Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Declining Cost of Distance and How That May Impact the Arts

Good morning
"And the beat goes on........................"

One trend being watched in the business / corporate world is that of the Declining Cost of Distance.  In the past, the cost of distance has been the dominant driver of where businesses locate, where they produce, sell and do business, and where people decide to live, shop, play and work.  The cost of distance is measured as the cost of moving things - information, goods, people.  And for a long time that cost determined physical location of both work and workers.

According to a study entitled Spatial Economics: The Declining Cost of Distance
February 10, 2016 by Bain and Company, and authored by Karen Harris, Andrew Schwedel and Austin Kilson:

"For centuries, the cost of distance has determined where businesses produce and sell, where employers locate jobs and where families choose to live, work, shop and play. What if this cost fell dramatically, thanks to new technologies? How would the global economy change if manufacturers could produce locally in small batches, without incurring excess cost? Would existing business models and supply chains, for instance, suddenly become uncompetitive? If people could work from anywhere, would crowded neighborhoods start to thin out?   
That change already has begun in the world’s advanced economies and is gathering momentum. Over the next two decades, the cost of distance will decline sharply, according to Bain research, altering the way we live and work—faster than most people expect and more broadly than many imagine." 

Technology has changed the fixed reality of where you live and work, by making it possible to live a great distance from your job.  And technology has changed the fixed reality of where businesses decide to locate as well - no longer necessarily tethered to close proximity to a client base, office locations, its employees, the means of distribution or of supplies.  

Indeed telecommuting may likely greatly expand.  As the report noted:

"As millennials become a dominant share of the workforce this decade, physical freedom and increased online skills will add to the momentum for telecommuting. Already 37% of US workers say they telecommute or have done so in the past (on average, two days per month), up from 30% in 2008 and 9% in 1995."

Urban centers - cities and regional markets - were created in part by the need to centralize operations and cut the cost of distance.  But that imperative is disappearing as robotics, autonomous delivery options, 3 D printing and other technological advances make it less necessary to locate in major metro areas.  Indeed, the trend for many companies moving many of their functions out of expensive cities and either relocating to suburbs or even offshore, started even before the current technological revolution.

Amazon is one case in point, and that model has already dramatically changed how people shop, eliminating the necessity to go to stores.  It hasn't replaced stores completely, but its now established as an alternative - one that seems increasingly attractive to shoppers.  Of course, Amazon isn't completely free from cost of distance considerations, as its warehouses still need to be planned and located strategically near delivery systems, but even that may be changing with the advent of automated delivery options like drones.  And while it needs the physical presence of a percentage of its employees as specific locations, that may be changing too with "at home" work options, automation and even artificial intelligence.

We may be on the cusp of an exurban world.  What are the societal implications for a shift resulting from a decline in the cost of distance?  And what are the implications for the nonprofit arts.

Specifically - and this is by no means an exhaustive list of things we ought to be thinking about:

  • If there is a population shift away from cities towards less developed suburban and rural areas, there may need to be a shift in audience development strategies.  Fewer people who can easily commute to a performance or exhibition, will necessitate the need for finding new ways to attract and entice both those possibly smaller subsets remaining in a defined area, and those growing cohorts no longer in the area.  We have already witnessed the negative effects of intolerable commute situation on the willingness of some consumers to brave the traffic to attend events even relatively near their homes or workplaces.  If a percentage of the urban population relocates, how will we attract them to our offerings?  
  • On the other hand, as the report points out:

"Cities and suburbs will have to contend not only with more attractive exurban and rural developments outside the traditional commuter belts, but also with other cities offering better quality of living. Some urban features are fixed, like climate and natural geography. But other features can be shaped by development initiatives and policy, including civic arts and culture, universities and centers of intellectual capital development, and government regulations and tax policy. These features may become the basis on which cities compete."  

  • It may be that as urban density and traffic lessens, coupled with advances in driverless cars, trekking into the urban center for cultural offerings may become more attractive, and less onerous.  We just don't know how all of this may play out. 

  • At the same time, populations of newer areas - as they develop and grow - may have a need and demand for localized options - including arts and culture.  And some of our arts organizations may find it advantageous to move to meet those new local demands.  Or new ones may spring up.  If that happens and meets some of the demand for our offerings, then those left in the city centers will have a smaller audience pool from which to attract customers and a more difficult task in wooing people outside the city centers to their shops.  

