Designing the workplace

Shamir Malik
November 14, 2019
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes
Photo by Matty Flader / Photo Reporter

As accelerating technological advancement changes the digital landscape, the role played by social institutions like schools, companies and the government will shift. Students entering the workforce may be faced with the aftershocks of this digital shift and are looking to prepare themselves. 

On Oct. 2, students filled McMaster’s LIVElab to hear Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld discuss the potential impact of the growing presence of technology in the modern workplace.

Cutcher-Gershenfeld, author of Designing Reality: How to Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution, is currently a professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. In his book, he argues that there have been  two “digital revolutions” in the last 50 years — and that we will soon experience a third. 

“The first digital revolution was the shift from analog to digital communication, which gave us the Internet. The second digital revolution [was] the rise of digital computation, which has given us what is now the ‘internet of things’ … [and] ubiquitous computation all throughout society,” he said. 

As much as these two digital revolutions have transformed the world, Cutcher-Gershenfeld added that the ability to use this digital technology to make physical objects — a process he refers to as “digital fabrication” — changes everything. He points to fabrication laboratories as a particular example. 

Fabrication laboratories, or “Fab Labs”, are small-scale hubs equipped with digital manufacturing tools such as 3D and laser printers. Fab Labs can rapidly manufacture industrial-quality goods, allowing people to turn their ideas into tangible prototypes.

“What we’re talking about is the ability to make what you need by what we call self-sufficient production, in which you are making what you need without having to work for someone else … The capability to, in a sense, have a small rapid prototyping facility that can produce industrial quality goods is happening faster and faster,” said Cutcher-Gershenfeld.

When Cutcher-Gershenfeld began writing his book, there were only 1,400 Fab Labs and maker-spaces worldwide. There are now 2,000.

According to Cutcher-Gershenfeld, access to these Fab Labs will increase exponentially in the coming years. While the impact is currently modest, he believes that Fab Labs will give way to the rapid evolution of digital fabrication and, by extension, will change what the workplace might look like for students who are about to graduate and enter the workforce. 

During his talk, Cutcher-Gershenfeld emphasized the potential dangers associated with the growing presence of Fab Labs. Currently, it is difficult to predict the impact that Fab Labs will have on the economy. However, Cutcher-Gershenfeld warned that without the support of social systems, like government regulation, the ability to manufacture products digital outside of a factory setting may have repercussions on existing industries.

Judy Fudge, labour studies professor at McMaster University and organizer for the event, echoed Cutcher-Gershenfeld’s concern towards the rapid emergence of new technology.

“[Things] could change dramatically for the worse if we don’t think about the social systems to make sure they [also] change for the better,” Fudge said.

Fudge planned Cutcher-Gershenfeld’s talk as an opportunity for students and staff to see how the workplace is evolving and how some individuals are working to improve it. The seminar was planned with the Socrates Project, a McMaster initiative that brings attention to modern problems through an interdisciplinary lens, as part of their ongoing “Future of Work” lecture series. 

According to Socrates Project Director Rina Fraticelli, partnering with McMaster’s School of Labour Studies was an opportunity for the Socrates Project to stimulate discussion on how the average workplace might change in the future. 

After the seminar, Fraticelli said, “It seemed to me that . . . one of the biggest preoccupations . . . of students who are looking ahead [is asking] ‘What will happen when I graduate? What’s the world going to be like?’”


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