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The future of work is uniquely human

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The future of work is uniquely human


The disruptive shifts of 2020, including covid-19 shutdowns that led to millions of workers working remotely, forced organizations to radically rethink everything from worker well-being, business models and operations to investments in cloud-based collaboration and communication tools.

Across every industry, last year’s best-laid plans were turned upside down. So it’s not surprising that technology and work have become, more than ever, inextricably intertwined. As business moves toward an uncertain future, companies have accelerated their efforts to use automation and other emerging technologies to boost efficiency, support worker well-being, accelerate work outputs, and achieve new outcomes.

Yet, technology investments are not enough to brace for future disruptions. In fact, an organization’s readiness depends crucially on how it prepares its work and its workforce. This is a uniquely human moment that requires a human touch.

To thrive in a world of constant change, companies must re-architect work and support their workers in ways that enable them to rise to future challenges. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Global Human Capital Trends survey of 6,000 global respondents, including 3,630 senior executives, 45% said that building an organizational culture that celebrates growth, adaptability, and resilience is critical to transforming work. To reach that goal, embracing a trio of essential human attributes—purpose, potential, and perspective—can humanize work and create lasting value for the workforce, and throughout the organization and society at large.

Purpose: Grounding organizations in values

Purposeestablishes a foundational set of organizational values that do not depend on circumstance and serve as a benchmark against which actions and decisions can be weighed. It relies on the uniquely human ability to identify where economic value and social values intersect. Organizations that are steadfast in their purpose are able to infuse meaning into work in order to mobilize workers around common, meaningful goals.

For example, Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, credits Delta Air Lines’ sense of purpose for helping the organization through the covid-19 crisis. “When I took over as CEO, we studied what our mission was and what our purpose was, which has helped us post-pandemic because we were clear pre-pandemic,” he says. “Our people can do their very best when they have leadership support and feel connected to the organization’s purpose.”

Potential: A dynamic look at people’s capabilities

To thrive amid constant disruption, organizations need to capitalize on the potential of their workers and their teams by looking more dynamically at their people’s capabilities. Most leaders agree: 72% of the executives in the Deloitte survey said that “the ability of their people to adapt, reskill, and assume new roles” was either the most important or second most important factor in their organization’s ability to navigate future disruptions and boost speed and agility.

AstraZeneca, for example, is an organization that quickly mobilized its resources and took advantage of worker potential to meet a pressing need—developing a covid-19 vaccine. Tonya Villafana, AstraZeneca’s vice president and global franchise head of infection, credits the company’s accelerated response for its ability to tap into a varied pool of experts, both across the company and through its collaboration with the University of Oxford. In addition, AstraZeneca not only brought in top experts but also added “high performers who were really passionate and wanted to get involved” with the vaccine development team.

Perspective: Operating boldly in the face of uncertainty

In the face of uncertainty, it’s easy to be paralyzed by multiple options and choices. Perspective—quite literally, the way organizations see things—is a challenge to operate boldly in the face of the unknown, using disruption as a launching pad to imagine new opportunities and possibilities. For instance, taking the perspective that uncertainty is a valuable opportunity frees organizations to take new, fearless steps forward, even if it means veering from the usual, comfortable path. For most executives in the survey, that includes a deliberate effort to completely reimagine how, by who, and where works gets done and what outcomes can be achieved. 61% of respondents said their work transformation objectives would focus on reimagining work, compared to only 29% pre-pandemic.

ServiceNow is one organization that shifted direction in this way during covid-19. In March 2020, the company held a “blue sky” strategy session as a forum for leaders to discuss the future of work, digital transformation, and the company. But as they considered these issues under the cloud of the emerging pandemic, CEO Bill McDermott realized the organization needed to take a different tack. “If we can’t help the world manage the pandemic, there won’t be a blue sky,” he said. As a result, he pivoted the meeting to focus on how ServiceNow could quickly innovate and bring new products to market that would help organizations maintain business operations during the pandemic. ServiceNow quickly built and deployed four emergency response management applications as well as a suite of safe workplace applications to make returning to the workplace work for everyone.

Putting people at the heart of work decisions pays off

Re-architecting work is not about simply automating tasks and activities. At its core, it is about configuring work to capitalize on what humans can accomplish when work is based on their strengths.

In the survey, executives identified two factors related to human potential as the most transformative for the workplace: building an organizational culture that celebrates growth, adaptability and resilience (45%), and building workforce capability through upskilling, reskilling, and mobility (41%).

Leaders should find ways to create a shared sense of purpose that mobilizes people to pull strongly in the same direction as they face the organization’s current and future challenges, whether the mission is, like Delta’s, to keep people connected, or centered on goals such as inclusivity, diversity or transparency. They should trust people to work in ways that allow them to fulfill their potential, offering workers a degree of choice over the work they do to align their passions with organizational needs. And they should embrace the perspective that reimagining work is key to the ability to achieve new and better outcomes—in a world that is itself being constantly reimagined.