  • Artists have already begun that flight due in the main to the high cost of city housing and work space. Their exodus is rightly decried as negatively changing the culture of major metro areas and any number of cities are trying to figure out how to address the rising costs of living in their centers.    On the other hand, if there is a flight from cities, that may ultimately bring down the cost of housing and doing business in the urban area, and so we may have a situation conducive to the reintroduction of arts and artists in the urban settings.  But if artists are moving already, and increasingly relocating to those exact areas that stand to grow because of the declining cost of distance for business, then perhaps the attraction of being at ground zero of the development of new communities will work against them being lured back to the city which priced them out of housing in the first place. The point here is we don't know how it will play out.  Cities may well become a luxury obtainable only by the wealthy, and were that the reality, that too would have an impact on the current arts ecosystem and which organizations might survive a major upheaval in location logistics.   Moreover, if urban populations continue to move to higher percentages of the wealthy - that may, arguably, help the funding of the arts, or at least a portion thereof.  It maybe that funding goes to a small subset of the arts within a city that are favored by, or in which ownership is perceived, to the exclusion of other kinds of art.  In short, the current funding inequity could grow worse.

  • Then too, as more diverse populations may center in certain of the new areas, more multicultural arts organizations may also move where they may find a more receptive population of both audiences and supporters, as denizens of these areas have more leisure and discretionary spending funds as their costs of living go down.  Theoretically it may be possible that both city centers and the newer growth areas may each reflect an increasingly limited diversity, and ghettoization of space may take on new meanings.  

  • While the cost of distance may decline for business, it may rise for fixed location arts organizations as employees relocate to more affordable and more convenient non urban areas.  Already, in many areas arts organization workers cannot afford to live in close proximity to the physical location of their job.  If they can telecommute, that won't be a problem.  But not all of out people will be able to telecommute, even if they wanted to, as their physical presence is demanded by the nature of performances and exhibitions.  Organizations may find it essential to pay part of the costs of those commutes in order to attract the best talent, thus increasing their costs.  While businesses can possibly afford to run smaller scale operations, that isn't likely to work for us.  Taking the arts to where the people are is fraught with logistical and artistic challenges, as well as prohibitive expenses.  We've tried.    

Titanic shifts that have profound potential impacts, frequently present conflicting dynamic scenarios as possibilities.  Changes in the cost of distance may affect everyone in society and may result in major population shifts.  Or it may not.  It is difficult at this stage to know what the impacts will be, let alone how we can best respond to those impacts, but as the possibility looms, we really ought to start thinking about this kind of stuff.  The best arts and cultural strategic plans that do not take into consideration these kinds of changes may very likely end up irrelevant.

Nobody really knows for sure what it all may mean.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit

Monday, February 12, 2018

Clarifying STEAM as Complementary to STEM

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on...................."

In the Washington Post, an article by Cathy N. Davidson, founding director of the Futures Initiative and a professor in the doctoral program in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY sets forth a new study by Google that suggests STEM skills are not necessarily the keys to success at the company.

"All across America, students are anxiously finishing their “What I Want To Be …” college application essays, advised to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) by pundits and parents who insist that’s the only way to become workforce ready.  But two recent studies of workplace success contradict the conventional wisdom about “hard skills.” Surprisingly, this research comes from the company most identified with the STEM-only approach: Google.
In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas."

Ms. Davidson goes on to cite another Google study, Project Aristotle, suggesting that the most successful teams at Google:

"exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard."

Does this mean STEM skills aren't necessary, or that tech companies will now look to liberal arts majors in their hiring?  Of course not.  STEM skills are the lifeblood of technology.  But it does open the door for consideration of skills other than STEM skills as also being important in the hiring and promotion process.  It is the beginning of the recognition that STEM skills are not the only skills that are critically important.

The comments to the article are as telling as the hypothesis that communications and soft people skills are critical.  Dispensing with the obvious politically motivated comments by those to whom even the term liberal arts education, is anathema and merely the ramblings of fuzzy thinking leftists -i.e. the Trumpets - two or three valid points are made.  First, STEM skills, while technical at heart, are not completely devoid of the soft skills of empathy, team problem solving, effective communications and thinking in the larger context or outside-the-box.   Indeed, development of STEM skills involves team problem solving, empathy, communication and the generation of new ideas.  While we may argue that the arts and humanities bring an additional value to education and training, we ought not to adopt the false narrative that only the arts and humanities can do that.

