Chapter One

The State We’re In

By any yardstick, 2011 was a pretty tumultuous year for social action. When Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street fruit-seller, set himself alight in protest at his scales being taken from him by an over-aggressive policewoman, few would have seen this apparently futile act of self-immolation as the first flowering of the Arab Spring. The public protest, which began on 17th December 2010, after Bouazizi’s death, quickly spread from his home town of Sidi Bouzid to the capital, Tunis, and soon engulfed Egypt, Syria and Libya, eventually affecting almost every country in the Middle East.

In the UK, eight months later, on a hot August night in London, insensitivity shown by police in Tottenham, following the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan, turned a peaceful protest ugly. A crowd (mainly consisting of Duggan’s family and friends) were refused a meeting with senior police officers. Hours passed and, with anger rising, the protesters refused to go home. Soon they were joined by a younger, more militant crowd, and by 10 p.m. shops, police cars and homes in Tottenham were ablaze. Over the course of the next four days the rioting spread to many cities in England. Claims for compensation in London alone exceeded £300m. Five people died and a traumatised nation looked for underlying reasons. The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, had no doubts. Refusing calls for a government inquiry, he dismissed the riots as ‘criminality, pure and simple’. The Guardian newspaper came to a rather different conclusion. In ‘Reading The Riots’, a report jointly commissioned with the London School of Economics, 85 percent of the 270 rioters questioned said that aggressive policing was an important factor in why the riots happened. 

On 17th September, Adbusters, a self-styled ‘global network of culture jammers’, issued a call for people to march through Lower Manhattan to ‘Occupy Wall Street’. Over 5,000 people responded. The anthropology scholar David Graebner, (who is credited with the totemic ‘We Are The 99%’ slogan) urged the protestors to set up long-term encampments. To the obvious frustration of press and TV, the emerging Occupy movement refused to conform to common stereotypes of organised rebellion – it had no leaders, no articulated ‘demands’. In essence, it sought to model participatory democracy in miniature on each site. The speed of the global spread of the movement took almost all of the media outlets by surprise. By December 2011, 2,720 ‘occupations’ were taking place in cities in over 20 countries. 

In the spring of 2011, the global financial crisis was triggering contagion among Eurozone countries: first Greece, then Spain, then Italy and Portugal. Young Spaniards took to the streets as youth unemployment climbed throughout the summer to almost 60 percent. Over six million people – young and old – took part in marches and encampments. As their economy faced meltdown, Greece witnessed sporadic civil unrest. However, when a series of austerity measures were announced in the summer and autumn of 2011, the protesters intensified their demonstrations and protests and coordinated their actions with the Occupy gatherings that were being held globally.

Things Fall Apart

It seemed like the whole world was angry. But to see the protests in North Africa, Europe and the United States as a series of disconnected events, would, in my view, be a mistake. For one thing, we’ve seen this movie before.

In mid-19th century France, King Louis Phillipe attempted to reinforce his increasingly shaky grip on power by enforcing an already-established ban on public assemblies. Political activists, however, found an ingenious way around this. Dubbed the ‘Campagne des Banquets’ (the banquet campaign) a series of meetings circumvented the 1835 law which banned public assemblies, by describing them as private banquets. It’s perhaps only the French who would combine political agitation with fine dining, but its effect was profound. No doubt fuelled by some tasty wines, it’s believed that the ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ motto was coined at one such banquet.

Their popularity quickly grew and pretty soon every province in France was staging banquet campaigns. The King felt decidedly uneasy about these social (though notionally private) gatherings and banned a large one planned for 22nd February 1848. In hindsight, this was not one of his better decisions. The resulting riot triggered the start of the 1848 revolution and the end of his reign in France. Passing the decidedly hot potato of kingship to his nine-year-old grandson, Phillipe, Louis Phillipe caught the next cab to London calling himself ‘Mr Smith’  (I’m not making this up) where he lived out the rest of his days. Back in Paris, the ‘Second Republic’ was proclaimed.

