When Technology Alone Can't Get America Back to Work, Look to Community

With 25 million people newly unemployed in the US—and the prospect that many jobs won’t be coming back—the need to reskill much of the nation’s workforce has reached a level of urgency not seen since the Great Depression.

It’s tempting to try to meet the problem with technology that, on the surface, promises to scale massively and quickly. Surely we can use big data, machine learning and AI to scrape the web, comb through job descriptions and scan transcripts; identify skill gaps, in-demand occupations and learning opportunities; and, finally, match them all up in a way that will get people back to work once the health crisis ends?

Technology can certainly be a useful tool. But before we design and implement big, tech-centered solutions to the current reskilling crisis, it’s important to remember that behind the statistics are struggling people, families, and communities. Learning is a deeply human and social activity; and jobs are about more than simply matching a skill profile with a hiring need. In order for people to truly move from surviving to thriving, they must find meaning in their work and see it as part of a hopeful future that they have the agency and opportunity to create.

IDEO and the Drucker Institute set out to tackle the challenge of connecting people to learning opportunities and job prospects as a way to build resilience for the communities where those individuals live and work. Together with the community in South Bend, Indiana, we designed a system that would instill a culture of lifelong learning at the local level, then scale city by city across America. We called the system Bendable, a nod to the city where the concept was born, and a testament to the ability to bend—not break—in response to rapid change.

Part digital and part place-based, Bendable connects people with opportunities to learn for free from a range of leading online content providers, as well as local educational and training institutions. It serves up “Community Collections”—learning playlists curated by residents on topics of wide interest. And it offers sets of courses that help people build skills that match employers’ needs. Local businesses vet these “Career Collections” and even put their name and brand on them. Learners who complete the courses in a Career Collection can earn digital badges, which they can then share with an employer during the application or hiring process.

Similar to music playlists, the Bendable lifelong learning mobile application surfaces collections of free resources on topics ranging from work skills to hobbies curated by local experts, residents, and business owners.

Bendable focuses on forging resilience through learning, and it’s built on the belief that the individual and the community can be both the agents and units of change.

But even as we prepare to launch Bendable in South Bend and learn from how the community uses it, so that we can smartly scale the model to more cities, we are aware that our solution is not the solution. We will need an ecosystem of complementary approaches in order to truly address the complex systemic challenge at hand.

Yes, tech-based solutions will—and should—play a role. We need algorithms and market data. We need smart job matching and portable credentials. But as new corporate and philanthropic dollars flood into the sector, let's not forget what human-centered design has taught us about what really works in creating meaningful change. In the rush to move swiftly, we must keep in mind what, in the end, we’re actually seeking to impact: the trajectory of someone’s life.

Interested in learning more about Bendable’s origin story? The IDEO Journal spoke with Sarah Zaner, a Senior Director who led the IDEO project team and is now helping to stand Bendable up in the world; and Rick Wartzman, Head of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society at the Drucker Institute.

May 2020

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