Shapers of the future: curious and unique

04.10.2017
Terhi Hautamäki

No one knows what jobs people will be busy with in the coming decades, yet universities are supposed to educate people for this great unknown. How can this be done?

Jon, a young entrepreneur in the near future, serves as a platform localiser. He adapts global platforms and the content they provide to localised environments, having managed to professionally combine his cultural knowledge with his technological expertise.

Pirkko is a generational trainer, who prepares representatives of different age groups to encounter one another. She provides assistance at workplaces, educational institutions and in service design as well as refines big data on human interaction.

Care sector entrepreneur Enni operates in a cooperative, where she provides services focusing on ecological housing and communal care.

These imaginary examples are presented in the Work 2040 report published by the think-tank Demos Helsinki in January 2017. The report was produced in cooperation with a number of organisations, and it showcases scenarios on the evolution of work – a great unknown, which is the subject of plenty of speculation, but little to no forecasts of any certainty.

Jon, Pirkko and Enni have all found jobs that have not been replaced by automation and robots, and which cannot be easily chopped into gig assignments distributed via various platforms.

Another factor they all probably share is that none of them graduated with a degree aimed specifically for these fields. These jobs and the need for them only emerged after they had entered working life. In all probability, they will have shaped their jobs themselves.

Distinct changes

Aalto University says that it educates game changers. This sounds like an inspiring commitment, but what kinds of changes are the students being prepared for?
“For changes that are distinct to them,” says Professor of International Business, Vice Dean Kristiina Mäkelä.

Mäkelä researches changes in working life and she is convinced that we are living at the beginning of the fourth industrial revolution. The first revolution was initiated by the advent of steam power, and the second by electricity and assembly line work. The birth of knowledge work represents the third revolution, while this fourth wave is driven by digitalisation and globalisation as well as the development of artificial intelligence, robots, virtual reality and new communications technologies.

Algorithms can already design houses and manage investment portfolios. The division of labour between human brains and machines is going to change radically. Fresh problems are likely to occur in the wake of these developments, and they will require new solutions and thus more work.

Speculation about what type of competence will be the most essential in the future is rife these days. Should everyone know how to code? Is big data the thing, or will the social sciences rise to fresh new heights? Mäkelä doesn’t believe that a single recipe for success exists.

“You need to think about who you are and what is right for you,” she says.

The top experts of the future will probably be global citizens who hop from one project to the next across organisational boundaries. Many will operate via platforms, which mediate expert jobs and will be used to create ad hoc teams. The separation of employer versus employee will become mercurial, as the same people will occasionally act as buyers in their networks and as sellers at other times.

“Employment careers will no longer be hierarchical progressions within an organisation, and will look more like portfolios,” Mäkelä says.

Grabbing work from many directions

Thinking up possible job descriptions for the future can be fun, but anything we come up with will likely be laughed at in a few decades. It is easier to predict which jobs will disappear than what might emerge. People have a tendency to overestimate change in the short term, while underestimating long-term developments.

Aalto University alumnus, Demos Helsinki expert Johannes Koponen says there’ll be plenty of work in the future as well. But it is another matter entirely what jobs we get paid for, and how the spoils of development are divided.

“How to turn solutions for climate change or the sustainability gap in public finances into job-creating business?” Koponen asks.

Technology has a tendency to make knowledge more democratic. Illnesses may soon be successfully diagnosed not by a physician with a lengthy education, but by a nurse aided by artificial intelligence. But on the other hand, technological advancements are concentrating economic benefits to the few: a global platform company generates steady revenues for its owners while an army of gig workers competes for a small purse.

One of the imaginary professionals of the Work 2040 report, life-easer Japi, picks up gigs from several platforms and acquires extra income by renting out his communal flat. Could it be that even a highly-educated platform localiser or generational trainer will earn so little that they’ll have to hop on a bike to make deliveries in the evening?  

