My daughter Meghan was hard at work drawing pictures recently. She traveled around the house determining what was valuable to us, what was worth drawing. When she approached me, I showed her how to draw a three-dimensional perspective by placing a point anywhere on a page and drawing lines from the corner of the square. (It took me till age 30 before I learned that trick.)
A short while later, as her drawing took her to other places, she said, “Dad, there’s nothing square about people.” Some comments require a response, some just a listening ear. A few minutes later came another observation: “Dad, there’s nothing square about butterflies either.” Finally, summarizing her new thesis, she said, “Dad, there’s nothing square about any living thing. Well . . . except when you draw them.”
At this point, I could no longer resist the metaphoric value of this observation. Off I scurried to the computer. Meghan, like the staff at the Work Research Foundation, was making just one observation in the lifelong exploration of design. Human beings have a need to understand the meaning in design. Implicit in her commentary is the quest to know the enduring patterns and characteristics of life around her. For the WRF, this is an explicit discovery centred on economic life.
The Work Research Foundation is a think tank of civic entrepreneurs engaged in the exploration of economic life. It is guided by a worldview that recognizes the enduring design of economic life, the distinctiveness of the sphere of economic life from other spheres in society, the dignity of the human person at work, and the rich weave of social partnerships essential to vigorous, sustainable markets.
Think tanks have been around formally for less than 100 years. Some suggest the name was coined during the Second World War and originally referred to army tanks in which generals and senior staff of the allied forces met to discuss strategy in the face of unexpected battlefield situations. Today, the term is commonly used to describe small groups of strategic experts working together to do innovative thinking.
The WRF is not an advocacy group seeking to change legislation or business practices by direct lobbying. It is not a for-profit consulting firm paid to advise others on how to conduct their affairs. And it is not an academic institution engaged in basic research and education.
As a think tank, the WRF seeks to combine practice-oriented research with a broad-based agenda of influence and education. It aims to serve leaders in all areas of economic life, including in business (directors, CEOs, and professionals), labour (union boards and executive staff), government (federal and provincial members of parliament, city councils, and senior civil servants), academia (think tank scholars, consultants, and college and university professors), and the media (journalists, senior editors, and news anchors).
The institutional vocation of the Work Research Foundation is to be a think tank of civic entrepreneurs engaged in the pursuit of social renewal in service of the common good. When people think of business entrepreneurship, the usually think of the small business person starting a new venture. Peter Drucker suggests this popular image does not go far enough. In his view, business entrepreneurship is about structural innovation, of creating new markets by finding ways to provide value or service to customers. Civic entrepreneurship is also about structural innovation, of finding ways to serve the public good not just in the economic realm but in all spheres of society.
A think tank can pursue its research and influence agenda in different ways. Since it must pursue a high level of expertise in its area of concern, think tank staff easily succumb to the seduction of intellectual hubris, of trying to tell others how to think and what to do. While we do not lack conviction in our worldview, we seek to cultivate an attitude of cooperative exploration with regard to our areas of expertise.
As we work with leaders in economic life (whether in business or labour organizations, in elected office, or opinion leaders in academia and the media), we will share in a journey of exploration with humility: listening with care, helping to raise the big questions, bringing our research to bear in convivial conversation, paying attention to the worldview frameworks within which economic history is unfolding.
The work of the WRF is enriched by paying careful attention to the sometimes conflicting worldviews that influence economic life in North America. Like every other area of human action, economic life is shaped by people operating within diverse perspectives, diverse frameworks for understanding and engaging life.
The worldview that guides the WRF’s approach consists of at least the following four emphases:
- There is an enduring design to economic life. The basic patterns that shape economic life are neither random nor subject to change over time—there is a meaningful and enduring design to economic life. Wisdom in economic life consists of tracing these basic patterns and working along (rather than against) the grain of reality they uncover. As in every other area of human endeavour, economic life consists of real possibilities and limits, laws, and rhythms. Wisdom means knowing these realities and accommodating oneself to them.
The sphere of economic life can and must be distinguished from other distinct spheres in society. Businesses, trade unions, and other economic institutions need room to grow and flourish in society—their own distinct sphere of life. The prosperity of a society requires that the economic sphere enjoys the respect of other spheres and, in particular, that government clears the way for innovation and the maturing of leadership in economic life. A prosperous society also requires that the economic sphere not extend beyond its reach by commercializing other spheres of life.
The American political theorist James W. Skillen refers to the “diversity of organizational competencies and social responsibilities” found in the diverse spheres of society as “structural pluralism.” According to Skillen, “there is a historical dimension to the differentiation of this social diversity, but there is nothing arbitrary about the unique identities of family life, schooling, art, science, politics (and much more).” We would obviously add economic life to this list. Skillen continues:
Once differentiated, each of these types of activity displays its own characteristic qualities that cannot be accounted for by reference merely to individual autonomy or to a single collectivity. . . . As society differentiates into an ever more complex array of social structures, government’s task of securing justice entails recognition and protection of that “structural pluralism” as part of its legal integration of the whole society. Justice for the commonwealth requires just treatment not only of persons as citizens but also of all non-governmental institutions and relationships through which people constitute their lives. A just political order is a complex institutional community characterized, in part, by its establishment of structural pluralism.
