Theoretical background, methodology and objectives
Labora investigates how the organization of labour has changed in the passage from industrial capitalism to the network economy. In particular, through this research I want to understand how people working in startups, and in hi-tech companies more in general, maintain themselves employable and mobile within the fluid labour market of the network economy.
This research takes place in one the most vibrant startup ecosystems in the world, Vancouver, BC. Among the many research sites that the city offers (co-working spaces, incubators, corporate offices, etc.), I decided to focus on occupational communities. Occupational communities are grassroots organizations connecting workers with similar competences and professional interests. Blending elements of leisure and work, occupational communities can foster collaboration and mutual support amongst workers.
Building on this definition of occupational communities, Labora investigates their potential as means for overcoming the limits of flexible capitalism, such as lack of social security, individualization of risk, casualization of labour and the necessity for tech workers to constantly self-fund their education.
Preliminary results emerging from on-field investigation reveal how occupational communities effectively serve as a safety net for the digital workforce of Vancouver. By offering opportunities for connecting with new people, for starting new projects and learning new skills, occupational communities can help to nurture and strengthen Vancouver’s creative class. Moreover, occupational communities are transformative in the way they reveal, socialize and try to solve the struggles of the hi-tech industry workers. Collectively, I argue, the complex system of informal groups of workers represents a bottom up response to the drawbacks of the network economy.
However, much of the work currently performed by these groups is invisible: occupational communities are often self-funded, take place either before or after office hours and the cost to participate to them is individualized. Through this research, I aim to demonstrate that a stronger tech industry is possible if the work performed by these groups is publicly acknowledged and supported.
A critical approach to the network economy
The enthusiasm towards the startup economy is grounded on a solid positivist literature which fosters a technical conception of management. Popularized through publications on business journals and management guides, the most prominent concepts within this body of literature have been elevated to transcendental organizational principles (e.g. Blank, 2013; Hart, 2012; Maurya, 2012; Osterwalder & Pigneur, 2010).
Once abstracted from the specific socio-technical and historical context in which they originate, these organizational principles, such as the business model canvas or the lean method, are free to circulate increasingly unquestioned and detached from the phenomena which they aim to organize: labour. The result is a general and often unqualified excitement towards the start-up paradigm, today celebrated as the harbinger of a new industrial revolution (Sigele, 2014). In this paradigm, old hierarchies and work routines are substituted with heterarchies (Girard & Stark, 2003) and flexible business models (Thrift, 2005) capable of coping with the complex horizons of the information era (Lane & Maxfield, 1997).
However, the start-up paradigm for the organization of production is also fraught with downsides which might not be seen through the technocratic lens provided by mainstream management literature. Examples include precarious contracts, flexible labour, job insecurity and individualization of risk (Ampula & Kolvisto, 2014; Gregg, 2008, 2011; Neff, 2012).
The theoretical goal of research is to contribute to the current debate about the unexpressed potential and the limitations of the flexible and networked organization of labour. Rather than investigating labour as prescribed by the mainstream managerial discourse, I focuse mainly on people’s response to it. In particular, I conceive occupational communities as sites of tactical resistance, in opposition to the strategic organization of labour informed by the current managerial discourse which permeates the startup economy. The theoretical contribution of this inquiry is therefore to develop a a critique of the start-up paradigm capable of preserving the benefits of this form of economic organization (namely, speed and adaptability) while denouncing its downsides and pointing to possible solutions, constructed with the participation of the people working in the industry. A critical-constructive counterpoint to mainstream management studies.
The research protocol is composed of two main components: online data analysis and ethnographic exploration of the field.
The Online data analysis component entails the collection of publicly available metadata from Meetup.com as a way to identify and map the occupational communities operating in the Metro Vancouver area. Through the development of a software component known as a Networked Ethnography Tool, I was able to query large amount of data automatically from Meetup.com. In particular, for each event I collected information such as the date, the venue address, the event title, a description of the event, the organizers’ profile, and comments. Once collected, these information have been stored in a server and later quantitatively and qualitatively analyzed.
Using Tableau (a data visualization software) I constantly keep an eye on the organizational, spatial and temporal development of occupational communities: how many people are involved in each event, how different topics rise and fall over time, how organizations develop in different areas of Metro Vancouver, which community presides with which topics.
This qualitative and quantitative information provide me with meaningful indications about the structures existing in the Vancouver start-up community and helps me to identify the most promising meeting contexts to be further explored ethnographically.
Based on the data analysis mentioned above, I attend selected events as participant observer (one 2 meetups/month on average) The ethnographic investigation involves the production of thick descriptions of the events and semi-structured interviews with participants recruited in the course of the research. Through the ethnographic exploration I am collecting information on the problems faced by high-tech workers and entrepreneurs. In particular, on the tactics they use to maintain themselves employable and flexible in the labor market.
How to increase the resilience of start-up ecosystem? How can the new startup organization paradigm be integrated with the industries and the competences already existing within a territory? How can digital workers in an age of short term and temporary contracts maintain their employability over time? How can people afford to live in the city and at the same time self-fund their education? In order to answer these questions, this research adopts an ethnographic investigation of labour capable to provide a rich and thick description of the daily struggles of workers in the digital industry.
The outcomes of this research can inform the development of new policies aimed at reducing new forms of exploitation while increasing the resilience of the larger digital ecosystem. This is even more relevant when considering that the Vancouver digital industry employs 75.000 people, three-quarters of the total for BC (Source: Vancouver Economic Forum).
Vancouver was chosen as research site because of the role the city has in the Canadian and in the global start-up economy.
In 2015, Vancouver was rated the first most attractive city in Canada for new software ventures (Florida & King, 2015). Home to three out of five companies comprising the “Canada Narwhal Club” (companies established after the dot-com bubble burst that have reached a market value of at least $1B CAD), the city hit the 15th position in the global chart of the best cities for start-ups in 2016 (Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2017).
With a convenient tax scheme for corporations, favorable immigration policies and the same time zone as San Francisco, Vancouver is amongst the top destinations for entrepreneurs, tech workers and venture capitalists (Herrmann, Gauthier, Holtschke, Berman, & Marmer, 2015)
My name is Alberto Lusoli and I am a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University, School of Communication and I am labora's principal investigator. Over the past two years have attended dozens of meetups and I have interviewed people working in Vancouver's tech and creative industry. This website wants to be a place for sharing my research journey and for disseminating the findings.
Feel free to reach out to me in case you have any question or comment about the project.