“It’s possible that people will have to struggle more for work, it will not be presented on a silver platter. Perhaps the ability to find a livelihood will be a skill that should be taught somewhere?” Koponen ponders.

The unique will do best

Drones will revolutionise online shopping home deliveries, but how will they manage orders addressed to multi-storey buildings and the independent operation of lifts? The transport of goods flows is a burning issue for the business sector, and it also features in one real-life corporate case, which a multidisciplinary team tackled at a recent Product Development Project course at the Aalto Design Factory.

Aalto University Student Union board member Katariina Helin was earlier involved in Aalto Design Factory’s communications function. As the board member responsible for education policy, Helin has expended a lot of thought on what would most benefit the students of today. She thinks multidisciplinary problem solving is a good example of what the University is doing to prepare students for the realities of working life.

“It is no longer enough to have one kind of expertise, you need an ability to think critically and form totalities. When a working group consists of students of design, finance and mechanical engineering, each introducing his or her individual viewpoints, the solution produced can look quite different from what might emerge from a group made up of students of a single discipline,” Helin says.

The University can encourage encounters by arranging multidisciplinary courses and Master’s programmes, but Professor Kristiina Mäkelä thinks students would be wise to seek out bolder side study paths at their own initiative as well.

“Future experts will have their own distinct areas of special expertise in addition to at least one or two areas of which they have a sufficient understanding. This will enable them to converse with specialist experts in these fields and provide them with an understanding of their thinking,” says Mäkelä.

Scott Adams, writer and illustrator of the satirical working life comic strip Dilbert, once described the idea of diverse and sufficient competence by noting that he is not the world’s finest illustrator, but he is good enough. Nor is he the funniest joker, but he is pretty funny, and this combined with his business background provided a recipe for success, Mäkelä notes.

Self-management a possible new subject?

Mäkelä likes to call universities platforms, too. The ideal student not only accumulates completed courses, but also uses the university platform for personal fulfilment as well as to acquire the tools and experiences he or she needs. Perhaps take part in the startup accelerator Slush, wield influence in the student union or tackle public sector problems at the Public Service Hackathon – whatever feels right for each individual.

Student Katariina Helin has noticed that one of the most significant things the University enables is a sense of community, both within Aalto as well as amongst alumni and students. The Student Union has a board member with specific responsibility for corporate relations. The University has promoted encounters between alumni and students through, among other things, implementing a mentoring programme.

Helin recommends learning working life skills while still studying.

Self-management – having the ability to readapt according to how the world changes – is important. Other key aspects of managing your own work include the ability to schedule and prioritise jobs as well as to maintain a balanced life, Helin says.

The authors of the Work 2040 report shared similar thoughts. One scenario predicts that self-management and life control will already be taught at different educational levels a decade from now.

A barrel of wishes

But to what extent is education responsible for turning young people into top experts who are also prepared for change?

“It feels like education is being made out to be like a barrel of wishes, and all demands for change target it. I reckon this type of thinking is a bit off,” says Demos Helsinki’s Koponen.

He thinks education does play a central role, but so do companies and legislators. Working life does not undergo upheavals like a force of nature because society is built through conscious choice.

What opportunities for developing competence will there be in the workplace of the future? What terms will employees and employers need to observe on the platforms of tomorrow?
Koponen thinks universities could, at their best, serve by promoting `curiosity-raising socialisation´.

“The task of universities would seem to be leaning more towards supporting talent, improving a curious person’s abilities to acquire knowledge. The potential for curiosity needs to be steered in as many directions as possible.”

Koponen says it would be good if the University’s startup buzz was directed towards more idealistic projects aiming to, for example, solve climate change or bridge the sustainability gap in public finances.

“The University’s task could be to divide big problems into subproblems, which are solvable with the aid of both science and the markets. Silicon Valley is full of startups that aren’t changing any real issues, instead focusing on developing quirky juicers or applications, which enable people to send each other pictures and symbols.”

Game changers can surely do more.

This article is originally published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 20, October 2017. (issuu.com)