The future of work is changing. What those changes will look like for workers is an issue Margaret Levi, a professor of political science, is exploring as director of Stanford’s  Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS).

Margaret Levi

Professor Margaret Levi directs Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

As artificial intelligence, automation and other technologies transform the economy and the nature of work, it becomes increasingly important to figure out how to protect and ensure the dignity of many kinds of workers and how to get society to value what they do, Levi said.

This topic is one of many Levi tackles with a team of social scientists, engineers and other scholars as part of the Future of Work and Workers project she started at CASBS.

“Combining computer science and social science in novel ways, we’ve been thinking a lot about how to create better systems for matching employers and employees that also give the workers voice and bargaining power,” Levi said. “What does it mean for a worker to have voice and power in an environment where unions have basically disappeared? What constitutes valuable skills?”

The answers to these questions may not lead to perfect solutions, Levi said. But talking about these issues and brainstorming ideas is an important step in helping build sustainable, healthy work and social environments in the future.

Thanks to CASBS, Levi has been able to bring these questions to the fore.

Decades-long incubator of ideas

Founded in 1954 by the Ford Foundation, CASBS is known for contributing significant advances in several fields of social science research. The work done at the center has even led to the creation of new sub-disciplines, which include evolutionary psychology, a field examining which human psychological traits are evolved adaptations, and behavioral economics, which studies the effects of psychological, social, cognitive and emotional factors on the economic decisions of people and institutions.

At the foundation of the interdisciplinary center is an annual residential fellowship program, which accepts about 40 researchers in the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science and economics, as well as those researching social science questions in the humanities, law, medicine, engineering and other sciences.

“We see ourselves as an incubator for rethinking critical questions and generating new research,” Levi said about the center. “If you really care about solving important social or societal problems, it requires collaborative projects that bring together all the different perspectives, disciplines, skills and techniques necessary to solve those problems. And CASBS is where those collaborations converge.”

The Future of Work project, which launched in 2014, is one example of collaborative research taking place at CASBS. Joining Levi on the project is Michael Bernstein, an assistant professor of computer science, California Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, who is also a visiting professor at the Stanford Law School, Paul Saffo, a consulting professor of mechanical engineering, and Melissa Valentine, an assistant professor of management science and engineering, among other collaborators.

So far, the team has already spurred a worldwide dialogue about challenges facing the future of work through a publication of about 100 articles for Pacific Standard magazine in 2015. The effort attracted attention from local and international officials, including a group of German parliamentarians, an organization of Danish business leaders and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., who visited CASBS to discuss these future challenges with other scholars and experts.

In addition, a research paper, co-authored by Levi, Bernstein and computer science doctoral candidate Ali Alkhatib last year, examined the gig economy from a historical perspective. They showed that this piecework labor is far from a new phenomenon: employers paid employees by how much and how fast they produced since the turn of the 20th century. There are historical lessons from the spread of piecework that can help tackle some of the rising issues with the gig economy now, researchers said.

A new era of ongoing projects

The Future of Work project is ongoing, and it is one of several current efforts at CASBS that Levi helped start in recent years at the center. Levi has also made an effort to involve a larger community of scholars as well as policymakers, business executives, entrepreneurs and other people outside academia, in addition to the center’s annual fellows.

Since becoming a part of Stanford in 2008, CASBS’s vibrant activity has continued to expand as its leadership forged new connections and partnerships with other institutes and labs at Stanford, including the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, the Stanford Cyber Initiative at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Stanford School of Medicine’s Presence center, among others.

“When CASBS became one of Stanford’s university-wide independent centers, it filled an important gap in our ability to support the interests of our behavioral and social sciences faculty in pursuing interdisciplinary research and for faculty from other disciplines to benefit from their expertise,” said Ann Arvin, vice provost and dean of research at Stanford. “The center provides both an intellectual and a physical home for this work. The center is facilitating many exciting new projects and partnerships for the Stanford scholarly community and with the faculty from other universities who are fellows at CASBS.”

The amount of innovative work created at CASBS is a result of its continuing dedication to fostering collaboration and intellectual debate.

“The big problems of our age can’t be solved by one discipline,” said Roberta Katz, an associate vice president emerita for strategic planning at Stanford, a 2017–18 CASBS senior research scholar and a longtime member of the CASBS Board of Directors who helped recruit Levi. “Social science expertise needs to come to the mix. CASBS helps people from different disciplines realize the value of that input.”

Below are two among several other research initiatives started at CASBS in recent years:

Mindset Scholars Network

Comprised of 28 scholars representing 16 universities, the Mindset Scholars Network aims to advance research on what conditions lead to effective learning.

The idea for the network was hatched at CASBS in 2013. It builds on existing research on the growth mindset, the belief that intellectual abilities are not fixed attributes but can increase and develop in students when nurtured by proper motivations.

The network’s scholars are now researching whether certain mindset interventions, which include online exercises designed to foster a growth mindset, can help improve student outcomes in schools. As part of this, the network has been conducting the largest-ever randomized controlled trial of mindset interventions, the National Study of Learning Mindsets.

Technology and Society

Automation, artificial intelligence and other technological changes have effects on human interactions and society as a whole. A cluster of CASBS projects under this theme focuses on how social science research can mitigate some of the problems created by technology, ensuring it leads to a general well-being of people. These projects are part of a Stanford-wide effort that Levi is leading in an effort to engage key constituencies throughout campus, as well as in industry and government.

The initiative includes research on the first generation of digital natives, people born after the mid-1990s, and their communication styles. One CASBS fellow each year is also focused on assessing technology to improve the human experience in medicine. In addition, throughout the 2017–18 academic year, the center is hosting a public symposium series on consequences of technological developments in society.