Throughout 1848, rebellions and revolts took place in Italy, Switzerland, Hungary, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Belgium, and even Brazil. It was every bit as dramatic as the domino-effect witnessed in the Arab Spring of 2011, even if all of the uprisings were subsequently quashed. However, these popular rebellions eventually resulted, in most countries, in either constitutional reform or, in the case of France and Russia, in full-blown, bloody revolution.

Like the global discontent seen in 2011, the mass demonstrations of 1848 appeared to have no through-line, no linking narrative; but look a little closer, and some striking similarities appear.

First, many of the participants in the uprisings of 1848 and 2011 shared a common demographic: a young middle-class, hell-bent on political reform, allied to a young (non) working-class, hell-bent on a better quality of life. The people on the streets in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria were predominantly young, middle-class and well-educated, but they were soon joined by the poor, unemployed and uneducated. Similarly, the Occupy Wall Street protestors – two-thirds of whom were below the age of 35 – were a combination of employed graduates and the unemployed and/or homeless. This union, between the well-educated middle-class and the oppressed poor, was also a common feature of the 1848 rebellions

Second, the coalition of intellectuals and unemployed fuelled ambitions not just for a rebalancing of wealth, but for wholesale systemic change. Though rebellions in both centuries had specific political demands, they were primarily about the emergence of a broader set of philosophies; it’s no coincidence that Karl Marx published the Communist Manifesto in 1848. 

Third, the ideas behind these new social and political movements were able to propagate through the rise of disruptive, facilitative technologies. The mid-19th century saw the arrival of the popular press – European daily newspapers, like Le Figaro (France), Corriere Della Sera (Italy), Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Germany), were founded at this time. The growing numbers of literate middle-class Europeans were therefore able to learn about the protests with unprecedented speed. 

In 2011, the disruptive technologies were digital, with social media and citizen journalism at the forefront, flat-footing both mainstream media and the police with their speed and agility. Before Mayor Bloomberg ordered the eviction of Occupy protestors from New York’s Zuccotti Park, he cleared out the journalists, attempting to impose a media blackout. But I was one of 700,000 viewers who watched the evictions live, thanks to Tim Pool reporting on Ustream, using nothing more than a smartphone. Rioters in London were able to out-manoeuvre police riot squads by using Blackberry’s private messaging system and the use of Twitter and YouTube in publicising the Arab uprisings is well-documented: the most popular Twitter hashtag of 2011 was #egypt.

So, having witnessed the confluence of factors in the late 19th century – a common demographic, a set of higher goals, the advent of powerful information technologies, and a reanimated counter culture – we should not have been too surprised by the events of 2011. 

Eating Our Lunch

A sense of indignity was, and continues to be, felt by young people from Tottenham to Tunisia, from San Francisco to Santander. They did as they were told, worked hard, got a degree and yet, through no fault of their own, now have little chance of reaching the level of prosperity their parents enjoyed. 

While the young feel anger at the loss of their future, the rest of us feel frustration. The after-shock of the global financial crisis is compounded by the dawning realisation that globalisation isn’t simply an economic theory. It has costs and human consequences – and there seems to be nothing we can do about it. Government actions are outmuscled by multi-national corporate strategies.

When President Obama asked to meet with Steve Jobs, the late Apple boss, his first question was ‘how much would it cost to make the iPhone in the United States, instead of overseas?’ Jobs was characteristically blunt, asserting that ‘those jobs are never coming back’. In point of fact, it’s been estimated that making iPhones exclusively in the US would add around $65 to the cost of each phone – not an unaffordable cost, or an unthinkable drop in margin for Apple, if it meant bringing jobs back home. 

But American workers aren’t going to be making iPhones anytime soon, because of the need for speed, and scale, in getting the product on to shelves around the world. When Apple assessed the global demand for the iPhone it estimated that it would need almost 9,000 engineers overseeing the production process to meet demand. Their analysts reported that it would take nine months to recruit that many engineers in the US – in China, it took 15 days. It’s these kind of tales that cause US conservative media outlets to graphically describe Asia as ‘eating the lunch’ off the tables of patriotic, if sleep-walking, American citizens.

