The People Centered Economy, a book by Innovation For Jobs (i4j) founders David Nordfors and Vint Cerf, proposes a challenging idea: that, in economic matters, people should be valued for their talents in providing service to each other.
That may not sound like much. But the authors’ intent is revolutionary.
They make their point by proposing a contrast. The current economic framework organizes work around tasks. Companies establish tasks they want done, and hire people to do them. Or, more accurately, people supplemented by machines. They measure the efficiency of doing the tasks: how long the tasks take to get done and how much it costs to do them. And corporations are always seeking opportunities to increase speed and lower costs, in order to amplify financial measures like return on assets or profit margins. One way to do this, in an automating world, is to get rid of the people and add more machines.
This is a paradigm, the conventional way we think about employment and jobs. And it tends to undervalue people, at least from the perspective of the employer. Fewer jobs are better, lower variable costs are better, and lower burdens of healthcare costs for employees are better. When conditions change, people who have been hired into jobs can be fired or “let go”. We often hear laments that companies have been “forced” to let “good people” go. If they really meant that – if they really valued people – corporate behavior would be different, because the operative value proposition would be different.
It’s also part of the paradigm that people seek jobs. They apply for them, they compete for them, they negotiate terms. They want those jobs. They especially want jobs that are reliable and well-paid, that involve working with people they like, and provide perks like paid health care insurance and paid holidays. When they don’t get, or can’t keep, those jobs, they expect unemployment pay.
Even when they have the jobs, they are not necessarily happy. Gallup conducted the most detailed study ever carried out of how people feel about their paid employment. They found that 13% of people globally (29% in North America) say they are “engaged” in their work – they find it meaningful and look forward to it. 63% (54% in North America) say they are “not engaged”, which might be defined as sleepwalking through the workday. And 24% (18% in North America) are “actively disengaged”: they hate it.
It seems like this whole jobs thing might not be working too well, from whichever angle we examine it.
The newly proposed i4j paradigm tries to find a new angle. What if the creation of value weren’t jobs and tasks? What if the paradigm were people-centered? The economic challenge would be to understand and identify the value that the individual has the potential to create by serving other people, based on their talents, knowledge, personality, disposition, learning habits, and willingness to engage in inter-personal exchange. The technical challenge would be to match the individual to other individuals in collaborative service relationships where the most value could be co-created. These human scale co-creation systems would be interconnected to each other so that they become a massive value network, where each individual receives a stream of rewards for their value production, calibrated by the satisfaction of their value-receiving customers.
In this paradigm, people are valued for their interpersonal service potential and realization. Jobs are replaced by co-creation relationships. People are engaged because they are able to manage their own satisfaction (we are all consumers of valued services) and their own value production (we are all producers of valued services). Every one of us is unique and therefore able to produce a value stream. If we can’t add up or write, we can visualize or sing or be a caregiver. If we can’t write computer code, we can make wine or bake bread or extinguish wildfires or write news articles.
Technology provides us with the twist in the plot. In the existing jobs paradigm, technology is utilized to eliminate people in order to make task completion more efficient. Technology is the enemy of people seeking jobs. In the i4j paradigm, technology is the benevolent force for people-centered value creation. Technological benevolence comes from multiple directions. Technology (A.I. and machine learning) can be employed to identify, in a rich, multi-faceted and analytical fashion, the talents and future value creation potential of every individual. Technology can further augment the value-creation potential of each person, intelligently pointing out the best direction for new learning and skills acquisition, tailored to individual personality and characteristics. And technology can match the augmented individual to the right service activity and the right service recipient so that the network of service values is tuned to its highest possible output.
The vision – the replacement of the labor-profit struggle (more labor means less profit) with the value co-creation collaboration across networks of free mutual exchange that continuously co-elevate the value inputs and outputs of every individual – is grand. As David Nordfors describes it, the result will be a sustainable economy in which we work with people we like, are valued by people we do not know, and provide for the people we love. As with all visions, it will be implemented slowly, two collaborative individuals at a time until the network is realized, with a lot of adjustments and changes – learning, in other words – along the way.
As with any visionary manifesto, there is a lot to argue with. The authors manage to make their eminently capitalist vision – because it is capitalism that will provide the savings and investment to create the technology that makes the vision realizable – sound like socialism, which is the one economic system guaranteed to fail. They flirt with a kind of guaranteed Universal Basic Income, which is inherently contradictory to a system that pivots on the incentives for individuals to find their highest and best use in serving others. The Silicon Valley fascination with UBI will dissipate soon, but right now it’s an unhelpful diversionary concept.
The authors even play games by substituting the language of “the innovation economy” (like “digital economy” for “civilization” and “disruption” for “revolution”) in the Communist Manifesto, to suggest that Marx’s complaints are perfectly applicable to economic conditions in the job market today. Such trivia should be beneath them and, since it is not, they run the risk of not being taken seriously.
But we should take the central idea of The People Centered Economy seriously. We should examine it from an unbiased perspective and consider if it accurately describes “the future of work”. In essence, every individual will be an entrepreneur of their own talents and strengths and willingness to collaborate and serve others. Incentives will be arrayed on the side of giving valuable service. The model will require self-reliance and self-investment to continuously elevate marketable service skills.
The most just and thriving society is the one in which the creative capabilities of its entrepreneurs are most effectively unleashed. The People Centered Economy could well be such a society.