There is a dignity to the human person at work that must be honoured. People thrive and contribute effectively when their work puts food on the table and inspires commitment, when they enjoy dignity, and when their work receives respect. Each human being has an innate dignity, which brings an innate dignity to labour and which must also be honoured in the workplace.
The dignity of labour makes just demands on the design of work. As professor Lee Hardy wrote in his book The Fabric of This World, work is a social place for the responsible exercise of a significant range of human talents and abilities in the service of others. Human existence is multifaceted—including physical, psychological, social, ethical, political, and other facets—and the design of work must address this complexity.
Following Hardy, the Work Research Foundation believes jobs must be “big enough” for people. A job should include a variety of tasks and require a variety of skills and allow workers to enjoy a significant measure of responsibility for the planning, organization, and quality control of their own work.
At the same time, the design of work should allow for a healthy balance between work and personal life. The scheduling of work should allow adequate time for rest and for other tasks, whether at home or in volunteer efforts.
To flourish, economic markets depend on a rich weave of social partnerships. From our perspective, vigorous, sustainable markets are a good thing. A flourishing market features well-developed structural interaction among the sellers and buyers of goods or services. Using an available means of exchange, an enterprise should be prudently cultivated, guided by the norm of thriftful generosity so that everyone benefits and can meet their responsibilities.
Flourishing markets require a rich weave of mutually gainful social relationships, such as Annalee Saxenian describes in her comparative study of Silicon Valley and Boston’s Route 128. Saxenian talks about “creating collaborative advantage” by bringing together the myriad of personal and institutional actors that populate a regional economy like Silicon Valley. According to her,
geographic proximity promotes the repeated interaction and mutual trust needed to sustain collaboration and to speed the continual recombination of technology and skill. When production is embedded in . . . regional social structures and institutions, firms compete by translating local knowledge and relationships into innovative products and services, and industrial specialization becomes a source of flexibility rather than of atomism and fragmentation.
The region of Emilia-Romagna in Italy (around the city of Bologna) provides an example of the importance of social partnerships to economic life. It went from being the fourth poorest region in 1970 to the second most prosperous region by the late 1980s. Spurred by independent artisans and government programs aimed at stimulating inter-firm collaboration, the transformation resulted from a conscious effort to build social partnerships between government, unions, and the small business community.
A very different example of the dense social networks needed for markets to flourish is the trade corridor that follows the major transportation routes extending from Quebec, past Toronto, down through Michigan, and as far south as Florida. A trade corridor is a complex interweaving of geography, transportation infrastructure, social/community networks, political jurisdiction, and economic markets. Understanding and nurturing economic life conducted along a trade corridor requires attention to all these threads.
In our view, government, business, and labour should function as social partners in economic life, not as embattled adversaries. An example of how not to build social partnership is the past decade of labour law changes in Ontario. All three players bear responsibility for creating the current climate of hostility.
The Netherlands, however, provides a great example of how to forge and maintain social partnerships. In 1986, Swedish sociologist GÃ¶ran Therborn dubbed the Netherlands as “perhaps the most spectacular employment failure in the advanced capitalist world.” In 1984, Dutch unemployment reached a record number of 800,000 (nearly 14 per cent of the labour force), with an equal number eased out of the labour market through early retirement or by qualifying for easily obtained disability benefits.
During the next 10 years, the Netherlands halved its unemployment rate to just over 6 per cent in 1997, significantly below the 11 per cent average for the European Union. The “Dutch Miracle,” combining wage moderation, social security reform, and labour law reform, was made possible through close cooperation between government, business, and labour. The Netherlands’ success may not be easily replicated elsewhere—research suggests the Dutch case hinges on its unique historical legacy and situation—but it shows that building social partnership is possible and beneficial.
The Work Research Foundation strives to deepen and broaden public debate on the ordering of the North American economy and its relationships both to other economies and to the other spheres of society. We will engage opinion leaders in an ongoing conversation about controversies, such as the free trade discussion which has led to the street battles in Seattle and the upcoming protests in Quebec City. These debates will go beyond the skittish pragmatism and self-centred individualism prevalent in our time.
In a democratic political regime with a market economy, efforts toward positive change must come from all responsible, interacting agents. Neither government nor business has a monopoly over public opinion and popular sentiment. Change will be the result of debate and innumerable individual responsible actions on the part of persons and institutions. The key contribution a think tank can make is well-crafted public education based on careful observation and reflection. The Work Research Foundation will contribute to this conversation from our distinctive worldview, paying close attention to the perspectives of other contributors. In this way, we hope to pioneer worldview economics in North America. It is a journey best traveled with many voices. Your voice will be a welcome contribution.