If Apple had chosen to go to India, instead of China, the costs may have been slightly higher, but the supply of suitably qualified engineers would have been just as plentiful. While China may be the world’s biggest manufacturing plant, India is set to lead the way in the industry that poses the biggest threat to western middle-class parents seeking to put their sons or daughters through college: knowledge.

The Myth of the Knowledge Economy

Ah yes, knowledge. Acquiring and applying knowledge in order to remain economically competitive is, of course, the whole point of the learning revolution. Yet here again, we’ve been wrong-footed. Part of the reason for the state we’re in is our failure to anticipate that, while the social value of knowledge would soar (as we’ll see in the chapters that follow), its economic value would plummet.

During the 1990s a phalanx of futurologists told us that the ‘knowledge economy’ would follow the industrial economy, and we were set to clean up, because: a) we had the best universities in the world, and b) we spoke English, the universal language of knowledge. The rationale was that, in the future, knowledge would be at a premium, and could only increase in value. This was the doctrine that persuaded Tony Blair, the newly-elected UK Prime Minister, in 1997, to famously state his three priorities as ‘education, education and education’. 

The blind faith in knowledge, however, turned out to be misplaced. Thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, and the rapid scaling up of tertiary education in countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China (the so-called BRIC economies) the futurologists couldn’t have been more wrong. 

The first decade of the 21st century saw the balance of power in the knowledge economy decisively swing, from the West to the East, partly due to the eternal laws of supply and demand. Having a market flooded with BRIC graduates means that the price of knowledge has gone down, not up. These days, there is simply no point in paying $15,000 for a basic website (yes, that’s really what they used to cost). Far better to either pay $500 for an Indian IT graduate to do it for you, or if you’re prepared to teach yourself some basic web skills, get one of the free sites available online.

We all enjoy getting information at low, or no cost, but this simple illustration highlights one of the most turbulent social problems the West faces: the misalignment of professional skills to market conditions. If you are a middle-class parent reading this, consider the following statistic: of the UK graduates who left university in 2007, 28 percent of them were without a full-time job three years later.1 Clearly, some of the increase can be attributed to rising unemployment, and, in particular, youth unemployment, as a result of the sluggish UK economy. But, it seems as though the old axiom that ‘learning is earning’ – that, over the course of their working lives, graduates will always earn more money than non-graduates – may no longer be the case, especially given the rising costs of attending university.

Academics James Paul Gee and David Williamson Shaffer have warned against the dangers of assuming that the jobs that are disappearing in the US are simply call centres or blue-collar work:

It is a mistake – a potentially disastrous mistake – to think of job loss in America as only about the old manufacturing jobs. Many of those are gone already, and the assembly lines that are left are high tech, anyway. Now the scientific, medical, technological, and engineering jobs are starting to go too.”2 

The End of ‘The Job’

Gee and Shaffer highlight the difference between ‘commodity jobs’ – standardised, replicable and sold at a reasonable price – and ‘innovation jobs’, which require specialised, unique skills. Because it’s a relatively simple task to train workers doing commodity jobs, they can be sourced anywhere in the world. Gee and Shaffer argue that the US education system is still preparing students for commodity jobs, and thus facing overwhelming competition from developing countries, when it should be educating and training for ‘innovation jobs’, which are less easily outsourced.

In fact, ‘jobs’ is something of a misnomer: in the future, we are more likely to be talking about ‘tasks’ or contracts. Phillip Brown’s book, The Global Auction, shows how companies can now slash costs by disaggregating what used to be a full-time job into a series of tasks, that can then be commissioned via a global ‘reverse auction’. Banish any idea of eBay-style rising bids here – in these auctions, the lowest price for the job usually wins. The stark reality is that the middle-classes of the developed world are now in a ‘high skills/low income’ environment, and the prospects for graduates entering the knowledge economy are going to be tough for a long time to come.