If the past year has shown us anything, it’s that putting people at the heart of a company’s decisions about work and the workforce pays off by helping companies better stay ahead of disruption. The result is an organization that doesn’t just survive but thrives in an unpredictable environment with an unknown future.

This content was produced by Insights, the custom content arm of MIT Technology Review. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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How the idea of a “transgender contagion” went viral—and caused untold harm

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How the idea of a “transgender contagion” went viral—and caused untold harm


The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it arrived at exactly the time people with bad intentions were looking for science to buoy their opinions.

The results were in line with what one might expect given those sources: 76.5% of parents surveyed “believed their child was incorrect in their belief of being transgender.” More than 85% said their child had increased their internet use and/or had trans friends before identifying as trans. The youths themselves had no say in the study, and there’s no telling if they had simply kept their parents in the dark for months or years before coming out. (Littman acknowledges that “parent-child conflict may also explain some of the findings.”) 

Arjee Restar, now an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, didn’t mince words in her 2020 methodological critique of the paper. Restar noted that Littman chose to describe the “social and peer contagion” hypothesis in the consent document she shared with parents, opening the door for biases in who chose to respond to the survey and how they did so. She also highlighted that Littman asked parents to offer “diagnoses” of their child’s gender dysphoria, which they were unqualified to do without professional training. It’s even possible that Littman’s data could contain multiple responses from the same parent, Restar wrote. Littman told MIT Technology Review that “targeted recruitment [to studies] is a really common practice.” She also called attention to the corrected ROGD paper, which notes that a pro-gender-­affirming parents’ Facebook group with 8,000 members posted the study’s recruitment information on its page—although Littman’s study was not designed to be able to discern whether any of them responded.

But politics is blind to nuances in methodology. And the paper was quickly seized by those who were already pushing back against increasing acceptance of trans people. In 2014, a few years before Littman published her ROGD paper, Time magazine had put Laverne Cox, the trans actress from Orange Is the New Black, on its cover and declared a “transgender tipping point.” By 2016, bills across the country that aimed to bar trans people from bathrooms that fit their gender identity failed, and one that succeeded, in North Carolina, cost its Republican governor, Pat McCrory, his job.  

Yet by 2018 a renewed backlash was well underway—one that zeroed in on trans youth. The debate about trans youth competing in sports went national, as did a heavily publicized Texas custody battle between a mother who supported her trans child and a father who didn’t. Groups working to further marginalize trans people, like the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Family Research Council, began “printing off bills and introducing them to state legislators,” says Gillian Branstetter, a communications strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ROGD paper was not funded by anti-trans zealots. But it arrived at exactly the time people with bad intentions were looking for science to buoy their opinions. The paper “laundered what had previously been the rantings of online conspiracy theorists and gave it the resemblance of serious scientific study,” Branstetter says. She believes that if Littman’s paper had not been published, a similar argument would have been made by someone else. Despite its limitations, it has become a crucial weapon in the fight against trans people, largely through online dissemination. “It is astonishing that such a blatantly bad-faith effort has been taken so seriously,” Branstetter says.

Littman plainly rejects that characterization, saying her goal was simply to “find out what’s going on.” “This was a very good-faith attempt,” she says. “As a person I am liberal; I’m pro-LGBT. I saw a phenomenon with my own eyes and I investigated, found that it was different than what was in the scientific literature.” 

One reason for the success of Littman’s paper is that it validates the idea that trans kids are new. But Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins and author of Histories of the Transgender Child, says that is “empirically untrue.” Trans children have only recently started to be discussed in mainstream media, so people assume they weren’t around before, she says, but “there have been children transitioning for as long as there has been transition-related medical technology,” and children were socially transitioning—living as a different gender without any medical or legal interventions—long before that.

Many trans people are young children when they first observe a dissonance between how they are identified and how they identify. The process of transitioning is never simple, but the explanation of their identity might be.

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Inside the software that will become the next battle front in US-China chip war

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screenshot of KiCad software for circuit board design and prototyping


EDA software is a small but mighty part of the semiconductor supply chain, and it’s mostly controlled by three Western companies. That gives the US a powerful point of leverage, similar to the way it wanted to restrict access to lithography machines—another crucial tool for chipmaking—last month. So how has the industry become so American-centric, and why can’t China just develop its own alternative software? 

What is EDA?

Electronic design automation (also known as electronic computer-aided design, or ECAD) is the specialized software used in chipmaking. It’s like the CAD software that architects use, except it’s more sophisticated, since it deals with billions of minuscule transistors on an integrated circuit.

Screenshot of KiCad, a free EDA software.

JON NEAL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

There’s no single dominant software program that represents the best in the industry. Instead, a series of software modules are often used throughout the whole design flow: logic design, debugging, component placement, wire routing, optimization of time and power consumption, verification, and more. Because modern-day chips are so complex, each step requires a different software tool. 

How important is EDA to chipmaking?

Although the global EDA market was valued at only around $10 billion in 2021, making it a small fraction of the $595 billion semiconductor market, it’s of unique importance to the entire supply chain.

