Photograph: Myleen Hollero

Future of Work: Bridging Silos and Perspectives

With sudden lockdowns in March 2020 due to the global pandemic, the world was thrown into an involuntary experiment that impacted the way we work (and live). Technology became the default for interacting with each other. In recent months, cities and countries have reopened, but it is not just a return to how things were. The question of “what might come next?” now lingers over society.

While the future is unknown, we can explore what it might look like through experiments and reflections. The mindsets and values of how we approach the topic determines what questions we ask. Following the approach of Raphael Gielgen, Trendscout at Vitra, it is important to shift from “prevention futures”, where scenarios are defined by avoiding risks we already identified today, to building desirable futures. It is about imagining what could be possible. What if our wildest optimist dreams could become reality? And what principles drive these dreams?

In April 2022, Swissnex in San Francisco gathered forward-thinkers from academia, industry and the arts in the event “Emerging From the Pandemic: The Future of Work Reimagined” to discuss our new reality and to shape it going forward. Drawing from some of the discussions at the event, this first article on the relationship of the future of work and technology highlights key questions that could help us shape a desirable future of work.

Automation holds promises for some, but also problems for many. - Johannes Moenius

Photograph: Myleen Hollero

Johannes Moenius is a Professor at the University of Redding

How relevant is what you do today in 10 years? And if it is, will it still be done by a human?

Beyond the dichotomy of remote or office work, the infusion of technology and specifically robots into many jobs has accelerated during the pandemic. Johannes Moenius, an expert in spatial economic analysis, shared various scenarios around what areas and groups will likely be most affected by increasing automation in the next few years. Results show that areas with low-income, hispanic and black communities will be disproportionately affected. A surprising finding was also that young workers are 66% more likely to be replaced than older workers. So which side do you find yourself on? How should we onboard the younger workforce with that outlook?

Education plays a crucial role. We need to open more diverse corridors for education to all. Entrepreneurial thinking on the side of the students is another asset, but we as a society also need to think about how we can equip students of today and tomorrow with relevant skills, but also mindsets and networks to navigate an ever changing future.


Policies and companies cannot be neutral anymore: Our freedom and democracy is on the table. - Julie Owono

Photograph: Myleen Hollero

Julie Owono is the Director of the Content Policy and Society Lab at Stanford and is a member of the Facebook Oversight Board

Since Facebook’s name changed to Meta, the metaverse has become an omnipresent term and many companies in Silicon Valley and worldwide are pushing virtual and augmented reality technologies. New digital platforms are on the horizon but at the same time society is struggling to effectively moderate the content its users produce, with continuously resurfacing debate around cases of hate speech and disinformation on social media sites such as Twitter or Facebook. How could extended realities make our working lives better, or even support upholding freedoms and a just democracy?

For Julie Owono, director of the Content Policy and Society Lab at Sanford, the simple answer is: companies and policies cannot be neutral anymore. Content is at the core of how we collaborate together in our working lives and it needs effective and transparent rules and mechanisms to hold everyone accountable to the same standards. On some workspace platforms, political discussions have been banned altogether to avoid political confrontations altogether. But in that case, in what form should public discourse about key societal challenges take place?


What if we leveraged machine learning to shape equitable visual cultures? - Rachel Poonsiriwong

Photograph: Myleen Hollero

Rachel Poonsiriwong is a Product Designer at Scale AI

Rachel Poonsiriwong, Product Designer at Scale AI and independent art curator, emphasizes that she wants machine learning to be highly political, in a positive way. There should be a multitude of lenses one could choose from, and not just one dominant conformist view to drive dialogue between groups and create more inclusive visual cultures.

She explains that human vision and perception is not objective, our cultural values shape how we perceive the world: what we see and how we see it. In our modern lives, we are bombarded with images everyday, be it through social media feeds, TV programs or even around the neighborhoods we live in. And while we take them in, these images shape our opinions and perception of the world. Machine Learning tools are increasingly present in our daily lives, becoming a modern lens that filters what is presented. These tools are often written by people who are grounded in a Western culture and without careful attention will infuse their products with cultural norms. How much should AI tools define what aspects of the world we see? And how can we counter implicit biases in them for a more diverse and equitable perception of the world? At the same time, machine learning also gives us smarter ways to see different perspectives and understand the world around us, thereby elevating human learning.


All these questions are difficult to answer, but we need to find the courage to address them. Swissnex strives to bring people from different sectors and backgrounds, from private companies, universities, government officials, startups, civil society, artists and more from the US West Coast, Switzerland and the world, to offer a neutral platform to engage with each other, make plans and take actions to create desirable futures.

Interdisciplinary and cross-sector collaboration is central to creating inclusive and diverse solutions to our collective tomorrow. With many of us spending at least a third of our daily hours at work, it merits an inclusive make-over. Diverse visual cultures, equitable access to jobs and education and making sure we can effectively collaborate are all key. So, how should we redefine the societal contract of work in the 21st century? And what responsibility do we have to shape it?

We welcome your responses to these questions on Twitter.

View full interviews with the experts above on our YouTube Channel.

Written by Corine Thommen, Head of Impact Programs

Edited by Perrine Huber, Head of Strategic Communications