The Economics of Happiness and Meaningful Work

Recently, one of the community activist groups in our area hosted a screening of the prize-winning movie, The Economics of Happiness, followed by a Skype interview with Helena Norberg-Hodge, one of the co-directors and founder and director of Local Futures – Economics of Happiness, formerly known as the Institute Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC).

It’s definitely worth seeing, if you haven’t already done so. In addition to information available on the Local Futures website, a YouTube film clip offers a quick overview of the main themes explored in the movie: The Economics of Happiness – Official Trailer.

In her commentary on the Skype call, Ms. Norberg-Hodge emphasized the importance of launching and supporting community-based initiatives that rebuild the local food economy and deliver education for action.

She encouraged attendees to mobilize democratic action and draw upon the power of the electorate to influence politicians to enact, rescind, or amend laws regarding taxes, subsidies, and regulations so that locally-sourced products have an even playing field with their globally-sourced alternatives.

Her rationale suggested that the resulting decentralization of corporate and governmental structures would increase the number of jobs. It would also provide community members with meaningful work based on values and skills resurrected from a nearly lost ancient wisdom inherent in our cultural roots. In many instances this worthy work translated into farming using simple tools and adhering to millennia-old agricultural practices.

While Ms. Norberg-Hodge did not openly discount technological developments, the significance of them as a defining force on the pace and degree with which our civilization continues to advance received short schrift.

The loss of jobs today comes primarily as a result of technology. The machine replaces human labor–period. Our challenge is to figure out what we do with our time as the machine continues to eliminate the need for us to spend it in drudgery. The increased redistribution of power as decentralization takes hold opens the door for a new definition of meaningful work WITH the machine, not against it.

No doubt, localization will give us the opportunity to learn how to invest our time in our personal development, care and support for one another, and adaptive community cultures. That would be a dream worth making a reality. But if the future of localization means becoming reacquainted with a shovel, rake, and hoe for hours on end, that seems more like a nightmare! Better to master the machine for our well-being rather than our destruction.

Originally posted to Sustainable Local Economic Development by Steve Bosserman on Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Getting Close to the Customer

This past month, I had the opportunity to work with people across several units within a client organization and develop a strategic framework to inform their planning for future initiatives and projects. Some of the concepts and ideas we explored were related to topics I have introduced in previous posts here and here. This posting draws upon a couple of the diagrams we developed as a way to open the door to the future a bit further and peek into what’s inside.

In Figure 1 below, technology is plotted against society and economy. The vertical axis represents a trend that continues to influence humanity in all aspects: technology becoming faster, smaller, stronger, more integrated, and more intelligent by the day, hour, second. As technology advances, it displaces people from production – from making things. This was the impetus for the Industrial Age wherein mechanization displaced craftsmanship. It started the Information Age with its emphasis on integration and the globalization of production to those areas where human competency and capacity can be found for the lowest cost. And it will precipitate the Relationship Age wherein a wide range of relationships among people utilizing things is supported rather than being a means through which people are occupied making things and are kept apart from one another. This emphasis on relationships leads to increased localization at a community level.

As indicated in the horizontal axis, society and economy changes as these different ages unfold. The Industrial Age created jobs requiring specific skills. People learned skills / trades at school and entered the workplace where their skills were honed by experience on the job. Job opportunities represented income opportunities. Jobs, like the businesses that defined them, were mobile, starting, ending, expanding or moving from location to location depending on the economic circumstances in one area versus another. Where the jobs went, so did the people as it was relatively simple to relocate. People chased the chance to make things!

