What is the impact of the “on-demand” workforce? New initiative tracks trends, develops approaches to address workers’ needs with $250,000 from Knight Foundation


Institute of the Future launches effort with $250,000 from Knight Foundation

PALO ALTO, Calif. – June 23, 2015 – (RealEstateRama) — To help cities remain competitive and create incentives for talented people to contribute to their growth, Institute of the Future is undertaking a new initiative to track the ways in which the nature of work is changing, and to help design policies that meet the needs of a new class of workers. The Workable Futures Initiative is supported by $250,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Today’s on-demand workforce is growing rapidly, but facts are scarce. Although reliable statistics are hard to obtain, a recent estimate maintains that as many as 53 million people may be engaged in this new way of working—from Uber drivers and Shyp couriers to contractors, freelancers and temp workers of all kinds. A recent survey of 1,000 workers provides a preliminary glimpse of the demographics of this on-demand workforce, however because of its independent nature, it is hard to get a complete picture.

The Workable Futures Initiative will build out our understanding of this new workforce, using a combination of ethnographic research and other forecasting tools. The goal is to reveal the changing meanings of work, family, and community that will shape the experiences of this next-generation workforce, and help translate new worker habits into urban policies.

In addition, the Workable Futures Initiative will map the lives and communities of on-demand workers. The mapping will help society design new platforms that use innovative technologies and business models to support a broad spectrum of workers and work habits. The initiative will then prototype and test these ideas for individual workers, as well as households, local economies, cities and within the global trade arena.

“The changes we see today aren’t just about the rise of highly sophisticated knowledge workers or the automation of blue collar jobs,” said Marina Gorbis, executive director for Institute for the Future. “Nor are they just the stories of the growing freelance economy or the competitive landscape for on-demand worker platforms like Uber or Instacart. All of these are disruptive innovations that are convulsing the workforce today. But it would be a mistake to think that we’re just shifting our full-time W-2 workforce to a freelance 1099 workforce. We’re creating an entirely new class of workers, with unique needs and opportunities. And we need to understand those needs and opportunities.”

“The way we work is changing dramatically in response to new technologies and work habits. In order to remain competitive and attract the talented workers necessary to build a healthy economy, cities have to adapt,” said Carol Coletta, Knight Foundation vice president for community and national initiatives. “The Workable Futures Initiative will help policy makers and leaders better understand the nature and variety of new work arrangements and their advantages, as well as the hardships and concerns these workers face. It proposes a serious re-thinking of the nature of work in our society and the design of products, services, and regulations that support the new realities of work.”

“We’re poised to have exactly the wrong kind of discussion about these platforms—these new technologies and business models for organizing work,” said Devin Fidler, director of the initiative at Institute For the Future. “When confronted with change, we often want simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down policies. But what we need is a much more nuanced conversation based on real data—and insight—into all the factors that are shaping the choices a worker makes when he or she signs up to be an Uber driver or to take online surveys as an income strategy. Then we need to design our social and economic goals into the platforms as rigorously as we design user interfaces for ease of use. And of course, we need to prototype these positive platforms.”

Institute For the Future is a 47-year-old non-profit organization with a long history of prototyping the future as a way to anticipate policy needs. In the 1970s, with grants from the Advanced Research Projects Agency and the National Science Foundation, Institute for the Future pioneered the development of experimental network communications systems—public and private digital messaging systems for groups and individuals that were forerunners of today’s email and chat systems. In the 2000s, an Institute for the Future team, led by renowned game designer Jane McGonigal, designed and prototyped crowd forecasting tools, which use public and expert perceptions to create “microforecasts” about the future. The tools were used to generate insights about innovations in science and technology and what ‘could be.’

Support for Institute for the Future forms one part of Knight Foundation’s efforts to invest in civic innovators who help cities attract and keep talented people, expand economic opportunity and create a culture of engagement. The foundation believes that designing places to achieve these goals is crucial to city success.

About Institute for the Future

The Institute for the Future (IFTF) is an independent, non-profit research organization based in Silicon Valley, California. Its mission is to help organizations, communities, and individuals think systematically about the future. IFTF has a 47-year track record of pioneering tools and methods for building foresight and is the world’s first and oldest organization dedicated to bringing the skills and benefits of future forecasting to the public. For more information, visit: www.iftf.org

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more visit, knightfoundation.org.



Jean Hagan, Director of Communications, Institute for the Future, 650-233-9551,

Anusha Alikhan, Director of Communications, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, 305-908-2677,

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. We believe that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit www.knightfoundation.org.

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