Liquid life

Compared to life in the industrial economy, we are headed towards a way of living, which is much less rigid. Many of the basic structures that society was organized around are dissolving. Life is becoming liquid.

If you want to have access to more individualized and flexible services, you will in turn be required to work in a more fluid and flexible way. We used to have fixed working hours, and shops and offices were closed on holidays and weekends. Today, as users, we want 24/7/365 access to services, and we want to choose those services in very small units and great variety. Consequently, as providers, we must make ourselves available anytime, in very small increments.

It’s a self-reenforcing process, because once you have to be available anytime, you can’t get by yourself without a flexible system around you — witness the problems of finding daycare for children of parents who work non-standard hours. If you are required to be flexible, you will demand flexible solutions to support your life.

In short, a more flexible organisation of value creation requires many of the structures that society was organized around to be broken down.

The Liquid life

- porous
- fluid
- detached
- accelerating

- Porous

The factory used to be the locus of production. But with value creation taking place through networks, it becomes harder to pinpoint, where the functionality emerges. What a manufacturer used to do — design and development, manufacturing, marketing, accounting, customer service etc. — can be delegated all over the place.

The same will increasingly be true for other types of value creation: Healthcare, education or banking will be delivered as instances — changing configurations of contributions that fit a particular context very precisely.

The old organizational structures; the factory, the school, the hospital, the shop or the bank in effect become porous, less clearly demarcated. It’s harder to see where they begin and where they end. Some functions may be handled by external providers, the people working may be freelancers, contributing from a number of locations. The way in which an instance is created is itself an instance.

Our devices become porous in the sense that a greater part of the value they provide do not emerge from the physical object. Much of the value and functionality that smart devices offer, come from being connected to a system of lots of other devices, and from the services and experiences that are coordinated in the cloud. The connected car is porous; what it delivers comes from far beyond the tangible device of steel, glas and rubber.

- Fluid

Evidently, if the economy is less about finished products and more about creating solutions for at particular context, the partipants and the resources that make up the solution will keep changing Outcomes like better health, lifelong learning, and sound economic management are not a matter of single interventions. The ways they are achieved, evolve and adapt over time.

Even physical objects are less fixed. Customers can configure individual products that are then manufactured by hyper-flexible robots and 3D printers. A digital design for an object can be adjusted, shared and remixed in global networks. In that sense, the object remains ”fluid” up to the point it is instantiated physically by being printed out

Since a large part of the functionality depends on software, a gadget — whether a car, a phone, a piece of machinery — can change appearance and features by installing different software.

More of our consumption is through access rather than acquisition. We pay for access to music, movies, software or books — and should we stop paying the access fee, we have nothing left of it.

It would be nice to save up for changing times, but what can you save that will last?

- Detached

The relations that we have towards eachother are less static as well.

The industrial economy was characterized by full-time, permanent employment at one location. In the on-demand economy, more people have several jobs, or lots of little gigs.

A company, which hires independent contractors and outsources much of its activity, has few commitments and obligations, and very shallow relations to those who work for it. Conversely, whereas permanent employees would work only for their company, freelancers and part time employees have several customers, some of them may even be competitors.

Likewise, the time that investors hold their share in companies has shortened from years to months. Most trading in the stock markets is trying to profit from short-term fluctuations in share prices — rather than the dividends that companies pay. When you are buying and selling stocks at high frequency, investors are less concerned if a company is investing in R&D and has a good a long term growth stategy.

- Accelerating

The exponential curve is the sign of our times. Many fundamental parameters are changing at an accelerating rate — some for the better, some for worse. Digital technology and all the sciences and industry it touches, have developed at the speed of Moores law for decades, doubling computing power, network speed, resolution of sensors and memory capacity every two years of so. The acceleration seems to be levelling off a bit, but in other fundamental areas, like in bio-tech, performance for price is improving even faster.

Knowledge and skills become obsolete, experience turns into obstacles for change. New technologies, new logics spread almost instantly — like PokemonGO changed augmented reality from specialized and advanced into child’s play for millions in a matter of days. The next new thing will come as fast — or faster, replacing what’s here.

Is the liquid life a good life?

There’s a certain tension in this. We need to build trust and relationships, we need collaborators and communities. On the other hand, the flexibility we demand, requires that our connections are loose and interchangeable.

The same fluidity is repeated in our culture. The pillars of our identity — our profession, our beliefs, where we live — are subject to change. Reality is chopped up in modules, that often seem to belong to parallel universes. A common complaint is the lack of an overarching narrative; there’s no solid framework for giving our lives meaning.

Change can be exciting and exhilarating, opening new worlds of opportunities and experiences. Or it can be threatening and stressful, like an assault. How we see the change affects how we position ourselves. If we sense that the game is rigged against us we will rather not play along. If we have trust and confidence, we will engage.

A much more liquid life seems inevitable — but is that what we really want? Is it good for us? Even in the 21st. century humans probably need and enjoy a certain emotional stability and a sense of a long-term direction and meaning.