Make the Future You Want (Not the One You Fear)

 

On June 12th-13th 2015 the National Maker Faire will be held in Washington, DC. If you were to look at some recent headlines about the future of technology and work, you might think this event is the beginning of a robot apocalypse that could put you at grave personal risk.

Cynics might conclude that headlines like this are click-bait intended to attract clicks and eyeballs. “Genius Says Killer Robots Will Rampage!” That’ll do it….

Indeed, gallons of virtual and physical ink have and will be spilled discussing the impact of technology on jobs and employment. Many of these concerns are real, and not to be trivialized. But rather than focusing on what we might fear, even more essential to a healthy society and economy is the imperative to arm ourselves with the right skills and attitudes for the future.

In some corners, there’s a palpable and growing sense of dread about technology and the future of work. “Machines are coming to take our jobs, shake our communities, and change our modern way of life (right)?” Well, no. There are many reasons, but for starters consider that we’re all still waiting for daily shuttles to the moon, warp drive, and George Jetson flying cars. That future hasn’t materialized. Similarly, the Terminator will not be chasing our kids around.

Even so, the impact of new technologies will absolutely re-shape how we work and live. This is already happening just as it has in the past. Similar to the Industrial Revolution, we are at the edge of the next great shift in work and economics. Seemingly magical advances in connectivity, robotics, biology, processing power, etc., are changing how we live and work, and the impact is sobering. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the American economy will create more than 1.3 million new STEM jobs in the next seven years. That’s great news, but filling these jobs will be tough because the STEM skills gap will grow to the point where there will be 9 million more jobs than people to fill them.

Even though scary headlines have accompanied every technology shift since the invention of the printing press, we seem to have reached a new high-water mark in terms of our fear of the future. In the United States this trend gets even more voltage by the release of countless studies showing very real and widening technical skills gaps, innovation and creativity challenges, the shortcomings of our educational systems, as well as the exodus of brilliant girls and women from science and technical career tracks.

And this is exactly why you should support groups that advocate making and, if you can, attend the National Maker Faire.

Events like Maker Faire and spaces that support making – such as the New York Hall of Science and Bethesda’s KID Museum – are increasingly essential to our future because every girl and boy who cobbles together a cardboard house, builds a drawbot, codes a simple Scratch program, or animates a story about a bug will know forever that their hands have the power to make something, to control their tools, their environment, and their future. This knowledge and these skills are the best defense against a paralytic fear of a technical dystopia.

Of course, not every kid who attends the Maker Faire will become a computer scientist, a NASA engineer, or CTO of the United States. However – and here’s the critical bit – every kid who learns that they can shape their environment, every girl who remains switched on about math, will be better equipped to contribute to a healthy future in a modern digital economy.

This is why Cognizant (where I work) supports the Maker Faire as well as the New York Hall of Science. Last year, at the White House’s first-ever “Maker Faire,” we committed 1.5 million hours of programming for 25,000 students in 200 U.S. communities by 2017. This is a commitment we continue to uphold as a sponsor of the inaugural Capitol Hill Maker Faire and the National Maker Faire taking place this week.

Throughout history, radical change has frightened us and disrupted the status quo. But these shifts are always accompanied by tremendous opportunity for those who are prepared. The real threat in our digital age is a lack of imagination, confidence, and skills that can foster innovation and prevent economic disenfranchisement. Addressing this requires thoughtful legislation, collaboration from both public and private sectors (including – yes – investment), educational policy that empowers teachers and kids, and support for programs and events like the Maker Faire.

Making is fun, but it’s more than that. The decisions we make now – as individuals, business leaders, and as a society – will set our course into a new age of technology and work. It won’t be easy, but by building the right skills, and courage, we will all be ready and able to craft a hopeful future. 

I hope to see you at the Faire!

Paul is a Vice President and Global Managing Director at the Center for The Future of Work at Cognizant, a leading provider of information technology, consulting and business process services headquartered in Teaneck, N.J.