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Pop!Tech: Daniel Pink’s whole new economy

Dan Pink is an author, provocateur and business thinker whose book title, A Whole New Mind, shares a topic with the afternoon session. He tells us that his history as a writer of business books and as a speechwriter has taught him that great speeches incorporate, “brevity, levity, and repetition.” (He says this twice. :-)

He offers brain specalization as a metaphor – the left and right sides of the brain specialize in different abilities – the left brain is better at analytic skills, the right at more synthetic skills. He suggests that this may be a metaphor for the move from 20th to 21st century economies. In the 20th century, our parents encouraged us to become lawyers and accountants – to have predictable, analytical careers.

The move towards the 21st century economy may require very different skillsets. These changes are inspired by three factors: “Abundance, Asia, and Automation.” Profound abundance means that we’re wealthier as middle class people than our grandparents could have imagined. The phenomenon of self-storage centers reflects this reality. This is now a $21 billion a year industry, larger than the motion picture industry.

In an era of abundance, design becomes very important. If you’re trying to sell toilet brushes, you can do one of four things:
– Make them dramatically more effective (hard to do, as they’re quite good already)
– Make them obsolete with a self-cleaning toiled (hard to do)
– Make them really cheap (ultimately a losing strategy, as your margins keep dropping)
– Make them really pretty and compete on look and feel.

The rise of Asia, Pink argues, is “way overhyped” in the short term, and underhyped in the long term. “The jobs lost in the past couple of years to outsourcing is less than average job turnover in the tech industry most months.” But in the long term, he argues, the impact of Asia’s rise is profound. If even 15% of India’s 1 billion people compete with the US directly, it’s larger than the working population of America. What’s harder is that the work that brought most Americans into the middle class are totally outsourceable. “Think of a task. If you can write down the steps, and if there’s a right way to do it, that job is a goner.”

Automation also leads to the disappearance of jobs. An uncontested divorce, Pink tells us, costs $2500 in Boston. “What’s the first thing a lawyer does in an uncontested divorce? I’m a lawyer and I know the answer is, ‘You try to make it contested.'” An uncontested divorce is mostly paperwork – it can be performed overseas or reduced to lines of code. So completecase.com offers an online divorce for roughly a tenth the price. He mentions Lou Dobbs’s complains about tax forms being filled out by Indian accounts. “The real problem is those of you who use Turbotax. You have accountant blood on your hands!”

The evolution of human economies, he tells us, moves from farmers to factory workers to the information age… and now to the conceptual age. It’s the big ideas that make money, and we’ve got to find ourselves new, conceptual jobs in a new economy.

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2 thoughts on “Pop!Tech: Daniel Pink’s whole new economy”

  1. Fascinating presentation–with an important omission.

    The 20th century saw two transitions: from farming to manufacturing, then to “knowledge work”, and Pink now projects the next transition as one to “right brain” work: “conceptual work”.

    But these transitions are very dissimilar with respect to who can participate. Any farm worker could move to the factory, but some factory workers cannot become knowledge workers, and still fewer knowledge workers can become “conceptual workers”.

    Result: many unemployed or under-employed people left behind, leading to a fast growing inequality of income which will not be eliminated by any amount of education or retraining. This elephant in the room needs to be examined at PopTech, even though it dampens the mood of techno-euphoria that makes PopTech so attractive.

  2. He is one of my favorite writers, his piece in wired about Hygrid America partly inspired my fascination with distributed energy generation…I will be sure to pick up his book.

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