Issue 554October 2016

Member Profile: Natalie Foster

Rethinking the future of work.

Urbanist Article October 26, 2016

When you ask Natalie Foster what she does, you realize it might have been easier to ask what she doesn’t do. She is an expert on the future of work and the gig economy, she is an advisor to the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative and the Open Society Foundations, a fellow at the Institute for the Future and New America California and an advocate for the Universal Basic Income (UBI). She was CEO and co-founder with Van Jones, of Rebuild the Dream, a platform for people–driven economic change. She also served as digital director for President Obama’s Organizing for America (OFA) and the Democratic National Committee, built the first digital department at the Sierra Club and served as the deputy organizing director for MoveOn.org. On any given day, she’ll be down at Institute for the Future in Palo Alto working on the future of work, or on a video call with her Aspen Institute colleagues to discuss their Future of Work Initiative, which works to develop a portable, pro-rated and universal social safety net for those who work outside of traditional employment. We managed to grab her for a moment after she’d spoken at SPUR about UBI. 

 

How did you first get interested in cities and how did you learn about SPUR? 
I didn’t grow up in cities. I grew up in Kansas and went to school in Malibu, CA. Although I was in the midst great natural beauty, I found myself going into Los Angeles as much as possible to do my school work or volunteer. I was drawn to the beauty, possibility and grittiness of LA. I was hooked. I then lived in Atlanta, Philly, Washington D.C., San Francisco and now Oakland. I love cities, and want to raise my kid around the proximity and vibrancy. SPUR came on my radar screen because of the fascinating talks you host, so my partner and I became members. 

 

Why do you think UBI has captured so much attention of late? 
The confluence of staggering wealth inequality, income instability and the breakdown of institutions has sent people in search of big solutions. The Universal Basic Income — or the idea of unconditional cash for everyone — is supported by founding fathers and Facebook cofounders alike. I think people are inspired by the idea that economic security is a right, and cash may well be the best way to ensure it.

We’ve seen cities lead on the Universal Basic Income. The cities of Utrecht in the Netherlands and Lausanne in Switzerland have launched basic income pilots, and Y Combinator recently announced a pilot that they’ll start in Oakland as well. We need more research, and we’ll need to build a popular movement around the idea. 
 

At a time when so many people are feeling frustrated, any advice for how they might think about getting involved in changing things? 
The barriers of entry to leadership have never been lower. Thanks to civic technology platforms like Change.org, and new digital groups like Color of Change, it’s easier to get involved, connect with others who care, and lead than ever before. 

 

Favorite urban view? 
Atlanta Beltline from Piedmont Park. I’m proud of our work at the Sierra Club to mobilize early grassroots support for the Atlanta Beltline, the visionary urban transit and redevelopment project. At the time, it was just a master thesis from architect Ryan Gravel and a policy idea of Cathy Woolard’s. It’s been inspiring to return to Atlanta and see the progress they’ve made on connecting the old railways in a jogging (and hopefully transit soon) and walking trail, and to see how restaurants and shops and art have oriented around it.
 

Favorite city-related work of art? 
I love the way Amos Goldbaum, the guy who sells his MUNI t-shirts on the street, renders the detail of San Francisco and the Bay Area. 

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