What problem do you want to solve? A challenge for all creatives in 2017
2016 has been full of fun little surprises for us all. As professional marketers that are supposed to be trained to understand customers, we really should have known better. We’re Guardian-reading Netflix subscribers who only pick up a copy of the Daily Mail to see if our ads are in there (unless we work for Lego). We need to wake up, pay attention and think. It’s already too late to save the present – but we need to think about the future.
The first surprise, Brexit, has now been topped by something far more worrying: Trump. Both resulting from populist rhetoric combining xenophobic panic of the right with the reasonable view on the left that the wealth gap has got too big between rich and poor. A classic Orwellian example of doublethink – low taxes for the rich and corporations, putting up trade barriers which put up prices, plus tough immigration are hardly going to help the less well-off have affordable goods and services.
But what’s troubling is looking to the future of ‘work’ and how little thinking is going on about what kind of society we need to move towards over the next two decades. I happened to be at Web Summit in Lisbon when the news of Trump’s shock win came through. This was interesting timing at a conference giving us a glimpse of the future, with fascinating talks on AI, chat bots, self-driving vehicles, robotics, unmanned space exploration. No longer science fiction – all of these technologies are here now and over the next two decades will change our society like never before. Possibly leading to what many are calling the end of work.
Of course we have always created technology to replace work. When was the last time you had to ask a lift operator to take you up? The difference this time is that we are not just looking to replace mechanical repetitive tasks with an efficient machine, we are replacing thinking jobs. AI which can see better and think faster than us is now on the horizon with Facebook, Google, Microsoft and IBM spending billions each per year in a new space race. And this will be a good thing for humanity – cars that can see 90% better than a human will be safer. Long drives with the kids arguing can be turned into quality time used to play Uno. However we can all see how the 10% of jobs in our economy that involve driving will be affected.
Need medical advice? Wouldn't you rather chat with an AI bot which has analysed millions of papers from around the world to give you quantified advice than fight for hours on the phone to get an appointment with a less informed GP? Google’s company DeepMind is hard at work on various trials already within the NHS. The NHS is currently the fifth biggest employer in the world.
Consumers are also hastening change. As marketeers we talk about what Adam Morgan calls ‘Uber’s children’ – the unreasonable customer. The app-enabled customer of today expects excellent goods, at cheap prices, magically delivered today. More pressure automating work.
The most startling talk I saw at Web Summit was a discussion about AI coding more AI, and anything else, at exponentially faster rates than we could dream of. So even pumping out an excellent coder from the school system may only have a career expectancy of a few decades.
This is all great, right, the end of work for all parts of society? Lots of time for leisure? The problem, as anyone that's ever taken a decent career break knows, is that too much leisure is boring and can be depressing. And how do we earn money to buy the things the robot AIs are building us?
So what can we do to ensure a good life for all? The good news is we already know the answer thanks to philosophy boyband members Socrates, Confucius and Buddha; that a good life is a life that has been considered, thought about, and chosen.
Capitalism spat this out as careers advisors asking “What job do you want?”. For the future perhaps we should be asking each our children “What problem do you want to solve?” This way we raise a generation of problem solvers rather than a fresh batch of vulnerable worker bees.
Try it out. Look around this crazy world with children drowning on Europe’s doorstep, ice caps melting, and the rise of populist sociopaths – what gets you passionate? When you look around your community you’ll see plenty of opportunities to volunteer in schools, charities and the arts. Society then needs to value your contribution so that you can buy things.
We could consider new economic model where companies are charged a community fee for every job that is phased out, which is then used to fund these civic roles that are currently undervalued.
Educators and policy makers will also need to reconsider which areas of study are valued. The humanities – history, art, philosophy, literature – are not respected by modern employers but a future society with more leisure time will need these disciplines far more.
Current blue collar problems, created by globalisation, surprised us this year. Future society-wide problems created by automation of all types of work cannot be allowed to sneak up on us - it’s time to think hard about the world we want to create. After all, we are supposed to be creatives.
Mat Braddy is a former chief marketing officer of Just Eat and now the entrepreneur behind Rock Pamper Scissors. He is also The Drum's resident startup agony uncle.