If all this comes as news to you, then don’t beat yourself up over it. I see no evidence of our schools, universities or indeed politicians talking about this unsettling future, this radical transformation of the labour market. In mainstream media broadcasts we only hear about Chinese and Indian workers stealing our lunch, triggering wide-scale job losses when the point surely is about the loss of ‘the job’. The social forecaster, Paul Saffo, asserts that ‘figuring out what will replace the job is the greatest challenge of the next 30 years’.

We’ve been hearing for a long time about how the future will require us all to have ‘portfolio careers’. Our kids are less likely to be applying for jobs and more likely to be bidding for contracts. I speak from personal experience, here. At the time of writing, both my sons are in their mid-twenties, and both bid for IT-related contracts on a variety of auction sites. In order to try to understand how much the labour market was changing, I visited one of the sites they are registered with. I’d strongly recommend that you do too, because here’s where you’ll find the future, except it’s happening now.

Shopping for Skills is perhaps the longest-established of many sites which specialise in ‘Knowledge Process Outsourcing’ (KPO). With over 1.3 million contractors registered by 2012, it had brokered almost half a billion dollars in contracts, taking a cut of between seven and eight percent. It posts well over 50,000 ‘jobs’ a month and in a 2011 poll, 36 percent of contractors using Elance said it was their sole source of income. Every step of the process, from recruitment, to selection, to managing the contractor, and then paying them, is handled through the site. 

The range of professional services being brokered is impressive – programmers, designers, researchers, marketers, engineers, managers, lawyers, journalists – and becoming more diverse by the month. But the power of such sites, and the foreteller of what lies ahead, is in the section that allows you to see the Dutch auction in progress. US contractors, pitching for legal work, will quote around $125 per hour; Indian contractors, just as well qualified as their American equivalents, are asking for $15 per hour. So, all things being equal, whose bid are you likely to accept?   

The numbers are mind-blowing. In 2012, knowledge process outsourcing was set to contribute over 15 billion US dollars to the Indian economy, fuelled by an almost endless supply of highly-qualified graduates, willing to work for a fraction of the wages of contractors in the West. The ‘high skills/low income’ economy very much depends upon where you’re sitting.

Whether it’s Apple outsourcing technical and manufacturing jobs to China, or hundreds of thousands of small western enterprises managing contractors in India, these new employment structures are shaking up the knowledge economy. We’re building flexible, virtual project delivery teams, made up of graduates working in several countries, linked only by a broadband connection and a desire to keep their reputation rating high and our costs low. KPO is one of the key reasons why highly-effective corporations are turning bigger profits with fewer full-time staff. Our politicians, meanwhile, are either afraid to alert middle-class parents to the growing crisis, or they’re simply not getting it. 

Let me sound a note of caution in this bleak scenario. I am not saying we face a future without recognisable jobs. It’s difficult, for example, to see how service economy jobs can be broken down and shipped out to the lowest bidder. No one is going to outsource the driving of a London bus to Elance – yet. Indeed, the kind of skilled jobs that countries like the UK and Australia once looked to migrant workers to fill – carpenters, electricians, plumbers and the like – are now likely to be sought after by unemployed white-collar professionals. Elance, and other skills auction sites, however, represent only the vanguard of a hugely disruptive movement, a process known as ‘disintermediation’. 

In almost every form of transaction we make, social and cultural as well as financial, we’re removing the ‘middle-men’ who historically have connected producer to customers, experts to novices. It’s probably more accurate, in fact, to call this process ‘digital mediation’ because in most cases, we’re replacing human intermediaries with almost zero-cost, user-generated, online connectors. Think TripAdvisor and LinkedIn, rather than your local travel or employment agencies. Because it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, we’re uncertain where it will take us, but it’s already clear that business will never be the same again. If we already have surgeons halfway around the world remotely steering robots in hospital operations, then how long will it be before we are using Dutch auctions for a range of jobs previously thought to be ‘indigenous’?

