Asking questions of the “Future of Work”

Liam Grace-Flood is a Summer Fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, and is an MBA student at the Yale School of Management.

We MONUM Summer Fellows have built a collaborative Spotify playlist this summer. It’s great in its diversity, wackiness, and makes for a nice segue to discussing the beat and rhythm of local government. A rich metaphor, the entire organization could be explicated using the language of music. For now, I want to focus just on beats per minute / tempo / speed.

Or lack thereof.

Government as a whole is famously slow. With a $3B+ annual budget, and a nearly 5M-strong metro area population, Boston is a big ship. Naturally, it can’t turn on a dime, nor should it.

Real people depend on city services. We must exercise great care when considering changes, so as not to leave anyone behind. But as the world around us changes at an increasing rate, we have to find new ways to keep pace — without compromising reliability.

That’s where MONUM comes in. We serve as the city’s R&D / innovation unit, working with city departments to help the city push forward. Innovation in the private sector is characterized by the Silicon Valley mantra, “move fast and break things” (and then pretend it’s not your fault everything is broken), but since 2010 MONUM has been developing an innovation praxis specific to the public sector — identifying the projects that call for speed and the ones that call out against it.

Finding our rhythm is a vital part of our Summer, too. We’re a fast-leaning start up in a slow-leaning organization. And we Summer Fellows lean even faster — we have just 8–10 weeks to deliver in an organization with a median tenure of 10+ years.

In my own project, writing a first “Future of Work” brief for MONUM, I’m trying to capture a vast and ambiguous topic in a very short time. That work includes:

  1. “unbuzzwording” the term (a la MONUM’s Smart Cities Playbook);
  2. sharing broad frameworks;
  3. analyzing specific issues, ranging from automation to labor rights in the gig economy, portable benefits to market inefficiencies in elder care;
  4. highlighting innovative practices and programs from Boston and abroad;
  5. interviewing people for whom the labor market and social safety net aren’t working;
  6. and defining core principles to govern future of work legislation.
A collaborative GIF made with my fellow fellow, Micah Epstein

While that sounds like a project that should require many more than 10 weeks, it’s urgent that we get started. The future comes quick– especially when we haven’t yet come to terms with our past.

Boston continues to contend with starkly racialized wealth inequality (white families have a median wealth of $248k compared to $8 for black families), high income inequality in an already very unequal country, and nationwide trends against worker rights and labor unions (as if workers weren’t already suffering enough from wage stagnation, automation, offshoring, and so on).

Much of the action today enables tech companies, rather than elevating worker ownership and agency. When we do talk about workers, we talk about their responsibility to “re-skill” (a supply-side intervention) rather than employers’ and legislators’ responsibilities (demand-side interventions) to provide living wages, support worker-owned businesses, rebuild unions, redesign benefits programs, establish career ladders, etc.

The topic weaves together academic inquiry, fierce political debate, and clashing cultures. It touches every part of our lives. It is so big that we tend to focus on its constituent parts (e.g., automation, gig work) and miss the forest for the trees. It’s time to move beyond buzzwords like office-greening and microwork to focus on the big issues and construct our own just and equitable working future.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for invitations to engage MONUM in this conversation, and to contribute your thoughts and experiences. Whatever the future looks like, we’re in it together.

The New Urban Mechanics Summer Fellowship is designed for entrepreneurial students and professionals interested in working in public service. During this highly-selective, eight-week program, summer fellows work as a team and on their own projects, generating and implementing creative and thoughtful new prototypes to benefit the City of Boston.

The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.

The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.