General Motors, Design, and the Future of Work


General Motors recently announced plans to idle five North American plants, sparking much discussion about international trade policy, corporate policy, and the future of the auto industry.  Rapidly changing industry dynamics is forcing GM to reexamine fundamentals of their business. And while they are not the first automaker to shift away from traditional markets – such as sedans – they certainly will not be the last.

There is, however, a more important question that GM’s move brings up. That is the question of what to do about displaced workers, and who is responsible for aiding them in finding a new means to support themselves and their families. For Trump, the solution is essentially to push as hard as possible at turning the clock back on fading industries such as coal. For Silicon Valley types, the solution is getting everyone to learn how to code. Both are naïve. While Trump’s solution defies market logic, the idea that everyone can or should be a coder denies fundamental differences in interests and abilities between people. There simply is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Other than climate change, this overarching question – what to do about displaced workers ­– is one of the most critical questions of the coming decades. There is an interplay between the exponential progress of technologies such as AI, automation and robotics, and the increasing rapidity at which traditional businesses and industries are failing.  West Virginia is an example of what will happen to a number of states in the coming decades as the industries they rely on – such as trucking – radically transform, potentially leaving many in those states out of work with few prospects.

Ensuring that others are able to support themselves and their communities is ultimately a public good. We all benefit from healthy communities through improved quality of life and productivity. Some fundamental shifts must occur in how we think about these challenges of the future in order to get past today’s unhelpful stalemate.Fortunately, there are some signs that innovation in public policy is beginning to be taken more seriously – including recent public experiments in unorthodox economic concepts such as Universal Basic Income.Design can and should be a central component to these efforts in coming up with innovative solutions. We believe there is great opportunity in devising new forms of public engagement and new forms of public/private partnerships through approaching these challenges as a design challenge.

Greg VanderPol