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Rapid Blog: Mary Brown looks from the future's edge, reimagining work and community

Mary Brown is a researcher and Futurist with a wide range of experience including Human Centered Design, Organization Development, and Learning and Development strategies and methods to improve individual leadership and organizational effectiveness. She was named to Grand Rapids Business Journal's 50 Most Influential Women In West Michigan in 2016. Her current area of focus is Artificial Intelligence (AI) and human interactions and explores the implications of new technology adoption in society. She can be reached at her LinkedIn page. This essay is her own and does not necessarily reflect the views of Rapid Growth or its parent company, Issue Media Group.
Mary Brown

Futurist Mary Brown discusses technology's role in our evolving communities, exploring the need for equity in health, transportation, the environment, and more.
I am a Futurist, and often people think I can predict what will happen. When I tell them I cannot, they look at me puzzled as if they are wondering what a Futurist does. What we do is look at what is happening around us and look for patterns and trends. Some of us work in specific areas and industries. My focus is technology and society (local, national, global; within organizations and communities). 
 
Let me show you what I mean …
 
You enter your home. You've enjoyed the day working with your team. It's been weeks since seeing them in the flesh. It's great to work from home and be able to remotely join your colleagues for project meetings and casual conversations over coffee, but having a few laughs face-to-face today was great, and the after-work drinks don't hurt, either.

"Oh crap!" you say, after suddenly realizing that you forgot to add to the grocery list a few items that you need for the meal this evening with friends. It's too late to add to your order because the drone delivery already dropped off the week's groceries. You have to make the run yourself. You message for the autonomous transportation service to pick you up in 15 minutes. As you scurry to gather your reusable bags, you remember that while on the drive there, you better make sure to check your appointments and move a few files from the cloud into folders for the team to review for tomorrow's meeting. This project is an important one; the company is a part of a community effort to create a comprehensive circular economy model, thus reimagining how design and consumption are approached in a digital society. "Alexa, I am leaving for a few hours, please lock the doors." Alexa responds, "Okay [insert your name here], see you soon." 

Most of us don't have a day-to-day experience such as the one I am describing here, but if you follow the links in the article, you will see that most of that future is here and we are living on the edge of it.  

Our world has become integrated with technology. Technology is used to track our steps, meals, our points and rewards, and our travel. We use it to send and retrieve "cash" and select our favorite music and movies. We can become the creators of original content that we upload to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube. We are the gatherers of likes, smiles, frowns, and hearts. We video conference with our healthcare provider, view our medical records, engage with virtual social groups to discuss our illness with strangers. Of course, there is more, but my point is that the digital space captures the day-to-day dealings and episodic surprises. Technology has become ubiquitous, embedded in stuff around us and within the bodies of animals and human beings.  

Companies like Walmart and Amazon are deploying AI systems more broadly in areas like inventory and supply chain management. What will this mean for service sector jobs or even other employment areas that seem to be "untouchable?" Just like any other technologies we have seen emerge, the human factor will have to be reimagined.

In some ways, we are becoming one with our technology. Like our brains, it demands our attention and fuels our distractions and biases. It has democratized access to a vast bank of knowledge, but not the ability to sort through the information in such a way to reduce our biases, whether they are inherently built into the algorithm by programming or self-imposed by our experiences.
 
And if we look deeply, it exposes the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Who suffers because of this new world and who will thrive has to be explored; our communal interactions will need to be reexamined. How we learn and capture our creativity and use it will shift and how we build better communities outside the virtual world will need our attention. 
 
Yes, living in this digitized world, we are faced with trying to mitigate the harm that has been created from the creation and adoption of new technologies, and this needs to be front of mind. It's the dystopian stuff that Black Mirror portrays and Elon Musk warns us about — the dark side of our fascination with stepping to the edge of a technological future and jumping head first into the design, creation, and adoption of these new conveniences that we never knew we needed. 

Locally, we will have to look at how technology will impact our communities and who will be invited to the table to participate. Locally and regionally, health equity is a major factor for communities. We have individuals who are disproportionately impacted by the here and now, but what about the future? We are a city where a segment of our population struggle (especially children), despite a thriving economy. If not solved, how could their situation look even further into the digital economy? Grand Rapids has a homelessness problem and a segment of the homeless population, LGBTQIA+, suffer immensely with finding their place in our city. We are a growing city and region that is thinking about the future of transportation and our environment. There is so much that technology can help solve if deployed in the appropriate way.

Nothing I've said here as a Futurist has been a prediction far out into the future because it is here now. We will reap the benefits but also the perils, in some way or form. Right now, I have you standing on the edge of the present moment, and I invite you to return to look into the future and think about the need to explore these and other challenges. There is more to come.
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