus in on a few points that specifically address jobs, talent and a changing workforce.
The New Work Environment
Long-range investments in public infrastructure, clean technologies and green energy are widely regarded as the eco-friendly answer to job creation and economic improvement. While the U.S. is beginning to take small steps in that direction, Daniel Carpenter, Harvard’s Allie S. Freed Professor of Government, warns that China and India could leave the United States in its energy-efficient, globally-responsible dust. Carpenter advocates investing in light rail, transportation support and rebuilding the nation’s current infrastructure.
A long-term commitment to such investments could in effect draw top talent away from Wall Street.
“Too much of our human capital has been taken up by finance and housing. It’s not clear that creates a better economy in the long run. We ought to be retraining people for clean energy work, or building bridges and light rail systems, instead of building new homes,” Carpenter argues.
Mohsen Mostafavi, the Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design, cites the effects of a railway system that connects the city to the suburbs. Such connections are “empowering and enabling,” says Mostafavi, adding, “access becomes the basis for jobs.”
Activity that results from investment in shared spaces would also provide groundwork for jobs. Cafés, restaurants, shops and businesses would benefit from the regular traffic produced by well-utilized public spaces and transportation, thereby becoming places for employment as well as enjoyment.
Would the ivy-league MBA minds of Wall Street abandon their mortgage-lending window offices for a sidewalk park café next to the tram stop? Maybe if that is where the money is.
Web-based Work Transformation
Green technologies and infrastructure are familiar players in the arena of economic and workforce change, if not to the extent that Harvard experts propose. The Internet is another work-altering all-star.
The Internet has radically changed the way people work, connecting them remotely, instantly, and yes, incessantly. Yet Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder and faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, believes new online technologies are going to change the way people work even further.
Zittrain points to Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome. If you think outsourcing or crowd sourcing is game changing, this online tool could be the next workforce revolution.
According to its website, Mechanical Turk “gives businesses and developers access to an on-demand scalable workforce. Workers select from thousands of tasks and work whenever it’s convenient.” The service invites people to complete Human Intelligence Tasks, or HITs, for a micropaymnet. The tasks vary widely, from verifying URLs to writing a book review, to translating Spanish into English. The tasks are ones that humans can do with relative ease, but that still challenge computers.
Segmenting work into such small tasks that can be parceled out to a world wide web of labor could transform-if not erase-the typical workplace and workday. Over time, it could reengineer the pillars of the economy.
“I do think this could stand to transform economic dynamics… in the way in which it can turn almost anything into an economy,” says Zittrain.
But what happens when computers can write a compelling book review and translate even the most colloquial slang Spanish into English? Will we all be out of a job? And how will future politicians fix that?