The End of Growth

So far, I’ve argued that we need to radically re-think how we learn and innovate at work, as well as reshape our education systems, in response to the seismic societal shifts now upon us. The new landscape demands that we unlearn our view of knowledge, traditional employment structures and any expectation of economic privilege.

The difficult but unavoidable truth is that we are in the midst of a global economic rebalancing, which will take decades to sort itself out. In the meantime, our sons and daughters are stepping into a debt-laden, terrifyingly competitive future. Can it get any worse? Potentially, yes, but how we view the future depends on whether we can teach ourselves to think differently. Let me explain.

There is a growing body of people who argue that all of the above means we’ve reached a watershed. Instead of planning for the return of economic growth they are predicting the end of growth; that we are entering a ‘post-growth’ world and we should welcome it. Before I introduce you to one of their most articulate spokespersons, let me just allay any fears you may have that their model suggests a dystopian future straight out of the film, ‘Blade Runner’. Their projection of life in 2050, if (and it’s a whopping big if) we have the courage and social responsibility to think anew, is actually quite heart-warming. Their view of the future means we’ll return to localised, community-determined decision-making based on shared interests and the common good.

To better understand a possible post-growth future, I met with Donnie Maclurcan, one of a team of seven people that make up the Post Growth Institute. Donnie lives on the Hawkesbury River, just north of Sydney and, despite only being in his early thirties, has already packed a lot into his life. In another life, he might have been a hedge fund trader. At the age of eight he was an art dealer, selling his brother’s art works. By the time he was 10, he’d set up his first enterprise – an ironing business, charging 15 cents a shirt. He started trading shares when he was 12, and it seemed his future as an entrepreneur was already mapped out. 

But Donnie also had a passion for sports and community service. He trained as an exercise physiologist and spent time working with Sydney’s homeless. In 2002, at the age of 19, he became ‘that bloke who ran across Australia’. Raising money for a sight-restoration charity, Donnie ran almost 4,000 kilometres, from Perth to Sydney. Averaging over 60 kilometres a day, and, running through some of the hottest, uncompromising landscapes in Australia, Donnie arrived at the Sydney Opera House 66 days after leaving Perth Bell Tower. A remarkable achievement, is it not? 

That’s not the half of it. Donnie broke his ankle on the fifth day of the run.

If you’re thinking ‘type A’ personality, you’re not wrong. He subsequently completed his doctorate and has written two books on his specialism, nanotechnology and its potential for international development. His epiphany, however, came when he was working with the homeless and hearing tales from bright, successful people whose lives had gone catastrophically wrong through no fault of their own, merely because of fluctuating economic circumstances. It gathered urgency when rooting through ‘throw out’ items Sydneysiders leave on the streets for collection, he found fourteen US dollars in coins. How disposable had our society become, he wondered, if we now throw money away?

So Donnie set up a social enterprise to support new not-for-profit companies in Australia. It’s work that he passionately believes in and he is convinced we are heading towards a not-for-profit future. Citing a recent report by Deloitte,3 which shows a steady 75 percent overall decline in corporate performance since 1965, Maclurcan argues the relentless pressure on profits will prove unsustainable:

“The for-profits will collapse because shareholders are demanding profit. Whereas, the not-for-profit model has desirability, sustainability, feasibility and inevitability on its side. This is an emerging international trend. My hypothesis is that 'for-profits' will become uneconomic over the next 40 to 50 years. Wouldn't it be nice to shift to a not-for-profit economy where purpose drives our primary outcomes, in terms of business?”

Organisations like the Post Growth Institute challenge us to redefine what we mean by prosperity. They argue that we should aim for, not avert, low growth. They advocate ditching our addiction to profit, by managing our assets – human, ecological, financial and communal – more responsibly. And this, according to Donnie Maclurcan, also applies to how we learn:

“We'll need to see a bigger emphasis on asset-based economics that asks 'what do we already have?'. Just about all our approaches to formal education, across all subjects, promote a narrow way of thinking that reinforces our dominant economic paradigm. We need asset-based approaches to education – what do you already know, what have you got to share, what can we build on?”

