Work puts agency back in our hands, giving us the choice to determine our future. In determining our future we will get the right answers to cool down our overheated planet
We are already in an age where some people have a job, some have work and a lucky few have both. ‘Job’ and ‘work’ are used interchangeably. Within a fast changing urban context, however, there is a fundamental distinction between the two. A job is a product of a classical urbanism whose end state is a city. It’s a city that’s always powered by a large scale urban economy, both formal and informal. It’s a scale that can only be achieved, maintained and ordered exclusively through a complex set of top-down and centralised policy processes that create employment. It’s a set of processes that are increasingly intersected and driven by market forces transforming once organic notions of space and place into material manifestations that range from central business districts and large factory complexes to shopping arcades, malls and entertainment centres. In essence, a job is a concrete representation of an asymmetrical power equation created and maintained by a system.
This equation is codified through a spectrum of social, political and economic contracts where the downside risks of the relationship are almost exclusively individualised. The same contract, however, ensures that the upside equity is distributed in a progressively unequal manner with a substantial chunk going to owners of the productive assets and capital rather than the creators of real value. A worker in a car factory on a temporary contract and his relationship with the various arms of an overarching system, from the government tax administration to the company’s human resources department, is a good illustration. Depending on ideological orientation, one can with equal justification call it either market-based competitive economy or exploitative capitalism that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. In either case, these sets of processes are defined and referred to as urbanisation.
Work is the new disruptor
Work subverts this power equation by bringing to the fore choice, agency, location and locality in a practical manner. It does so by relocating itself to the margins of the system, while maintaining its networks with it. In doing so it creates a new value proposition for itself where many of the systemic impulses of order and control that substantially define the value of a job, say the presence of an employee in office between 9 am and 5 pm, are actually seen as degraders of the overall value. In being so, work, unlike a job, translates into a real functional autonomy for an individual. In being so, work also redefines scale both conceptually and practically by leveraging technology in unique ways and bringing in the power of distributed and aggregated models of transactions and growth. This relative autonomy allows that person to selectively couple and decouple from the overarching urban economy architected by classical urbanism. In essence, work is the closest concrete representation of an ideal professional with skills hawking his or her wares to a market place.
This scenario of an independent workforce with a relative autonomy to negotiate with the larger economic system is an emerging reality. Yet it’s a reality emerging only in patches. But it’s also a reality that needs to expand and spread out its roots quicker for an urban future that needs to be sustainable and resilient in equal measure. This scenario has been given many names – gig economy, sharing economy and uberisation. It has one common element. A technology enabled platform, a marketplace if you may, that puts buyers and sellers face-to-face with each other to complete transactions then and there.
This scenario also does away with many of the overheads that a large scale urban economy requires: from offices in central business districts, complex administrative teams to old style warehousing and logistics and the associated movers and shakers skilled in the art of negotiating with navigating through the labyrinth maze of multiple systems.
Yet, we also know that all work is not the same and that all workers do not coagulate and aggregate into a workforce. For every single Uber driver who has worked with a platform to acquire a better quality of life by achieving a relative autonomy from the system, there are multitudes of construction workers who work every day in precarious and exploitative conditions without any hope for a better quality of life. The fundamental difference between the two kinds of work is the presence of a networked platform, a flexible aggregation-based business model and a practical collective power in one and its complete absence in another. The challenges of the urban future in the final analysis will always come down to questions of sustainability and resilience. Both are extremely tough questions whose answers, by default, will land us in a place where we, as a collective, would be required to abandon old ways of working and move towards a more carbon neutral, small, local, self-contained and socially relevant economic arrangements. Sustainability and resilience is also about equitability and accessibility. In short, the concept, notion and the practice of work has to be reimagined, rethought and recast for the future. This is where the potential of quantum urbanism for the future needs to explored in its fullest possible extent. But to get to that point, one needs to understand and characterise the nature of future itself.
Unpacking the urban futures
There are three ways of looking at the future. One is absolute, second is technological and the third is quantum. It’s accurate to say that the future will bear down on us. It will stop for no one and no one can or will stop it. That’s the chronological truth and it is as absolute a truth as any you can get. The most direct and uncomplicated way to understand the literality of time is that the precise moment you are reading this is the present, the moment that just went by the past and the moment that’s going to come in the next sentence is the future. Yet, to consider future exclusively as a function of time is to divest agency, initiative and enterprise from generations of humankind; an unseen but a continuously felt restless spirit that impinges everything we consider as civilisation and progress. It also puts time as the sole agent, a conceptualisation that’s more in line with otherworldliness and spirituality.
It’s also reasonably accurate to say that digital technology is going to play an increasingly dominant and all-encompassing role in determining our future. It’s already intersecting almost every aspect of our life and it wouldn’t be amiss to pointedly refer to the age of technocentrism that all of us have entered or are entering. Digital technology will become ubiquitous, wearable and implantable and decisively determine access to public goods, public spaces and civic utilities. In short, digital technology will enter the realm of daily life – the world of social contracts, political negotiations and cultural productions – deeply informing the narrative, discourse and the politics of inclusion and exclusion. It’s also reasonably accurate to say that this irreversible technological infusion into our daily lives is permanent.
Yet, to conceive of the future as a technological utopia is to invest bits, bytes, codes and artificial intelligence with a near divinity that’s unquestioned and uncontrolled. In positioning technology as a solution to deep rooted human problems, the realm of the social is marginalised. It creates an exclusionary form of technoelitism that ends up defining urbanisms and urban spaces of the future as a ‘Smart City’, where technology is expected to unknot the complications arising from power asymmetries, governance deficits and exploitative social relationships. This technological utopia more or less imagines an end state where technology is autonomous, change is constant and governance is technocratic and elite.
The quantum future: Humanising space & place for a cooler earth
Quantum urbanism is not just a distinct intellectual pathway to future urbanisms. It’s also a pragmatic blueprint to rethink our outmoded and insufficient answers to timeless questions of daily urban life. These questions range from access to food, work and shelter to complicated issues of mobility, access to clean energy and an ecological way of life and living. But to squeeze out every ounce of its intellectual potential and convert it into a way of life requires us to identify and contextualise the future in the urbanisms here. The future is relative to the extent of being humanistic. In short, the notions and the manifestations of future and urban are products of a collective human consciousness and enterprise. Quantum urbanism is a new approach to unpack this uniquely human endeavour to continually produce and reproduce space as a set of social relationships of power and transactions. The newness of the approach comes from two founts.
The first fount is the extremely malleable conceptual scaffolding courtesy the alternative language, grammar and idiom provided by quantum urbanism that liberally derives its first principles from quantum physics. For the first time in the chequered and completely isolated histories of pure sciences and social sciences, there is an overarching intellectual framework that not only accommodates different disciplines from both streams, but actually thrives from its immensely chaotic diversity. This framework fundamentally breaks down counterproductive disciplinary boundaries that have prevented, for purely territorial reasons, an integrated intellectual enquiry into the increasingly complex and complicated questions about urban life and living. The paradigmatic nature of this shift can best be explained by an analogy. The extent of the change is similar to the transformation that took place with the introduction of steel and cement in the building of homes, houses and commercial structures.
The second fount springs from the deep-rooted interdisciplinarity that allows a theoretical physicist working on fluid flow dynamics to work with a sociologist studying migration patterns into a city and a transport economist working with peak and non-peak traffic demand to evolve solutions that focus on, say, individual mobility for work rather than on transport infrastructure for jobs. This real-time ability is also a concrete pathway to bring in a new set of norms, rules and policies that are hyperlocal in operation and character, while being global in outlook and insight.
Such a set has the potential to fundamentally transform the production and reproduction of urban space, a set of sociopolitical, cultural and economic processes that often replicate the power asymmetries of existing social relationships, into a more equitable and participatory methodology of place making – a communitarian and a conscious approach – where age-old questions of access and equity are answered anew through innovative approaches like spatial justice. Work, food, leisure, energy, mobility, waste, water and governance are in their final manifestations urban spaces and places. They are produced and reproduced through a complex set of institutional policies and administrative rules that are played out at the ground level through numerous social relationships involving formal and informal agents and actors.
The biggest take-away from the transformative potential of quantum urbanism on production of space and place making is for cooling the earth by moving towards an environmentally friendly and less carbon intensive growth ecosystem. This big picture change towards a sustainable and resilient urban future can be practically achieved by creating the right policy and institutional framework that incentivises work over jobs, while simultaneously linking it to a set of disincentives for carbon intensive and energy dense industrial clusters and transport systems. This would also simultaneously require creating appropriate technology enabled platforms for setting up local and hyperlocal distributed models leveraging community resources and expertise.
In a way, then, quantum urbanism plays the same role as quantum physics where fundamental questions remain the same though new answers are brought to the fore by the sheer newness of the framework used to look at the questions. The future requires everyone to participate. For everyone to participate there is a need for an inclusive framework. Quantum urbanism is that framework because it can accommodate all strands -- from story-telling to big data -- that the conventional disciplinary boundaries of human geography, habitat studies and sociology or for that matter physics, mathematics or statistics have traditionally found difficult to accommodate.
The quantum action: Work as space & working as the place
In simple terms space is an aggregation of all social relationships and the attendant power dynamics existing at that point in time and at play at that particular moment. So, when you negotiate hard with a banana seller who comes to the doorstep of your house in an upper middle class neighbourhood to reduce his quoted price for a dozen by 30 percent, the space that’s produced by that particular interaction for the work of the banana seller is a direct reflection of the power dynamics embedded in that social relationship. In short, the combined social and economic capital available to you will always create a space where the relative autonomy for a banana seller to work to his fullest potential will always be constricted.
Again, in simple terms a place is a realm physically architected and materially represented through a conscious design process that reduces or eliminates the power asymmetries of organic urban spaces. So, when the same banana seller becomes part of farmers collective and hawks his produce in a Sunday farmers’ market, a true marketplace embodying within it all the good features of a traditional bazaar, the power asymmetries enjoyed by the upper middle class buyer is substantially reduced through location, locality and a workplace. In short, the combined social and economic capital available to you cannot be leveraged to constrict the work of the banana seller since that ‘work’ is now part of a large collective ‘working’ due to the presence of a platform covered by one overarching umbrella of norms and rules.
That underrated French Marxist philosopher, sociologist, urbanist and theoretician Henri Lefebvre who unpacked the power dynamics of everyday life like no else did or has done till now explained space the best. “Nothing disappears completely,” he said. “In space, what came earlier continues to underpin what follows. Space is not a scientific object removed from ideology or politics. It has always been political and strategic. There is an ideology of space, because space is a social product.” Lefebvre’s definition of space is as quantum one can get. It also subsumes the fundamental first principles of quantum urbanism, which are directly derived from the six principles of quantum physics.
The first principle is that people are individualists and collectivists at the same time, just as particles are waves and waves are particles. The second is that an individual in his ‘moments’ is always in a discrete state and not a fractal state, just as quantum states are always discrete. Lefebvre proposes that an individual reacts to the banality and the humdrum existence of modernity, which we are referring to as classical urbanism and a systematic way of life, by having ‘moments of revelation, emotional clarity and self presence’ that becomes the basis for becoming more self-fulfilled.
The third principle is that even in the simplest of direct urban transactions involving only two people as individuals, only a set of probable outcomes is all we will ever know and predict. The fourth principle is that what you see is determined by how you see it, which in turn determines what happens at that moment. Just as the principle of quantum physics posits that measurement determines reality. The fifth principle is the every social relationship is non-local, just as quantum co-relations are non-local. The sixth principle is that any co-relation that is not explicitly forbidden is mandatory.
Quantum portability: Work & workforce and how it can play out in the future
What are the implications of these principles for work and the creation of an autonomous and empowered workforce in the context of future urbanisms of space and place? Taken together, they point to the emergence of four integrated urban futures. In true quantum spirit, all four futures are in realm of probability and no single future can be characterised without altering or affecting the characteristics of the other.
The first is the portability of work. This is a real shift from current environment of portability of the worker. In short, today a worker shifts to where the work is. This is primarily due to the centralisation of economic activities where the only way to achieve economies of scale is through the setting up of large factories or massive business districts. Technology advancements ranging from digital platforms, virtual and augmented reality to advanced and affordable 3D printing would empower individuals as entrepreneurs, workers and even hobbyists to leverage design and platform thinking in concrete terms without being encumbered by geographical location or the presence of a head office. Portability of work will have knock-on impacts on everything: from mass transport-based pollution, overuse of civic amenities and natural resources to urban governance architecture, urban politics and city management.
The second is portability of time. In short, work is not coupled to time or for that matter time to work. This decoupling of work and time results in more people, those who have traditionally been at the margins of formal economy due to various social, political, economic and gender reasons, joining work. For instance, the opportunity costs and risks for homemakers to create work for themselves or join an existing workforce would be drastically reduced. These people create a peer-to-peer network of different workforces in the process transforming into collectives, producer companies and social businesses. This in turn networks several small and micro-economies that leverage the power of aggregation to create a shared value and a marketplace. Technology, especially in the form of mobile applications, will play an important role in aggregation and in creating the network effect.
The third is portability of marketplaces. Portability of work, workforce and time allows for processes that underpin production of urban spaces and those that power the processes of place making to converge into one singular point creating multiple marketplaces that are neither dependent on physical location or geographical proximity to sources of production. These marketplaces exist and operate as long as work, workers, workforce and time converge in one place. Such marketplaces create value for a specific period, disband and band together again, often as digital platforms and or technology-intersected congregations. The best way to understand such marketplaces is to think of the numerous Sunday farmers’ markets that have started appearing in cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. The interesting thing about these markets is the hybrid online-offline model that many of them employ. In more ways than one, they are the template of the shape of things to come. Such marketplaces, of course, also drastically reduce the power of corporations and higher and complicated forms of capitalism.
The fourth is portability of sustainable value. Such portability will be directly derived from the distributed model of growth that will necessarily require the community to be kept at the centre of all socioeconomic, cultural and political processes. Keeping community at the centre for all activities means that the community owns and manages its resources. In doing so, the community will evolve means and mechanisms of checks and balances that will create a self-repairing and self-balancing system of local sourcing, local production, local distribution resulting in the use of local techniques, technologies and expertise. Anything local will be less carbon intensive and, by default, more sustainable. Anything that is local and sustainable will automatically have higher and more leveraged value in terms of environmental cost, equity and access. In short, work will be friendly to the environment, friendly to people, friendly to local resources and keep the earth from overheating. That’s the power of quantum urbanism to architect a humanistic and a humane urban future.
Next: Feeding yourself in the city of the future: Food as urban sovereignty
Swaminathan is visiting research fellow at Uppsala University Sweden where he is part the project ‘Future Urbanism’. He is also research director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy, Ashoka University.
(The column appears in the September 1-15, 2017 issue of Governance Now)