There is an alternative. A circular economy would turn goods that are at the end of their service life into resources for others, closing loops in industrial ecosystems and minimizing waste (see Closing loops). It would change economic logic because it replaces production with sufficiency: reuse what you can, recycle what cannot be reused, repair what is broken, remanufacture what cannot be repaired. A study of seven European nations found that a shift to a circular economy would reduce each nations greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 70% and grow its workforce by about 4% -- the ultimate low-carbon economy (see go.nature.com/biecsc).

The concept grew out of the idea of substituting manpower for energy, first described 40 years ago in a report2 to the European Commission by me and Geneviève Reday-Mulvey while we were at the Battelle Research Centre in Geneva, Switzerland. The early 1970s saw rising energy prices and high unemployment. As an architect, I knew that it took more labour and fewer resources to refurbish buildings than to erect new ones. The principle is true for any stock or capital, from mobile phones to arable land and cultural heritage.

Circular-economy business models fall in two groups: those that foster reuse and extend service life through repair, remanufacture, upgrades and retrofits; and those that turn old goods into as-new resources by recycling the materials. People -- of all ages and skills -- are central to the model. Ownership gives way to stewardship; consumers become users and creators3. The remanufacturing and repair of old goods, buildings and infrastructure creates skilled jobs in local workshops. The experiences of workers from the past are instrumental.



As automation looms and more and more jobs are being shaped to accommodate the tech-saturated "knowledge economy," 63% of full- and part-time workers say they have taken steps in the past 12 months to upgrade their skills and knowledge.

That is one of several key findings from a Pew Research Center survey conducted last fall to understand people's motives for learning, both in professional and personal contexts. The Center then held a series of related focus groups in December, drawing insights from those in the Baltimore, Atlanta and St. Louis metro regions.

Here are some of the key themes that came out of those conversations about learning, work and a changing economy.

The Great Recession led to soul-searching and skills re-evaluation. A number of participants talked about how they took stock of their skill set and employability after the economic collapse that began in 2007-08. As a result, many pursued job-related training. More than half (55%) of those who did so sought to learn, maintain or improve job skills:

[In 2008] I saw everything going on around me with co-workers, neighbors, friends and asked myself, "Who's coming after me and my job? How long are my skills going to last?" .... I did some research that was pretty comforting, but I try to spend a little time every couple of months now reassessing my status.
- Mid-career professional, Atlanta region

My friends and I just assume that what we do now will be obsolete in the next decade. That's our reality. You always have to keep learning and improving.
- Millennial in starter job, St. Louis region

Indeed, many noted how technology had encroached on traditional human workplace activities, including sophisticated tasks:

I don't know whether to laugh or cry when there are ads for all the things computers can do that used to require people [to perform].
- Baby Boomer skilled worker, Baltimore region

Those who aren't trying to improve will get passed by. One compelling motivation for some is to stay nimble and keep learning in order to increase their worth for employers and in their own eyes:

You don't want to stagnate in your learning and your position. My thinking is you have to have a hunger to learn, or else the people who do have that hunger are going to make you seem like you're out of it - [you're] besides the point.
- Middle-aged professional in St. Louis region

I want to be alert and keep my mind working and going. I don't want to be somewhere stuck. I keep trying to learn more by challenging myself, thinking outside the box. Be creative, inspirational, that kind of thing. I would hate myself if I stopped trying to get better at what I do.
- Millennial in the music business, Atlanta region

Competition is coming from every direction, including globalization and new job entrants. Technology advances are only part of the story. People know jobs can be outsourced abroad or challenged by others in the local labor market:

Everything in life is getting more competitive and it starts with the job. There are people trying to get hired and get promoted. There are people trying to show how much they have learned and how much they have done - real resume builders. There are people who will work for less in other countries. [Expletive], I even compete with myself. I just started body building and I want to get better - and also beat the people working out in the gym around me.
- 30-something white-collar worker, St. Louis region

People have intrinsic and extrinsic reasons to keep learning. In addition to trying to stay employable, participants cited any number of reasons they have pursued new knowledge. Some were related to self-fulfillment:

It's so satisfying to master something and make yourself valuable to others. You know, [when it starts as] something that you never knew that you could do and then you learn you can do it, it's like, ahhhh. I got it. There is no better feeling.
- Nonprofit worker, Baltimore region

One of the St. Louis region participants told of a time when he knew his organization needed better ways to do communications and outreach. So he taught himself how to be a desktop publisher and use social media for promotional purposes. Within a year, his efforts had yielded so much attention for the organization that it got a high-profile visit from an Obama administration official and local political leaders:

It makes me feel really good that I took the time and didn't do it halfway. I gave it 100%. And they did not expect these results at all, so it really makes me feel important in that organization.

Another participant from the St. Louis region described how she feels it is important to keep on learning because so many people depend on her to make good choices:

I have to make so many decisions for my family and my work. I have to stay on top of research to make educated decisions for myself and the people in my life. My colleagues depend on me and my children depend on me. 

To which another member of that group quickly added that he is dismayed watching people who don't want to learn:

Sometimes I see people who don't learn and [seem to feel], "Oh, yeah, I'll accept it just like it is" as opposed to thinking, "I dont know, what's really behind that and I should find out more." I watch the [people uninterested in learning] get into trouble and I think, "Oh, my God, that could've been me." ... And then I look at them and say, "[Expletive], you don't want to know any more than that? You'll be sorry."

Sometimes people's rationale for job-related learning is defiance. There are those whose motivation for learning and upgrading their skills comes from proving their detractors wrong and prevailing when arguments arise:

My personal drive for [mastering work-related knowledge] is to tell them or show that they are wrong about me. It's like a ballplayer when you say "you can't do this" or "you're not prepared to succeed." I just say to myself I'm going to show everybody my own personal way that I can do this. But there are naysayers everywhere. ... You can't miss them. And it is so great to show them how wrong they are.
- 40-something skilled worker, Atlanta region

What motivates me? To prove a point. So that's probably on the more negative side [laughs] to show that I can do it and kinda, "[Road rage gesture] to you. I did it." That's pretty raw, but to prove a point I will stubbornly study and study and study and figure out how to do it.
- 60-something working-class participant, St. Louis region

Learning brings its own rewards. There is undeniable stress for many as they adjust to the new economy. Yet, when asked to provide a single word to describe their feeling about learning, most of the focus group participants chose a positive rather than negative word. And they much more often spoke of the pleasure of learning than the pain of it. Their responses are listed in the adjacent table.

Topics: Educational Attainment, Emerging Technology Impacts, National Economy, Technology Adoption, Work and Employment



At first blush, Cuba and America bear little resemblance. In spite of numerous reforms, the Castro government remains hermetically sealedand often hostileto its press. As anemic as Americas economic recovery may appear, Cubas poverty is dire and procrustean lineamientos (economic guidelines) preclude its citizens from materially improving their prospects.

Nevertheless, after visiting Cuba, I was struck by our shared challenges. On both sides of the Florida Straits citizens voice concerns about political morass, atrophying infrastructure, and the grim job market that awaits millennials. The key difference, to my eyes, is that those problems are much exacerbated in Cuba.

If Cuba offers an exaggeration of domestic political and economic challenges, it also models the effects one elixir, the web-enabled sharing economy, has when vigorously imbibed. Far from a panacea, this contingent economycall it sharing, gig, or freelancepresents a state-subsidized liability and a cautionary tale for defenders, especially those wary of government intervention.

Cubas Sharing Economy
A communist island nation would seem fertile terrain for the sharing economy. Well before the availability of Internet cafes and Wi-Fi hotspots, Cubans shared cars, kitchens, and homes.

In the early 1990s, Cuban authorities established markets for casas particulares, private rental homes, and paladares, family-run kitchens. A traditional hotel can cost upwards of 200 or 300 CUC ($200 to $300) per night in Central Havana; I rented rooms in a casa particularfor 20 or 30 CUC per night. A restaurant meal in Old Havana can set you back 20 CUC, compared to 2 or 3 CUC at a nearby paladar.

While you can spot official taxis across Havana, you can also hitch rides with nearly any vehicle. Theres a well-developed custom through which passengers share vehicles for a flat rate of 1 CUC per rider. With limited public transit and low car ownership, many Cubans rely upon ride-sharing as their primary mode of transportation.

All of this is to say that kitchen-, home-, and ride-sharing arose in Cuba independently of web start-ups such as Meal Sharing, Airbnb, and Uber.

On its face, web tech simply bolsters this sharing economy. Yondainer Gutierrez launched the Yelp-like AlaMesa to help locals and visitors find great Cuban food. The Android app and website have steered more trafficand more varied trafficto paladares. Airbnb is a game-changer for American tourists to Cuba. Because Airbnb can deposit greenbacks directly into Cuban hosts bank accounts, US visitors can purchase rooms at casas particulares before arriving in Cuba. According to Airbnb representatives, approximately 4,000 of the estimated 8,000 casa particulares list on Airbnb.

Infrastructure Obstacles
The problem for these web tech ventures is that they presuppose infrastructure that doesnt exist. Cubas web access is exceedingly poor. Aside from so-called admins (government officials, journalists, academics, and the like), Cubans cannot access the Internet from their homes. While the government released a proposal for residential broadband, the narrow scope of the projecta pilot in Old Havanameans that most Cubans will continue to rely upon Internet cafes and Wi-Fi-enabled parks, where access remains expensive (2 CUC per hour) and unreliable.

I stayed at two casas particulares in Havana: Both were in proximity of a Wi-Fi hotspot, both hosts owned Wi-Fi repeaters, and both hosts complained that they couldnt get online after 10 am because there were too many simultaneous connections.

If you cannot connect to the Internet, you cannot participate in a web-enabled marketplace. When one of my hosts could not connect to the Internet for three days, she lost her Airbnb reservations and had her account suspended. Inadequate broadband takes an even greater toll on web entrepreneurs: one start-up founder explained how she plans her workload around her 56Kbps connection; another said he left his office to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot to update websites. Despite the palliative effects of web toolsnearly everyone relies upon a low-bandwidth app called Imo to make international phone callsapps alone cannot solve Cubas infrastructural woes.

Cuba has bigger problems than poor broadband access. One of the reasons so many Cubans share their cars and open their kitchens and homes isnt because they want to connect or share experiences, in the parlance of Silicon Valley start-ups; its because theyre desperate for money.

As Bernardo Romero, founder of tech start-up Ingenius, explained: Cuba has two parallel economies: one with the state and one with private business. State employment, while ubiquitous, doesnt pay a living wage, which forces individuals to share what they have and freelance wherever possible.

Subsidizing the Gig Economy
Make no mistake, whether guaranteeing income through Social Work assignments or providing higher education and healthcare, the Cuba state subsidizes the gig economy.

Tomas Bilbao, managing director at Avila Strategies, frames the status quo in terms of return on investment: the state invests in its populations human capital and it should expect a better return. As it stands, many of the thousands of engineers whograduate annually cannot find work, and those skills go unused. As Bilbao puts it, A cab driver shouldnt be a former nuclear engineer.

From the perspective of the state, PhD-equipped cab drivers arent the worst outcome. Hiram Centelles, cofounder of the popular Cuban classified platform Revolico, sees a deluge of listings by private companies specializing in outsourcing. These intermediaries, often based in Miami, pay computer science graduates the equivalent of a few hundred dollars per month to code for international firms. Meanwhile, Cuban business owners often incorporate elsewhere. For his part, Centelles emigrated to Madrid. Now he collects revenue, spends money, and pays taxes in Spain. While these outcomes serve individual interests, they are far from ideal for the state.

I have no interest in advocating for the Cuban state save to say that it provides a safety net upon which most Cubans rely. Without universal higher education, Cubans would lack skills to freelance for international firms. Without state-based employment, they would lose reliable, if limited, incomes that subsidize freelance activities.