Robin Hood Minor Asset Management & Macao
We believed Expo2015 was a lab for the future.
We are economists, we are students, we are professors, we are activists, we are hackers, we are the policy-makers of the future.
We came here because we are (desperately) looking for a vision about the future of WORK.
So, we asked: What kind of vision Expo has about work?
While Expo’s challenge is to create a sustainable future, how Expo 2015 is actually working, NOW?
In Expo there are thousands of workers, thousands of volunteers. They have been employed to build, to maintain and to communicate this mega event.
We have asked the workers about the work they are doing here, about their future, in terms of employability, wages, economies and labor organization.
We have stayed two months inside Expo, everyday, speaking with workers, in every square, on every street, in every space while they were selling hotdogs, setting up microphones, distributing leaflets, drinking coffee, preparing pizzas, checking bags, managing queues, smoking cigarettes, donating rice milk, chocolate, helping the children play, during every hour of the day…
Expo is challenging the economic crisis we are in, Expo mirrors the hopes of our society, Expo is a worldwide meeting: it is an Utopia, and at the same time, it is a Dystopia.
We want to be honest, we want to be serious. That’s why we have asked very serious questions to the expo workers.
Let’s first start with what we’re facing: Those basic jobs? Gateways to the workforce? Many of them will soon be obsolete.
Deliveries, office helpers, crowd controllers... all of these are on the list of the endangered jobs. It might not seem so now, but when you look few years forward, that’s the reality. The new technologies of automation — robots, algorithms and their combinations — are expected to take over about 50% of the jobs we hold [REF: Oxford Study], starting from the most basic ones, then expanding to many jobs one might not expect.
Getting a job is hard enough now. So far, no nation has done much to face this drastic change in the nature of work. It’s a bit like global warming actually: let the catastrophe happen, then make some panicky decisions when you absolutely must deal with it. As we wait, our position gets weaker and weaker.
[GRAPHIC 1 “nei prossimi 10 anni quanti uomini sulla terra"]
This is the first data we would like to give to you today. We asked the workers how many people in 2025, in ten years, are going to be substituted by robots, algorithms and machines. According to the majority of the workers, only half of our current workforce will still be required.
Wow! the workers in Expo seem to be very conscious about our future!
This is very interesting, and very good starting point: we are in the right place to find out what the future of work is going to be like!
So if everyone says that robots are going to work instead of us, what can we do?
This rise of automation has been imagined for a quite a long time [REF: Adams]. The funny thing is, back in time, the automation was presented as a sort of utopia: The world where people don’t have to work, where they’ve been freed from all mechanical tasks, and they can spend their time doing something more human: creative, personal.What’s also funny is that these visions were not necessarily wrong. Perhaps the future could not be as utopian as that, but it’s true that with the rising automation, providing basic things (growing and harvesting food, building buildings, driving transit) is becoming much easier and cheaper to provide.
However when we asked expo workers (with a very direct question) if the work done by robots, the automation of the production, is a good or a evil, the 74% said EVIL!
it is very clear that here in Expo, within the Expo workers, this data is related to an intimate fear. They are totally scared to be substituted by robots!
[GRAPHIC 2 “se fosse vero che nel futuro non ci sarà più bisogno di lavorare..."]
So, what has happened? Why does a vision that was an utopia earlier, looks like a dystopia now? It’s a matter of ownership. The basic problem could be summarized like this: In the near future the whole transit system of a city (taxis, busses, trains, cargo) can all be run by machines.
But if all of that transit is owned by few companies, all the benefits go to them, and the people still have to pay something for all this transit to happen — and they might not have jobs to pay for that (or for their homes, food...), because there are much less jobs.
This issue of robotization is actually already present in Expo. It might not seem so on the surface, but let’s look the worker’s tasks in more detail...
For example, here’s a robot that works for Expo. This robot is programmed to do exactly the same task as many of the volunteers. Or the volunteers are programmed to do the same task as the robots. They repeat same sentences, hour after hour, at the entrance of the Expo.
[REF volunteer photo]
So, we have learned that the workers know they are being replaced by robots. We have learned that they are afraid of such a future.
But if we go even further crossing the data of our research we see that Expo workers are mostly young people under the age of 30. (GRAPH) For the most part have been contracted with temporary contracts. (GRAPH) They do not have a high degree of education. (GRAPH) Among them there are those who earn monthly considerable salaries. These are subjected to a very high pace of work, reaching even 13/14 hours a day. (GRAPH) It seems the typical situation of the economy of a mega event or seasonal work. Working full-immersion for a quite good salary, trying to put away some money. The figure, however, is alarming considering that the average net salaries declared, the number of working days, and how many hours per day, the average hourly wage is very low: just over EUR 4 per hour. (GRAPH)
This scenario speaks about a policy which values more the specialized work (engineers / electricians / bartender ...), which neglects the level of education, for which workers lose more and more power on hourly pay, settling at increasingly lower levels.
This trend conveys the idea of how much regressive are the investments in policies of redistribution of wealth through salary.
If we are facing society not based on work, the question is: How can we be economically sustainable? What would help us? Financial markets, a strong state welfare system, any kind of assets, mutual aid...
If this is the main question, the question of our future, what kind of ideas did the Expo workers have for this future?
From the workers, the answers were unanimous: Whatever the case, they strongly want to base their income on their labor. For them, there is no other way. Labor is their source of identity. They cannot imagine anything else that would replace it.
[ref GRAPHIC 3]
Now the ground starts trembling. We are close to a cliff: at Expo we are far away from any idea on how to face this paradox. Robots are making our work obsolete. We don’t know what we would do, apart from work.
So this is why we asked the workers how they would imagine themselves ten years in the future. For the most part, they see themselves as employed by big corporations.