The Information Age began to shift the emphasis from physical production to the virtualization of production: distributed resources and capabilities, processes and tools, and real-time communication and networks. While work was still packaged as jobs, the nature of the work was rapidly changing – and still is. Having a defined set of tasks outlined on a job description pasted in a box within the hierarchy of an organization chart is no longer the guideline for the work required. Instead, people are expected to communicate across organizational boundaries, participate in open networks to stay abreast of changes in their work context, and form ad-hoc, multi-disciplinary teams focused on taking timely advantage of various opportunities as they emerge. Rather than being rewarded for doing the job, they are rewarded for adding value through collective effort. Competencies in convening and leading teams, being an effective team member, making meaning out of seemingly disparate pieces, identifying opportunities and advancing them in actionable ways, and fostering alignment across diverse groups to gain greater leverage are critical aspects in a person’s portfolio. This portfolio is marketable and portable; and like job mobility of the Industrial Age, the portfolio of the Information Age is mobile. Just ask the person sitting next to you on the airplane!

The Relationship Age has yet to get underway, although we can see vestiges of it on the periphery. As the virtualization of production continues and technology displaces even more people from the act of making things, the relationships among people becomes virtualized. By taking advantage of the same technologies that are virtualizing production, a person’s portfolio becomes virtualized and the competencies and capabilities contained within it can be delivered to anywhere from anywhere at any time. This changes the whole concept of where a person lives and works. Work becomes localized and community-based even though the delivery of that work may be anywhere in the world. A person begins to consider community affiliations for reasons other than job or work assignment. Commitment to a community can be longer term when the job or work does not cause one to be uprooted. Civic responsibility and being of service to the community takes root. Community infrastructures are strengthened and service endeavors are expanded. The dependence on larger regional and federal support structures dissipates. This is an entirely different model for living and one that has yet to be developed much less institutionalized. What will such changes mean to society, governance, economics, etc.? A “brave new world” unfolding, but what kind of brave new world will it be?

These questions are more rhetorical than answerable, but they do set the stage for a more accessible and pertinent topic – the relationship to the marketplace. The diagram below is a variation on the previous chart. The ever ubiquitous technology remains entrenched on the vertical axis driving the shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Age to the Relationship Age. However, the horizontal axis, society and economy, focuses on the transition from producing things to generating information to delivering service as the three “ages” are experienced.

There is now a point to all this activity: the marketplace. How our relationship to the marketplace changes during the transitions through these “ages” is of particular significance. During the Industrial Age the concept was to produce things and people would buy simply because the goods were available and they had the means to buy them. There was a deliberate distance from the purchaser and the producer. “Make it and they will buy,” was the attitude.

In the Information Age people have more information about products and services and they have more choices. Furthermore, they have the opportunity to switch from a set of individual products performing single functions to one product capable of doing multiple functions. The term used is “convergence.” Also, they can opt for products and services that are tied together into systems more powerful and capable as a whole than the sum of the contributions from each. The term “integration” is used to describe this phenomenon. The combination of convergence and integration changes the relationship to the person buying it. Rather than being viewed as a distant and generalized “consumer” who will buy anything made, the purchaser becomes a customer with highly individualized expectations and means requiring specific “solutions” in order for the sale to be made. The need to “know the customer” becomes paramount in this situation and brings the business closer to the customer.

It also brings people closer together either virtually or physically. Value is determined by how well one can understand the needs of a customer and package a solution that responds to those needs. As the position of the “we are here” circle and “x” on the chart indicates, we are just starting to move into that overlap between industrial age thinking and information age thinking about the customer rather than the consumer. Over the next span of time, the value quotient will increase in size based on a closer relationship with the customer as exemplified by the “we are heading here” point.

Underlying the relationships of people to people and people to solutions is the concept of delivering service. The more we leave making things and shift to utilizing things our value to one another will be in how well we facilitate the integration of things to people in really useful solution packages. To know what people truly need will require knowing how people live and how they aspire to live – that means living in their communities, understanding their circumstances, and being part of their solutions rather than seen as part of their problems. Once again, this is an entirely different model. What does it mean? How would it work? Questions without answers for now, but since human nature abhors a vacuum, we’re working on the answers to fill the void!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Sunday, March 5, 2006