Second, there is a difference between coders and technicians and those who manage the efforts of that category of workers.  The workplace needs all kinds of skills.  Steve Jobs was an innovator.  He was a designer, not a coder.  Apple would not be the company it is if he had not had those skills.  For technology companies, coders are essential. But so are managers, marketers, sales people, designers, innovators and thinkers of all stripes.  The greater development of all skills in every employee, the greater the chance the company will thrive.

But the most rational point in the comments is made by both STEM trained coders, scientists and mathematicians and those who rely on soft skills emphasized in the Oxygen study, and that is that the balance of skills is what is most desirable.  Even for those who labor almost exclusively on technical projects relying on STEM skills, having additional grounding in critical thinking, people skills and the ability to effectively communicate is of great value -- even for a company like Google which prides itself on the high level attainment of its technical people, hiring only the very top percent of those graduates who performed well in STEM courses.

While those of us who argue for STEAM would apply its value to a university education, if we just limit the discussion to inclusion of the arts and humanities in the K-12 curriculum, the idea of giving students exposure to, and development of,  knowledge in the arts and humanities, is to improve their performance of their STEM skills, and increase the likelihood that they will succeed as STEM majors in college and on the job, allowing companies like Google to reap the benefits.

This has never been an either / or choice.  The question isn't whether STEAM is better at teaching the soft skills, nor whether or not STEM teaches those skills too.  The question is how to maximize all the skills that are advantageous in the workplace for all workers.  And so the comments that suggest liberal arts majors would benefit from exposure to, and development of knowledge of, STEM skills, is valid, as is the converse, that STEM students benefit from a STEAM approach.  Indeed, STEM skills are often used by artists - ranging from painters, to the theater, to dance, to musicians, composers, choreographers, film makers and more.  The notion that STEM and the "A" in STEAM are mutually exclusive has no basis in fact, and is harmful to all the people involved - students of all stripes, technicians, managers and all employees, companies and to society in general.  Somehow we have got to figure out how to get past that bias and prejudice.

It may well be that only a STEM background is necessary for the purest technical applications, but work today isn't now, and will be even less so in the future, about only those kinds of skills.  Creativity, imagination, design, and new ideas are the life blood of enterprise and that requires multiple skills.  Eventually Artificial Intelligence will reach the point where pure coders can be replaced by robots, and then coders will have effectively coded their way out of employment.  But it will be a longer stretch before AI reaches the point where human ingenuity and thought involved in the generation of new ideas will happen.  Eventually perhaps, but not yet.

Clearly, Google has prospered by consciously recruiting the elite of STEM employees.  It has also prospered, perhaps unconsciously, by the evolution and growth of STEAM employees.

We need a country that has vision, and can equip students who will eventually populate our companies and our society with multiple skill sets and, at the least, develop an understanding of different kinds of skills and how they are integrated with each other.  Decrying STEM or STEAM is shortsighted. Making the argument that one, or the other, is unnecessary is counter intuitive and counter productive.

STEAM embodies the bigger picture.  A vivisectionist argument against STEAM illustrates a myopic approach.  There are many ways to give genesis to the big ideas that will help us both prosper and meet the challenges we face.  We need that bigger picture.  And so we need our people - all of them if possible - to be able to communicate, create, imagine, and collaborate.  STEM can do that - in part.  STEAM likely can do it across a wider, deeper spectrum.  Arrogance in insisting that STEM or STEAM is the only answer serves no one.

Very likely the resistance to STEAM comes from an irrational bias against anything that is not STEM.  That bias may have actually served a purpose for the tech industry in its infancy.  But it is no longer in its infancy, and that bias will ill serve it for the future.  I suspect that studies that show the value of skills other than STEM will not yet put the resistance to bed.  But its a start, and we need to push through that slightly open door to make the argument that STEAM enhances STEM.  It complements it, not weakens it.

We must adhere to the argument that STEAM improves STEM, not attacks it.  We must make it crystal clear that adding the "A" - the arts and humanities - is not a threat to the value of STEM, but a way to expand it and insure STEM works at an optimum level.  Perhaps we haven't emphasized enough the point that STEAM is an added, complementary value.

Increasing studies that show the value - not just to managers, but to all employees - that STEAM brings, will help us to break down the irrational barriers that once existed to keep us from making STEAM the standard.  First in K-12, but eventually on the university level as well.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit