Drowning in horseshit

The problem with future of work is like the one that faced London in the late 1800s. 

We are at risk of drowning in horseshit.

The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894 is a tale about an article in The Times warning that “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”. The problem was subsequently debated at the first ever urban planning conference in New York in 1898 but without a solution being found.

Neither the article nor the conference actually existed but the problem was very real. Large areas around Kings Cross station were taken up with holding yards for the manure and knacker’s yards for disposing of horses, which caused an unimaginable stench. Manure, urine and dead horses on the streets of London attracted flies and caused diseases to spread. 

Had we had to continue using horses for transport, it seems likely the system would have collapsed. Fortunately, the solution arrived in the form of the motor car and electric trams, which meant horses were no longer required. The streets became cleaner and the city became healthier.

So what’s that got to do with the future of work?

Offices were on the same path as horse transport. Having ever more people commuting into city centres to work in offices was becoming unsustainable. Transport links were groaning under the weight of traffic, people were getting ill and even dying from the stress, our communities and society as a whole were ailing. 

Our equivalent of the motor car is mobile working. When people don’t have to commute into a city centre office every day, much of the stress and sickness disappears. People are healthier, happier, more productive. They get to spend more time with their families and in their local communities, to the benefit of both and to broader society.

What’s more, the air quality improves, congestion eases and the city becomes more energy efficient.

The whole concept of how all that horseshit was handled in a major city is very hard for us to get out heads around today. It is almost unimaginable.

In a decade or so, we’ll look back at how all those people used to travel in to office every day with the same lack of comprehension.

But right now, there’s still a lot of horseshit around.

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