Future of work: freelancers for virtual cloud projects?

Digitalisation and industry 4.0 | future of production | trends of technology | Worth knowing | What will work look like in the future? This is a difficult question for which there is no clear-cut answer. However, it is possible to say how it might look like. In our first scenario, companies are mainly concerned with administration, while teams of specialist freelancers complete the project work via the digital cloud.

We have been following the winding roads of the High Black Forest for what feels like an eternity. We are looking for the legendary white house of Simon Miles, the guru of young entrepreneurs. Miles is an icon of the 21st century: in the 2020s he was one of the first to market himself consistently as an independent inventor, developer, and designer of new products and worked on a project basis with a wide variety of firms. Today, 15 years on, this is nothing unusual any more – but Miles is still one of the best, and we want to find out why.

Virtual work, virtual offices

The satnav system has taken our autonomous e-taxi the wrong way several times: Miles probably enjoyed planting a „fake location“ in the official databases. At the entrance to his far-from-concealed house, we are greeted by a ghost – or rather, a translucent, talking head with a disconcerting smiley face, floating in the air. This demonstration of Miles’ sense of humor alone has made the whole journey worthwhile, but what makes it even more so is his study. Before us we find an almost dazzlingly white room with a curved window facade, which is switched to transparent and offers a fantastic panoramic view of the hills of the Black Forest and the lake far below.

In our fictional cloud scenario, smartphones and laptops are the only tools that humans still need to work – apart from the classic cup of coffee.
In our fictional cloud scenario, smartphones and laptops are the only tools that humans still need to work – apart from the classic cup of coffee.

The walls consist of curved computer displays, although at the moment their screens are all white. In the middle of the room stands a large octagonal touch table, also white, at which Miles has evidently just been working and which shows the design details of robots. In the middle of the multifunctional table, a transparent cube with an edge length of about 120 centimeters is being lowered slowly: one of those holographic displays in which you can make laser-controlled 3D objects float freely in the air.

Limitless project work in the cloud

Simon Miles comes round the table, greets us, and invites us to take a seat on a sofa, which is also white. The interview can begin.

Mr. Miles, do you really do everything by yourself?

Miles: When a client entrusts me with a new project, together we assemble a suitable team for the purpose: designers, human-machine specialists, production planners, logistics experts – whatever is needed. Then we sit together here as if we were in a conference room. Everyone sees and hears everyone else. In reality, of course, the colleagues are spread all over the world. Before us, on the holographic display, we can see the virtual product or its production environment. Here we can simulate everything on its digital twin: how it works or is made, or the best way to repair or dismantle the product.

Working from any location in the world. In a digitally networked working world of the future, this often longed-for dream could become just as normal as today's commuting to the company office.
Working from any location in the world. In a digitally networked working world of the future, this often longed-for dream could become just as normal as today's commuting to the company office.

And what are you working on at present?

Miles: Customized communication robots for the home, helpers for the many old and lonely people, entertaining little companions that remind them of appointments or to take their medication, set up 3D internet links with children and grandchildren, read out the news, or even play games with them.

What’s your secret? How come you are always faster than your rivals?

Miles: Decades of experience, global networks with the best partners, and AI systems optimized to my needs, that really think along with me and make strategically valuable suggestions. Sometimes I no longer notice whether I am communicating over the internet with a human colleague or with a machine with artificial intelligence. And I’m still just as motivated as I was on my first day!

Simon Miles looks at the clock and taps his feet. We get the message: this brief audience is over. The master needs to get back to work.

More freelancers than workers

On the journey back, we talk about how the world of work has changed in recent decades and created figures such as this independent inventor. It probably began at the end of the 20th century, when the number of workers in production, raw materials extraction, and agriculture declined dramatically, while the proportion of basic services and knowledge workers grew significantly. Today, in the 2030s, for each permanent member of staff at a firm there are often five to ten freelancers or employees of specialized service companies.

Companies too have undergone radical change. Today, they are organized virtually and are highly flexible as a result. They now deal essentially only with “administration” and with providing a platform for their many freelancers. Everything else is handled by people like Simon Miles – independent service providers paid only on the basis of their results. That calls for even greater creativity and skillful self-marketing, an area in which our famous interviewee is unsurpassed. People seem not only to accept this but actually to appreciate it: they have a heavy workload, but they can organize their work themselves and are highly regarded socially.

Creations are just as individual as their inventors. Customers want customized products that can also be made cost-effectively thanks to fully autonomous, intelligent production technology. The cloud and global IT standards ensure that the increased complexity remains manageable – here too, the idea of the platform has prevailed. Only in this way can a genius like Simon Miles take off on his insights of creativity and amaze consumers again and again.

Future of work – a foresight project by thyssenkrupp

Our scenario of cloud-based work is only one possible future vision of our work. As part of our foresight process, our experts have developed sketches of very different futures. They describe worlds that could just as easily occur. That does not mean that they will just as easily occur. It is also not the case that our Foresight team of many different subject matter experts would prefer certain scenarios. The most important factor to them is that we understand what could be, in order to actively shape our future.

Andreas Meschede purses a clear vision: to anticipate our future – and to sharpen the understanding of his colleagues for constant change.
Andreas Meschede purses a clear vision: to anticipate our future – and to sharpen the understanding of his colleagues for constant change.

“What do we need to do differently today in order to be successful in the future?”

Leaving the comfort zone and thinking outside the box – this is what the Foresight Process invites everyone to do. For Andreas Meschede, Innovation Manager at thyssenkrupp, the scenarios are much more than just science fiction stories: “All the content portrayed is, in principle, is technologically possible and consistent. We paid attention to this in the structured preparation of the underlying scenarios. Moreover, such a story is just one way of presenting our results, albeit a way that is especially suited to encouraging the reader to dive into these worlds of the future.” thyssenkrupp uses the results for idea workshops, for example. These bring together representatives from all business units and a wide range of functions meet – from technology to marketing to human resources. “The focus is on one question: What does thyssenkrupp need to do differently today in order to be successful in the scenario world of the future,” explains Andreas Meschede. “So far, this has given rise to around 80 ideas, of which we have already looked at twelve in more detail.”

To question the way of thinking in the team, Andreas Meschede does not hesitate to irritate, inspire and use playful means such as role play.
To question the way of thinking in the team, Andreas Meschede does not hesitate to irritate, inspire and use playful means such as role play.

But all this is only a first step. The aim of the Foresight team is to use the scenarios across a broad front and in all areas of the company, including discussions with customers and suppliers. The key thing for the Foresight Manager? “That this using this method we continuously leave our comfort zones and think creatively for the future.”

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