The semiconductor ecosystem today can be seen as a triangle, says Mike Demler, a consultant who has been in the chip design and EDA industry for over 40 years. On one corner are the foundries, or chip manufacturers like TSMC; on another corner are intellectual-property companies like ARM, which make and sell reusable design units or layouts; and on the third corner are the EDA tools. All three together make sure the supply chain moves smoothly.

From the name, it may sound as if EDA tools are only important to chip design firms, but they are also used by chip manufacturers to verify that a design is feasible before production. There’s no way for a foundry to make a single chip as a prototype; it has to invest in months of time and production, and each time, hundreds of chips are fabricated on the same semiconductor base. It would be an enormous waste if they were found to have design flaws. Therefore, manufacturers rely on a special type of EDA tool to do their own validation. 

What are the leading companies in the EDA industry?

There are only a few companies that sell software for each step of the chipmaking process, and they have dominated this market for decades. The top three companies—Cadence (American), Synopsys (American), and Mentor Graphics (American but acquired by the German company Siemens in 2017)—control about 70% of the global EDA market. Their dominance is so strong that many EDA startups specialize in one niche use and then sell themselves to one of these three companies, further cementing the oligopoly. 

What is the US government doing to restrict EDA exports to China?

US companies’ outsize influence on the EDA industry makes it easy for the US government to squeeze China’s access. In its latest announcement, it pledged to add certain EDA tools to its list of technologies banned from export. The US will coordinate with 41 other countries, including Germany, to implement these restrictions. 

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Bright LEDs could spell the end of dark skies

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a satellite view of Earth on the hemisphere away from the sun with city lights visible


A global view of Earth assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP) satellite.

NASA

Specifications in the current proposal provide a starting point for planning, including a color temperature cutoff of 3,000 K in line with Pittsburgh’s dark-sky ordinance, which passed last fall. However, Martinez says that is the maximum, and as they look for consultants, they’ll be taking into account which ones show dark-sky expertise. The city is also considering—budget and infrastructure permitting—a “network lighting management system,” a kind of “smart” lighting that would allow them to control lighting levels and know when there is an outage. 

Martinez says there will be citywide engagement and updates on the status as critical milestones are reached. “We’re in the evaluation period right now,” she says, adding that the next milestone is authorization of a new contract. She acknowledges there is some “passionate interest in street lighting,” and that she too is anxious to see the project come to fruition: “Just because things seem to go quiet doesn’t mean work is not being done.”

While they aren’t meeting with light pollution experts right now, Martinez says the ones they met with during the last proposal round—Stephen Quick and Diane Turnshek of CMU— were “instrumental” in adopting the dark-sky ordinance.


In recent months, Zielinska-Dabkowska says, her “baby” has been the first Responsible Outdoor Light at Night Conference, an international gathering of more than 300 lighting professionals and light pollution researchers held virtually in May. Barentine was among the speakers. “It’s a sign that all of this is really coming along, both as a research subject but also something that attracts the interest of practitioners in outdoor lighting,” he says of the conference.

There is more work to be done, though. The IDA recently released a report summarizing the current state of light pollution research. The 18-page report includes a list of knowledge gaps to be addressed in several areas, including the overall effectiveness of government policies on light pollution. Another is how much light pollution comes from sources other than city streetlights, which a 2020 study found accounted for only 13% of Tucson’s light pollution. It is not clear what makes up the rest, but Barentine suspects the next biggest source in the US and Europe is commercial lighting, such as flashy outdoor LED signs and parking lot lighting. 

Working with companies to reduce light emissions can be challenging, says Clayton Trevillyan, Tucson’s chief building officer. “If there is a source of light inside the building, technically it’s not regulated by the outdoor lighting code, even if it is emitting light outside,” Trevillyan says. In some cases, he says, in order to get around the city’s restrictions, businesses have suspended illuminated signs inside buildings but aimed them outside. 

Light pollution experts generally say there is no substantial evidence that more light amounts to greater safety.

For cities trying to implement a lighting ordinance, Trevillyan says, the biggest roadblocks they’ll face are “irrelevant” arguments, specifically claims that reducing the brightness of outdoor lighting will cut down on advertising revenue and make the city more vulnerable to crime. The key to successfully enforcing the dark-sky rules, he says, is to educate the public and refuse to give in to people seeking exceptions or exploiting loopholes. 

Light pollution experts generally say there is no substantial evidence that more light amounts to greater safety. In Tucson, for example, Barentine says, neither traffic accidents nor crime appeared to increase after the city started dimming its streetlights at night and restricting outdoor lighting in 2017. Last year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed crime rates alongside 300,000 streetlight outages over an eight-year period. They concluded there is “little evidence” of any impact on crime rates on the affected streets—in fact, perpetrators seemed to seek out better-lit adjacent streets. Barentine says there is some evidence that “strategically placed lighting” can help decrease traffic collisions. “Beyond that, things get murky pretty quickly,” he says.

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