“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” So said the Chinese philosopher Confucius. Back in his day, around 500 B.C., the Iron Age was replacing the Stone Age and the effects of increased productivity began to send ripples across the world. Populations expanded, cities started to grow and it was one of the greatest turning points in civilisation.

And here we are 2500 years late on the cusp of another work revolution. As we transition into a fully integrated, digitally connected world, the words of Confucius still echo loudly down the centuries, although probably in a way that he could never have imagined.

As our world of work is being seismically reshaped by disruptive innovations, radical thinking and previously unthinkable business models, every sector is being impacted. We’re now fully immersed in the knowledge economy, where sector knowledge, technical expertise and creative problem solving are highly valued commodities.

And it’s these shifts in the tectonic plates of what we’ve known as ‘work’ for generations that our smart cities are going to have to accommodate.

Technology is the greatest disruptor of work since the industrial revolution, but people do believe it to be a positive one.

Out of a survey of 10,000 people that PwC took in 2014 [The future of work: A journey to 2022], 64% of people believed that technology would greatly improve their job prospects.

Technology is already leading to the automation of work, allowing many activities previously undertaken by humans to be done by machines and computers. Instantly human error is eradicated, industry can go 24/7 and costs are lowered. As this increases, it’s going to precipitate a huge transition of the work force as current jobs disappear and new jobs emerge to replace them.

The knowledge economy is the backbone of how people are working in a socially different way too, with the rise of co-working spaces. Small businesses, entrepreneurs (more on them later), freelancers, remote workers and contractors are enjoying the co-working spaces (or is that a Hub or a Lab?) that facilitate the high-tech service and small-scale production that’s the new normal of working.

Outside view of people working in a cafe

What we know as work is changing, but crucially it’s in transition, leaving many to wonder what the future has in store in for them before they retire or die, whichever comes first. A website called 80,000 Hours is addressing this problem in tandem with a social responsibility aspect. Estimating that people have about 80,000 hours in their career, they aim to help people make the right career choices and ‘help solve the world’s most pressing problems’ at the same time. Based on five years of research by Oxford academics, it’s a non-profit aimed at talented graduates who are interested in their personal futures but also a wider, global one.

Technology has meant that entrepreneurs can run their businesses from anywhere they want and access their customers anywhere in the world.

And it’s not just millennials who have got the entrepreneurial bug. Bernard Salt, the Australian demographer says, “New technologies are driving entrepreneurialism, giving Aussies the opportunity to reinvent themselves as consultants in their field of expertise or take the plunge by starting that ‘big’ small business idea they had always dreamed of.”

Even so-called traditional workplaces are changing and becoming smarter places to work. Many larger companies (across all sectors, not just the cutting edge tech ones) are changing their work environments, seeing a real or perceived value in providing a stimulating work environment that fosters an interdisciplinary approach. Whole buildings are leveraging technology to become more efficient and sustainable workplaces.

The Edge in Amsterdam is the greenest and most connected office building in the world. Effectively a living innovation lab, it has 30,000 sensors detecting the intensity with which each part of the building is being used so at the end of the day, this data can be visualised in a heat map used by the cleaning staff to focus on areas that have been used most. At BlueChilli, two of our startups are approaching the future of work from different angles. SpaceConnect is using ambient intelligence for real-time space management, while Coworkally is seeking to create a virtual cowork community for remote workers, freelancers and business owners. 

The challenge for our smart cities is to accommodate a variety of workspaces, work modes, business models and industries that we are yet to envisage. AI, augmented reality, virtual reality and big data are the tip of this iceberg. But let’s remember, we are primarily social beings, craving meaningful interaction with each other.

We are not moving apart from one another, simply moving in different ways.

In order for us to endeavour to remain true to the words of Confucius, our technology and our smart cities of tomorrow need to create a sustainable work culture for the future we haven’t yet grasped.

If you have a great idea that will underpin new ways of working – whether in physical work spaces, around job training and retraining, or something radical to improve to the work environment, be sure to apply to CityConnect!