Greg Lindsay's Blog

May 17, 2018  |  permalink

Navigating the Noise #1: The Future of Corporations

My friend and fellow futurist Brian David Johnson invited me to join his inaugural podcast for the Corporate Housing Provider Association (the folks who help the folks who furnish long-term stays for road warriors) on the future of corporations, falling transaction costs, and how people derive status (and meaning) in a world without full-time employment. Either listen to the podcast above (I appear around the 10:30 mark), or just read our exchange below.

Brian David Johnson: Today on the podcast, we have Greg Lindsay. Greg is a journalist, an urbanist, and a futurist and speaker. He’s a senior fellow at NewCities and the director of strategy for its offshoot LA CoMotion — an annual urban mobility festival in the Arts District of Los Angeles. He’s also a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, a visiting scholar at New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, a contributing writer for Fast Company, and co-author of “Aerotropolis: The Way We Will Live Next.” Now, this book Aerotropolis, I cannot recommend more. This is actually the book that introduced me to Greg and Greg’s work. I did not know him at the time. It was so amazing that after I finished reading it, I reached out to him via Twitter and started this conversation because I was so impressed by his work. So it’s a pleasure to have you on the show today, Greg.

Greg Lindsay: Thank you so much for having me, Brian.

BDJ: So, on the show today we are looking at the future of corporations. We’re looking specifically at falling transactional costs — you know, the work Ronald Coase did. Talking about transactional cost and the nature of the firm. And you’ve been doing some really interesting work around thinking about not only what that means for corporations, where we can have, we can spin up a lot of small companies and spin them down. And there’s a lot more freedom of movement because of technology. But you’ve also been looking at kind of how that changes the culture of these corporations. Can you tell us a little bit more about the work?

GL: Yeah, I first got interested in the rise of shared workspaces. Five or six years ago, before WeWork became a $20 billion colossus, it was just another startup in stealth mode. And I actually worked out of their very first office in Dumbo in Brooklyn. And it led me to thinking about why were people choosing to work in these shared workplaces versus traditional office space or traditional employers? And it led me to think about how the culture of the office was changing. If you compare today’s culture of white collar knowledge work compared to what Coase wrote about with transaction costs, you can see that the mid-century firm, the wood paneled office and the huge corporate campuses of IBM and GE and others. I was relating to this notion that it was really hard to find talent. And once you did, you wanted coddle it. You wanted to keep them there as long as possible.

Now, with falling transaction costs, you end up with “Free Agent Nation” and these loosely coupled networks of self-managed, self-driven people who are nesting inside these shared workspaces. They’re using them almost as coral reefs, to basically find their next gig or collaborator. So, I got really interested in the change of the office as a container for doing work to a sort of platform that actually enabled you to work and to find new work.

BDJ: And how does this then change what people value? I know in some of your writing and some of your work you’ve done, you’ve looked at the, in the larger corporations, you’ve got the gold watch upon retirement. You were there for a long time and now in these new more flexible areas, you know, what people want, what people value is changing. What have you seen happening there and what do you think that means for the future of corporations?

GL: There’s a couple of things. Yes, the mid-century corporation had its own hallmarks of success. It was the gold watch. It was the luxury car. It was the suburban house. Any of us who’ve seen Mad Men can immediately envision that era. And that’s obviously changed to this sort of startup culture now which is sort of very studiously casual and relaxed. And it sort of has some rigid hierarchy to date but they’re sort of different. But the other thing it’s done is led to this profusion of different types of status. Right? So not only is there conspicuous consumption. You know, do you have right athleisure clothes? But also conspicuous production. You know, the greatest status signifier in startup culture is who your VCs are and how much you raised in your last round.

So, it has these changing symbols. And the other thing I found is that just like every other media that we participate in, it’s fractured. Right? None of us watch the same television. We all have our own filter bubbles. The same thing has happened with taste and culture as well. There’s a sort of portable culture.

A friend of mine named Stowe Boyd has this notion of “work culture” versus corporate culture. Work culture is the culture that we take with us from job to job wherever we go. And that’s also a sort of culture of taste and style that we take with us. And so you know, you have these sort of portable workforces that are going from place to place. And that’s sort of what I think too. If you go to a lot of different offices, you see they have the same very clean aesthetic. You know it’s been called the Brooklyn style or air space or other things. And I think that’s partly responds to the fact that yeah, we expect that workers have their own tastes and they want this workplace to look the same.

That’s why WeWork is managing offices for IBM. Because the workers IBM wants to hire expect to work at We Work. They don’t expect to work at a suburban IBM campus. Remember the classic line “Culture eats strategy for breakfast?” Well, in a macro sense, the opposite is true. The strategy of how you hire and find talent is actually producing these new sorts of culture.

BDJ: Yeah and I think what’s really interesting about that, and as you can apply it in thinking about the future of corporations and what people want, is you say we’ll have different space requirements. What people value. People will gravitate to a certain space or a certain area because it embraces that culture. Right? It embraces like you said, the startup culture or this culture of the gig economy or what have you. And a lot of it is driven by these sort of underlying forces. I think both falling transactional costs as well as the increasing digital nature of corporations. Right? We’re seeing more and more companies becoming digital in nature.

So, my last question to you Greg is, so as you look out to the future of corporations and sort of what the business of doing business looks like, where do you see things going?

GL: Well, if you follow Coase’s idea to its logical conclusion, you end up with the heat death of the corporation. It completely atomizes and it’s all individuals. Which hasn’t been the case. That’s been happening for 20 years, and instead of flattening out into everyone is an entrepreneur, instead you have the rise of these new networks forming — networks of small firms, networks of entrepreneurs, or freelancers. I think we’re still in the early stages of that evolution, seeing what new corporate organisms will emerge. And at the very top, you see these continuing waves of consolidation. But even then, these corporations, these huge corporations are hollowing out.

Perhaps workers will organize around platforms istead. People have pointed to companies such as Upwork and Uber as examples of these huge platforms that have arisen to organize certain types of work. It’ll be interesting to see what the interplay is between physical face-to-face workspaces and these platforms? Will we have guilds reemerge, for example where you exist in peer networks where you are helping each other learn or helping each other find work? I think we’ll start to see the rise of corporate to corporate coworking. We will see teams from different companies who have the same roles but different employers will work side by side because, you know you’ll have less corporate politics. But they’ll be able to help each other solve problems faster if they’re non-competitive.

So, this notion that you work for one company and you go to the same job in the same space five days a week is going to change pretty quickly, I think. And then the other thing, the long term trend is that historically it’s been about control. You know, companies controlled you and in exchange for the control, they gave you perks. They made you come to the office. They monitored how much you worked and how long you worked. And today, they’re trying to do that digitally, right? Either they’re watching your screenshots or you have this sort of people analytics on the rise. But there’s always been a strive towards autonomy in that. And I think the real cutting edge there too is just how much autonomy are these companies willing to give their employees or the people they work with to really solve problems with no instructions or to really enrich themselves. And I think that’s going to continue to be the cutting edge as well.

BDJ: Well, Greg Lindsay, listen. Really amazing things for us to keep an eye on and for us to kind of dig into. But we want to thank you so much for being on the podcast today. We really really appreciate it.

GL: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.


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Greg Lindsay is a journalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is the director of applied research at NewCities and director of strategy at its mobility offshoot CoMotion.  He is also a partner at FutureMap, a geo-strategic advisory firm based in Singapore, a non-resident senior fellow of The Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative, and co-author of Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next.

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