For our last two briefings of 2015, we’ll take a retrospective glance at the last year. Rather than a standard “best-of” list, we’ve chosen to highlight pieces that have stuck with us over time. This means that each of these pieces not only convey something compelling about the nature of our current culture, but also seem to be of lasting importance.

Our first crop of pieces take up topics we’ve discussed a good bit around the office this year: work and education.

 


From Justin Straight, Director of Products

It will be no surprise to my colleagues at New City Commons that I have chosen something on the subject of "work" and "value creation". What might come as a surprise is I have not chosen the latest business school case study or value proposition design model, but rather a 90+ year old poem. The reason for this is that, in my experience, poetry has the power to accomplish the elegant, often rather succinct "simplicity on the other side of complexity" that we strive for in communication. Kahlil Gibran’s poem “Work,” provides us with just that.

“Work is love made visible.”

In recent years I have been particularly interested in what motivates people to do good work. Accurately describing what one does, measuring that work against the economies of our moment, and understanding how an individual’s job relates to the broader objectives of an organization—all this has great value. Yet, my question has been: is it possible to articulate why we work? And does this why actually inform how we work? What is most compelling to me here is that Gibran defines work as “love made visible.” This means, at a minimum, that work creates value for others.

 


From Philip Lorish, Director of Research

As regular readers of Culture Briefing will know well, the shifting nature of work in our time is of interest to us here at New City Commons. So too is the way in which the work culture of the high-tech industry is migrating from Silicon Valley.

“The work culture of the high-tech industry is migrating from Silicon Valley.”

Though the article is a couple years old, the argument Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh make in Harvard Business Review article titled “Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact,” seems particularly important for the future of work. (The New Yorker profile of Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn, is also worth the read.) They argue for an “unsentimental” alliance between employers and employees that adds value to both. Rather than presuming that long-term employment is either beneficial or desirable, Hoffman, Casnocha, and Yeh recommend that both employer and employee should be governed by a project-based logic wherein workers sign-up for a “tour of duty” lasting roughly 2–4 years. The model here seems to be that of product development: a team of workers conceive of a new product, develop internal prototypes, do sufficient market analysis, and bring the product to market. At this point, they either renegotiate for another “tour” or move on to another job.

Though this pattern harkens back to the early characterization of Silicon Valley as the place where workers could “change jobs without changing parking lots,” and, as such, is neither dramatic nor new, my interest in this picture of work is the way in which it is becoming normative for other areas of the economy.

 


“Education is fundamentally about the achievement of our humanity.”

From Emily Gum, Managing Director:

America's public education system was back in the news recently as President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan bill to replace No Child Left Behind. Again the talk turned to “results,” and of course we must ask—every day when we send our children off to school—what we hope our schools will achieve. This essay by prominent German philosopher Robert Spaemann, however, reminds us that education is fundamentally about the achievement of our humanity. The fundamental question we must ask is not what our children can accomplish in their lifetimes, but what they learn to love.

 


From Philip Lorish, Director of Research

Though I’ve been a longtime listener to podcasts like This American Life, it seems that 2015 was the year of the podcast. A number of new companies and shows emerged, some of which (I’m looking at you, “Serial”) became pop hits.

Among all the podcasts I listened to this year, a two-part episode of This American Life called “The Problem We All Live With” sticks out. Though the theme is what is referred to at one point as “good old 1950s-style, Brown vs. Board of Education integration,” the occasion for the piece was an odd aside from Lesley McSpadden in the immediate aftermath of her son Michael Brown’s death. As Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative reporter for Pro Publica and the New York Times, puts it, “She's standing in a crowd of onlookers a few feet where her son was shot down.” And, in that moment, this is what Lesley McSpadden says: “You took my son away from me. Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many!”

As Hannah-Jones is quick to point out, most black kids won’t be shot by police (or anyone else for that matter) but, as she puts it, “many of them will go to a school like Michael Brown’s.” And once this premise is established, the substance of the two episodes is a deep dive into ongoing efforts at school integration within two places: the school districts near Ferguson, Missouri and Hartford, Connecticut. The details provided in these two episodes have left me with enduring questions about the aspirations of our society and the place of educational institutions within a broader civic ecology. 

 

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week! From all of us at New City Commons—Merry Christmas.