Reading Innovation and the New Economy

Runnymede Theatre / Chapters

Runnymede Theatre / Chapters

Economic changes are transforming business and work itself in ways that are having consequences well beyond supply chains and jobs, but the way employment spurs learning. A look at a recent change at a Toronto bookstore hints at a future that suggests we may want to think about what kind of economy we want not just the one we have. 

I recently learned that the Chapters bookstore occupying the former Runnymede Theatre in Toronto will be shuttering as its lease is taken over by a major drug store chain.

The bookstore, pictured above and below, is among the most beautiful you will find anywhere. It is also a meeting place for parents (mostly moms) and children, offering one of the few spaces for young families to gather in the neighbourhood.

The loss of Chapters has caused an uproar in the community, ironically just as it did when it came into the once abandoned heritage building. Reporting on the story in the Toronto Star, business reporter Francine Kopun highlights some of the losses that are expected to the community:

“It’s a real loss for the neighbourhood,” said Jill Zelmanovits, 41, a mother of two children, ages seven and four.

“I would say my children have been there every week their whole lives.”

She said staff at the store greet her by name and it is a gathering place for new moms with kids in tow.

The story goes on to add:  “Schools and community groups hold fundraiser events in the space, said Ward 13 Councillor Sarah Doucette (Parkdale-High Park). Her office was inundated with calls from residents after the news broke. “We had an uproar like this when Chapters went in,” she said.”

The change from a theatre to a bookstore was disruptive just as the next change will be as Shoppers Drug Mart moves in. However, it is worth considering from the perspective of social systems and economies what this change will mean beyond the shift in products and services being offered at the home of the Runnymede Theatre.

Systems thinking change

Stroller Parking

Will the new drug store have stroller parking?

While we see retail change all the time, this particular move was more emblematic of a larger systems trend that is worth noting. If one is to look at the origin of the Runnymede Theatre and what it did, one starts to see some aspects of an economic shift that might be worth paying attention to.

When the theatre started as a vaudeville stage, the skill-sets required to run and grow the theatre were complex and portable. One needed to know about storytelling, performance, marketing, hospitality, logistics, and how to maintain a connection to the community to create the kind of shows that people wanted to pay for. These are skills that could easily be transferred into other contexts beyond the theatre, which made it an ideal place for engendering talent that could have transferrable benefit beyond one context. And as researchers like Keith Sawyer have noted, the benefits of theatre on creativity and group collaboration are significant.

The bookstore is a step down from that. The roles are fewer, the jobs are simpler, but at least the product is something that inspires learning and there are still benefits for the customers beyond products (much like the inspiration that theatre-goers received). Bookstore staff are best when they read and share what they read with their customers; it makes them better salespeople and stock clerks. The inclusion of a children’s space with related programming for moms and kids adds a community benefit as well as requiring and providing additional skills to the bookstore staff. These might not be as comprehensive as those gained from theatre, but as a system the bookstore still confers benefits beyond just selling books.

The next stage of the theatre is set for a drug store. If we take out the pharmacy (which is a minor part of the modern drug store’s revenue stream and purpose)  the remaining aspects of a drug store require little skill to operate. Stocking shelves, directing people to products, and ringing through purchases (if the self-checkout option isn’t available) requires little knowledge or skill and confers little benefit beyond pay. Fewer jobs are full-time and fewer skills are needed so the pay is likely lower for each staff member as one would expect from this. None of this is intended to dismiss the workers themselves or drug stores, but it’s difficult to imagine many supplemental benefits beyond raw product and pay garnered by having a drug store in the building; no group collaboration skills, no meeting place for families, no knowledge of current affairs, no storylines.

Designing economies

The story of the Runnymede Theatre is not about picking on the drug store, nor is it about being nostalgic for days gone by. It is about considering what kind of employment, community experiences, skills, and outcomes we get when we change our economy. As citizens and consumers we grow what we sow. Being mindful of what kind of things we ‘plant’ and the kind of experiences we pay for, demand, seek and design in our enterprises matters at a system level. Some might say that the market changed and that the theatre and its lease-holders are simply responding to that market, which is partly true. There is no one group that can or should be responsible for governing such shifts, but they are worth paying attention to. If we don’t, no one will.

No better place to pay attention to is Seattle, Washington and the home of Amazon. As the annual consumerist sprint that starts at Thanksgiving in the United States began, viewers of the news program 60 Minutes were treated to a look at Amazon’s prototype plan for drone-powered package delivery. Once again, we were seeing Amazon do what it has done time and again: innovate the business of retail.  Two weeks later, Canada Post announced that it was going to phase out home delivery in urban centres. (Soon, all mail will go to post office stations in centralized locations much like in rural communities).

Amazon is seeking to revolutionize the way products are shopped for, ordered and delivered from books to groceries and more. In an interview earlier in 2013 with Fast Company, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos outlined a bold plan for transforming the way products are ordered, promising the possibility of same day, even 2-hour delivery on anything a person needs. This is innovation at its clearest, yet are we innovating the systems that wrap around these new technologies and processes?

If drones are delivering our books, robots picking them from shelves, and computer programs taking the order in the first place, who is working? Yes, some computer programmers will be employed, but the world isn’t full of or needs billions of programs or apps. What does the future of work look like? What are our choices in this? What kind of systems do we want and are we prepared to shape them?

Greg Van Alstyne and Bob Logan defined design as “creation for reproduction” in a paper published in Artifact in 2007 (an earlier version is available here). Bezos and Amazon are designing the economy by creating tools, processes and ideas that are emergent and potentially self-replicating if spread. They are not the only ones with a say in the matter and every time we buy something, look at something and engage with a product or service we are voting with our wallet, consciousness and attention for what we want.

It is worth considering how we design for the emergence of an economy we want, not just what is delivered at the drug store or by drone.

%d bloggers like this: