Making the gig economy work for everyone

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The platform economy can have something for everyone. People needing goods or services get what they want, people who have the time and skills to provide the goods and services get paid, and people who built and invested in the platforms that connect customers with providers get a cut of the action. Win-win-win, right?

Well, sometimes. But if you take a higher altitude look at the growing landscape of algorithmic matchmaking services, you’ll see some troubling aspects. For example, traditional workers can usually converse with human bosses, but on a platform, workers are told what to do by algorithmic “managers” that consider humans to simply be part of a pool of inputs to be allocated in response to changes in network conditions. To make things worse, workers in the gig economy are isolated from one another, making it extremely difficult for them to develop a collective voice to negotiate with platform owners and designers about issues that affect their livelihood.

Without taking action, this lopsided relationship between platform workers and platform owners could get worse, becoming like a high tech version of the day laborers in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, standing at the gates of the Chicago slaughterhouses in hopes of being selected for a shift of low-paid labor.

That’s why Institute for the Future (IFTF) had an open call for interested people to come to its offices in Palo Alto, California on November 30 and December 1, 2016 to participate in a two-day Positive Platforms Design Jam. The event was part of IFTF’s Workable Futures Initiative, established as a call-to-action for “policymakers, platform developers, and civic and labor leaders to blueprint positive platforms for people who work—platforms that not only maximize profits for their owners but also provide dignified and sustainable livelihoods for those who work on them.” About 75 people attended, including technologists, historians, policy experts, software developers, and social inventors. Concurrent satellite design jams, set up by IFTF affiliates, took place in cities around the world.

Read my report on the event over at IFTF’s blog.

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