Donnie’s hypothesis may seem far-fetched, even idealistic. But we need look no further than the phenomenal growth of the ‘sharing economy’ to see that our innate desire to share what we know is being matched by the popular will to share what we own. Companies like Airbnb (let out a room in your house), Google-backed RelayRides (peer-to-peer car lending), Lending Club (peer-to-peer loans service) and Streetbank (share your under-used tools and skills) could either be seen as confirmation of an age of austerity, or an altruistic and ingenious way around it. One person’s apocalypse is another’s Aquarius.

Cheer Up, It Might Never Happen

I’ve presented a broad-ranging picture of some of the economic, social, environmental and political turbulence which has shaped our most recent past, and will dominate our immediate future. It’s important to set the context for what comes next in this book, and not just because the complex challenges we face will need to be addressed by those who are likely to suffer the consequences most sharply: the current under 25s. 

The importance also lies in the inter-connectivity: social movements in the Middle East trigger concerns about our reliance on non-renewable energies; successful pitches by IT engineers in India provoke angst among middle-class parents in Hertfordshire; a butterfly flaps its wings in Manila, and a university professor rewrites her lecture in Texas. 

We face a complex set of possible futures and no one can authoritatively predict how things will look in ten years, let alone by the end of the century. We know only two things for certain. The first is that we should learn to embrace uncertainty, because this age of uncertainty could become permanent. The second is that if all the old certainties are gone, then we have to be open to radical shifts in how we work, live and learn. That’s why going ‘open’ is unavoidable.

With all the preceding ‘end ofs’ it might appear that we’re also approaching the end of optimism. I don’t believe this to be the case. As Ian Dury sang, we have reasons to be cheerful, one, two, three.

The first is the political and civic re-engagement of young people around the world. It may be troubling for authoritarian governments and disturbing for sectors of the corporate world, but the combined energy and ingenuity we witnessed through social activism in 2011 is heartening for the rest of us. It suggests that the global challenges we face will be met by people who care, who are smart, and who know how to organise themselves. 2011 also marked the point where many of these groups stopped being intimidated by their masters and began to appreciate the power of reciprocal learning and collaborative action.

The second is that we are at the start of a number of other transformations – all of which share the principles of ‘open’. As my friend and colleague Mark Stevenson observed in his book, ‘An Optimist’s Tour of the Future’,4 it’s not always easy to appreciate the significance of the current scientific leaps of progress in nanotechnology, robotics, biotechnology, solar power, bacteriology or agriculture. These developments are nascent, feel like pure science fiction, but could possibly lead us to an age of abundance, and cheerfully confound the prophets of doom.

The third reason is not only the subject of the rest of this book, it’s the energy that fuels the rapid progress we can make from here. The opening of learning is transforming every aspect of our lives. It offers the promise of a more equal distribution of wealth, opportunity and power. It can close the gap between rich and poor, sick and healthy, strong and weak, and it accelerates the speed at which we solve intractable problems. 

We’ve never freed-up, shared, and trusted ourselves with knowledge like this before, so we are still coming to terms with it. How do we ensure that its applications can improve our lives, while protecting ourselves from abuses of trust? How do our minds cope with the torrent of information coming at us from every angle, every day? How do we convert so much knowledge into socially productive wisdom? What can we do to close the gap between those who have access to open learning, and those who (still) do not? 

The genuine democratisation of knowing is still being fought over. While it’s deeply disturbing to some with commercial and political vested interests, it’s wildly exciting to social and civic activists who, in the words of one of the protestors of 2011, ‘have turned off their TVs, and entered into community with each other’.5 Let’s see what it looks like.


This is a web preview of the "Open: How We'll Work, Live and Learn in the Future" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App