I wrote the other day about Albert Wenger’s “scarcity to abundance” mantra, where one of his points is that automation may necessitate something like a basic income guarantee. The concept is to decouple work from income, with the counterintuitive result that increased leisure time often leads to better education, time to think, time to tinker and build new innovative products and ideas. Leaving aside the question of a basic income guarantee, we don’t need to debate the critical value of automation and leisure in creating the context for social innovation. This is pretty much the entire point of Hans Rosling’s TED talk on “The Magic Washing Machine.”
All of this returns me to the question of how we value work and how we measure the importance of what we’re working on in a time when automation is on the brink of relieving tens of millions of people from certain types of work. Jobs we consider decent, honorable, and meaningful that will soon be done by machines. Drone ships on the high seas, drone trucks on highways, drone quadcopters delivering packages, etc. The intuitive answer for how to measure the value of work in the corporate environment is to answer “Whatever produces the greatest return to the shareholders.” In the nonprofit world, it’s slightly different: “Whatever produces the greatest return to the stakeholders.”
But if increasing automation collectively delivers millions of new hours of leisure time for young and healthy people, it seems likely that those measurements of the value of work will see redefinition.
I think we’re seeing the first steps toward redefining the value of work in both the corporate and investor spaces. in the corporate space, b-corporations enable companies to codify their mission in both an economic and social sense:
In the United States, a benefit corporation or B-corporation is a type of for-profit corporate entity, legislated in 28 U.S. states, that includes positive impact on society and the environment in addition to profit as its legally defined goals. B corps differ from traditional corporations in purpose, accountability, and transparency, but not in taxation.
Patagonia is an example of a compelling b-corporation whose structure ensures its board has to make decisions that go beyond simply considering the company’s return to shareholders. So b-corps I think represent a super compelling hybrid for companies that might previously have sought to be quieter and less ambitious nonprofit corporations. Then there’s the investor space, where Chronicle of Philanthropy predicts impact investing as one of this year’s trends:
Average investors will soon join the handful of foundations and wealthy individuals pioneering the idea of impact investing: putting money into a business, nonprofit, or government program with an expectation of both social change and financial return. “It’s no longer a question of if it’s going to happen; it’s just a matter of when,” says Jacob Gray, senior director for the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Social Impact Initiative. This year, Wharton will produce what it says will be the first-ever comprehensive analyses of the financial performance of impact investments.
I think these two trends could accelerate change in how we value work. These trends could also help eliminate a lot of the distinction between for-profit ventures and non-profit ventures, especially for non-profits that generate earned income. If you have a compelling mission that’s both socially and economically significant, it seems like there’s finally both the legal and financial context to make it work.
These sorts of companies could help create a more resilient economy, because a job whose value is measured by something more than its economic utility is probably more difficult to automate.