[ref. GRAPHIC 4]
Secondly, being self-entrepreneurs or freelancers
[ref. GRAPHIC 5]
while totally refusing other forms of labor: farmers, artisans, state employees, shopkeepers, social engagement, start-ups
[ref. GRAPHIC 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11]
We did this research in Expo hoping to find a vision for the future, and it has left us confused.
We have interviewed hundreds of workers, using a bottom-up methodology. The workers in Expo have provided us a concrete laboratory of the future, which Expo claims it’s envisioning.
But what we have been listening starts to be monstrous: it has less and less logic, and appears more and more full of contradictions.
If they have such a high level of trust in labor, why do the workers refuse any kind of work based on agriculture, small scale markets and handicraft?
Why do they refuse the start-up model, which is more connected to a self-organized technological innovation?
And on the other side, why do they rather conceive themselves as freelancers, although this implies (especially in italy) a very high taxation and precariousness?
Why do they prefer so strongly to be employed by corporations if they are scared of being substituted by robots, considering that corporations are the main drives of this kind of change — a change they seem to be expecting?
To put this in a concrete case: you probably know about Uber, the app-based taxi company. Currently the media is heatedly discussing the precarious nature of work that Uber provides: The drivers get low payments, no insurances, they use their own cars and all the other equipment they require. It’s work at your own risk.
This is certainly problematic, and does highlight the worsening conditions of workers. But that’s actually not Uber’s plan. Not at all.
The real plan is long-term: Uber is now just expanding, and making itself part of people’s daily lives. Beside taxis, Uber is already planning mass transit and delivery services, with a similar model. Then, when the automatic cars mature, the whole Uber will automate their services. From that point, they’re not reliant of human drivers, and can offer their drives much cheaper.
Also, all their human drivers just became unnecessary. Since they’re not even a part of the company, they’re easy to remove. Then, we’ll have a transit system, owned by a company, with very few employees, providing transit services all over the world.
Because of this, you could of course boycott Uber. But even if you manage to beat them out, other companies are likely take their place: Lyft, Apple, Google…
In sum, we can expect a future where fewer companies own a large part of society’s infrastructure, we being their users.
In the light of this, we asked the workers if it’s right that in the world there is more and more power and wealth in the hands of few organizations, and 94% of them have answered NO.
[ref GRAPHIC 12]
and when we asked who is the main responsible of this?
they answered the government
[ref GRAPHIC 13]
Perhaps they blame the government because of issues of corruption. But what about the responsibility in the future: Do we really think the government will have the power over the international companies, given how rooted they are in our daily lives?
Think about, for example, if a government would try to ban or tax the robots.
Well, they could try, but given that nations, and their governments, have much less power than might seem from the outset, this would be hard to accomplish.
Think about it: If one nation bans the robots, or puts a tax on them, the companies will just move to a country that doesn’t. And some countries definitely won’t, since they gain more money from getting the companies into their country.
The only way to accomplish this would be on an international level... which currently doesn’t have any real democratic decision-making institutions (UN doesn’t count, it has very little power, and not that much democracy, either).
The pattern of moving companies is actually behind much of the marketization of states in general. In addition to the lobbying. And corruption. And... let’s just put it shortly: money. Money is something that corporations have to push their agendas through politics. They’re also getting better at it, collaborating between corporations to push mutual agendas, developing long-term tactics. The features of TTIP, TPP etc. international agreements are a just a first sign of rising corporate power.
If the power of the state is weakening, how do people see its role towards the future?
For the Expo-workers it seems to be a sort of a refuge: when everything will be worse, they are looking towards the state as protection from everything that threatens their livelihood.
The idea of basic income, for example, is preferrable to them. But not as a new way to rethink the social organization beyond work, only as safety net.
But look at this graphic:
[ref. GRAPHIC 15]
And with this graphic, our image of the future simply implodes.
We asked the workers which factors will make us work less and provide a better life: the state turns to be our future hero! The value of technological innovation is close to zero! [Point some of the details to the audience]
In this stormy future, the workers have hope of employment from big corporations, accompanied by a hope for protection from the state, and new technologies are not deemed to be helpful at all!
But if this is the vision emerging from the Expo Lab, from the workers that for six months have walked up and down the decumano everyday, working in the hundreds of pavilions, in the clusters, stands and kiosks, what could we think? What’s the added value of the expo vision as a lab? What is Expo’s strategy against the crisis that everyone seems to be expecting?
With automation, we have managed to take something that seemed beneficial before, and to make it into a dystopia that’s moving all ownership of society in few hands.
This development is probably also hard to change — but it might be more worthwhile to fight it. Maybe such a fight would benefit from how idiotic this dystopic world vision seems. Giving one person a massive ownership does not seem to create much benefit, even for their well-being [REF]. If that comes with a cost of pushing millions of people out of society, rather than giving them a possibility to collaborate in it — well, that’s just plain idiotic.
To put it bluntly: you’re currently on a train that is heading towards Stupid, the City of the Future. Some people want to go full steam ahead. Others want to stop, or reverse the train. Neither probably works — you should be going elsewhere.
Given that we are concerned with the future, we cannot leave things like this.
We want to give something back to the workers for their sincere and thoughtful answers. If Expo has no vision for the future of work, perhaps we can provide something. Not a full path to a glorious goal, but a least a step forward.
If Expo, with all the money poured into it, could not build a future of work, somebody has to start this construction — especially in Italy. So as a first step, we will create "A Survival Manual for the Future of Work". It aims to do what it says. Help the people stepping into the job market to survive. Perhaps it also helps Italy. And given the paradox, instead of a future, we found here envisioned, it certainly needs help.