By Fateema Sayani
THE FACEBOOK NEWS FEED has been rather dismal of late. Cat pictures, self-promotion, and gripes about the daily mundane have given way to postings from government employees who recently received notice that their jobs will be axed. In response, the keeners have been e-networking, while the deeply afflicted post cryptic one-liners about their bleak futures. Their pals chime in appropriately with sad faces.
The thing about these cutbacks — part of the government’s Deficit Reduction Action Plan (let’s call it The Drap, to give it a fittingly abject and infectious tone) — is that even if you’re not a government employee, you’re affected. And not simply because of the interconnectedness of the local economy, but because everyone knows someone who’s employed by the feds. Can’t swing a dead cat … and all that.
In the short-term aftermath of job losses, those who have been cut loose worry about losing the house and the lifestyle before eventually getting active and finding — or making — new work. But though the prospect of starting anew can be terrifying to the risk-averse, forced innovation is not all bad. It gives rise to entrepreneurialism. Loosen the golden handcuffs and alternative and underground economies spring up — those informal modes of business that the punditry predicts will outpace traditional jobs in the next decade.
These informal jobs translate as anything from under-the-table work to serial contract gigs to crowd-funding to start-ups that aren’t fouled up with bureaucracy and may not be registered with the taxman. It’s a growing sector enjoying growing recognition. Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner blog about the “shadow economy,” while 2009 numbers released by the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) suggested that half the world’s workers — nearly 1.8 billion people — were employed this way. But while these varied methods of earning income don’t fit into the standard nine-to-five paradigm, they’re anything but haphazard, according to investigative reporter Robert Neuwirth. In his book Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy, Neuwirth notes that these types of jobs are based on recognizing the value in improvisation and are “a product of intelligence, resilience, self-organization, and group-solidarity.”
Now, this improvisational business model could all be interpreted as fancy-speak for drug dealing. And I can think of a few people who are well organized in the shadier side of the untaxed economy. (There’s talk of a bookie who is stationed at one of the pubs in my neighbourhood. His day job is with — wait for it — the Canada Revenue Agency.) But for all the dealers, there are also legit moonlighters and freelancers whom employers value because they are quicker and nimbler than mainstream organizations.
Some refer to this layer of the job market as System D, taken from the French word débrouillard — meaning resourceful, or “a hustler” en anglais. While it’s more than a bit of a demotion to go from senior analyst to being associated with a word that can mean both “petty criminal” and “prostitute,” people who use the “D” association usually take its other meaning — an inventive self-starter who gets things done. (Some former stuffed shirts might even appreciate the fresh veneer of such a badass connotation.)
Janak Alford likes the latter definition, though he hastens to point out that he had his own reasons for naming his design shop prototypeD. Alford associates “D” with the fourth answer on a multiple-choice test (the one that typically reads “All of the above”). That “all of the above” theme fits well with the experimental nature of a design shop. Launched last September, prototypeD is a co-operative located in the basement of the old Wallack’s art store on Bank Street. Alford is a 29-year-old with a master’s of architecture who has a full-time gig with the federal government. Every two weeks, he heads to Value Village to pick up old cameras, printers, and televisions. On nights and weekends, he’s tinkering with old technology to recreate new technologies inside the warren of rooms rented by prototypeD. Members have access to office space and a workshop with drills, saws, hand tools, a laser cutter, an engraver, and a 3-D printer, which takes a soup of corn-based plastic and turns it into an object. It prints in layers, and as each layer hardens, the object forms. It’s a helpful tool for industrial designers and makers, engineers, and architecture students, the very people who have signed up as prototypeD members.
The studio welcomes dreamers too — those who imagine that, hey, maybe I can be something else, because, as Alford says, there are limited spaces in our society that serve creativity. If you want to work out, you go to the gym. If you want to shop, you head to the mall. But where do you go to make something? So far, the coffee shop has served as the unstructured social space of choice — but coffee shops don’t have drill presses. Those with emerging business ideas need to be in a place where they can network with like-minded entrepreneurs.
The co-operative working spaces that have sprung up in the city over the past few years — including Hub Ottawa on Bank Street, The Code Factory on Queen Street, and Artengine’s Mod Lab inside Arts Court — facilitate this networking. These beta rooms are places to test ideas, and they give validation and professionalism to businesses born in the basement that need to ascend to market.
Alford cites the PB4L (personal business for life) idea, whereby everyone has a small business run on the side for a few hours a day. It’s a separate income stream that also keeps you interested and occupied. “Technology is allowing this culture,” Alford explains. “Everyone is gaining more skills, and it’s harder to define what we are. I am an architect, programmer, and director. I don’t have to sell the farm to become an artist. I can also work my regular job.”
Of course, System D and PB4L can also be interpreted as fancy terms for working like a dog, whereby you need two or three jobs simply to make ends meet. Depending on your view, it’s a dilution of work-life values or a contribution to an accelerated culture that values ingenuity and self-starters.
This story appears in the Summer edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the magazine on newsstands or order your online edition.