The way we’ll work tomorrow

Will technology destroy or improve your job? Actually, forget ‘job’ and think ‘tasks’

The Future of the Professions, by Daniel and Richard Susskind.
The Future of the Professions, by Daniel and Richard Susskind.

There are two futures for the professions. Both rest on technology. The first is reassuringly familiar – it is a more efficient version of what we have today. Here professionals use technology to streamline and optimise the traditional ways in which they have worked, largely since the middle of the 19th century. 

But the second future is a very different proposition. Here, technology not only streamlines the established approach, but it actively displaces the work of traditional professionals. Increasingly capable systems and machines, operating alone or with users that look quite unlike those professionals, take on tasks that we have assumed can only be performed in the traditional way. 

For now, and in the medium term, we expect these two futures to develop in parallel, but in the long run we see this second future dominating. We will find new and better ways to produce and share expertise in society, and our traditional professions will be steadily dismantled. This is the argument of my new book, The Future of the Professions, co-authored with Richard Susskind. 

Professionals tend to respond enthusiastically to the first future. Doctors see the promise of using remote monitoring devices to keep in touch with patients from a distance, and teachers accept that online material can help in the classroom. Accountants adopt tax computation software that allows them to perform tricky calculations, and architects embrace computer-assisted design software to design more complex structures.   

The response to the second future, though, is more sceptical. We think this is misguided. In some cases there is a reluctance to imagine how things might be done differently – what psychologists would call a strong ‘status quo bias’ for our existing institutions. In other cases the problem is ‘technological myopia’ – a tendency to judge future technologies in terms of what currently exists today. A bad experience with a friend on Skype, for example, leads to the dismissal of a future in which any type of virtual interaction takes place.   

But there are deeper misconceptions at play here, too. For architects who are thinking through the future of their profession, understanding these is revealing. 

Tasks, not jobs 

The first mistake is to think in terms of ‘jobs’ – about ‘lawyers’ and ‘doctors’, ‘architects’ and ‘accountants’. The problem is that this encourages us to think of professional work as monolithic, indivisible lumps of endeavour. But in practice professionals perform many different types of ‘tasks’ or activities in their jobs. 

The first mistake is to think in terms of ‘jobs’, which encourages us to think of professional work as monolithic, indivisible lumps of endeavour. In practice professionals perform many different types of ‘tasks’ or activities in their jobs.

This ‘jobs’ mindset is particularly unhelpful in thinking about the future. It nurtures a vision of a future where, one day, an architect will turn up at work and find a robot sitting in their chair, or a priest will discover an android standing at the pulpit. Their ‘job’ will have been entirely replaced by a machine. We believe this is not how change in the professions takes place. 

Technology does not displace entire jobs; it changes the ‘tasks’ that people do in their jobs. This is why a ‘task’ mindset is more appropriate. In journalism, for example, when Associated Press introduced algorithms to computerize the production of earnings reports, it was able to produce 15 times as many as when it relied upon human beings alone. But this was not the ‘end’ of financial journalists – it changed the tasks they performed. Similarly in architecture, CAD software does not replace architects, but changes the tasks that they do. 

Sceptical architects will often argue that, because their job requires ‘creativity’, they are immune from the changes we describe. The ‘task’ mindset shows why this argument, and others like it, is flawed. Certain tasks in their job may require ‘creativity’ – but not all their tasks do. As professional work is increasingly disaggregated, or decomposed, into component tasks, this ‘argument from hard cases’ – where professionals point to particularly hard tasks they perform and draw a general conclusion about their job – is misleading. 

The challenge for architects is to recognise this underlying churn in the types of activities they undertake, to anticipate the new tasks that will have to be done, to identify those that require their unique talents, and to develop the skills that will therefore be required in years to come. In our book we set out 12 of these new tasks; many – ‘knowledge engineering’ and ‘process analysis’, ‘system designing’ and full-time ‘empathizing’ – are unfamiliar to professionals. In many cases, they will not be performed by traditional professionals at all. 

Many possible futures

The second mistake is to think too narrowly about the future. Current commentary on the future of work can tempt us to think in a binary way – that the future is either traditional professionals or increasingly capable systems and machines acting alone. 

In our book we instead set out six alternatives to the traditional professionals. Only one of these reflects the traditional alternative. We call this the ‘machine-generated’ model. In law, for example, Lex Machina is a system that can help predict the outcome of patent disputes more accurately than leading lawyers. In architecture, Autodesk’s ‘Project Dreamcatcher’ is being developed in this manner – it is a system that tries to generate design options based on a limited set of high-level criteria with limited, if any, input from a traditional architect. 

But there are other alternative models. Consider the ‘networked experts’ model. This still involves human professional providers. But unlike the traditional model where experts work alone or in relatively stable organisations, here they gather instead in virtual networks. Platforms like 10 EQS and Axiom Law, for example, support virtual teams of consultants and lawyers. In architecture BIM is often performed in this spirit. 

It is a mistake to think too narrowly about the future – that it is either traditional professionals or increasingly capable systems and machines acting alone.

A second alternative is the ‘communities of experience’ model. Here recipients of professional advice – patients, students, clients, and so on – gather online and share their own experiences and advice. At PatientsLikeMe, for example, 350,000 people share their insight with one another on how to solve their health problems. In the tax world, people struggling to complete their tax returns online can learn from the experience of others at TurboTax’s AnswerXchange. 

A third alternative is the ‘knowledge engineering’ model. Here the expertise of a specialist is articulated and captured, and made available in a system for lay people to use. The best known legal brand in the US, for example, in not a traditional law firm, but – a company that has automated the production of many legal documents, modeled on the expertise of lawyers, and makes these available online. 

The challenge for architects is to review all six of the alternative models and explore how to integrate them alongside their traditional practice. 

Why do we have the professions?

The final mistake is to forget why we have the professions at all. We have the professions because they are, in analogous ways, a solution to the same problem – nobody has sufficient specialist knowledge to cope with all the daily challenges of life. Nobody can know everything. We turn to professionals because they have the knowledge, the skills, the experience, and the know-how – what we call the ‘practical expertise’ – which we need to make progress in life. 

When we began the book in 2010 our main interest was in the work of the current professions. We saw two futures for them, as set out before. But as our thinking progressed we realised a more important question had to be addressed - how do we produce and share practical expertise in society? 

The usual answer to this has been ‘through the professions’. This is their purpose. But these traditional professions are creaking. Most people and organisations simply cannot afford the work of first-rate professionals, or indeed any professionals. The finest practical expertise is a very scare resource.

As we move into an internet society, then, we should ask whether there might be new ways of organising professional work, new ways to produce and share practical expertise in society, new ways to solve the important problems that, traditionally, the professions alone have solved. The six alternative models point to different ways of doing this. 

Too often we forget the purpose of the professions. They exist to solve important problems; the important problems do not exist to provide a livelihood for traditional professionals. It is not the purpose of ill health to provide a living for traditional doctors, or of the law to provide a living for traditional lawyers, or of our need for well-designed space to provide a living for architects. 

This is why if technology offers us new ways to make practical expertise available, ways that are more affordable and more accessible than the traditional approach, we should embrace them – in all professions, architecture included.  

Daniel Susskind is a lecturer in economics at Balliol College, Oxford and co-author of The Future of the Professions (OUP, HB 368pp, £18.99)

Susskind will be speaking at the RIBA Future Leaders event on Future Proofing on 5 July