Media Library


The Legacy of Mike Cooley: The Future of Work and the Just Transition

Wednesday, 16th June 2021

It is a real and very personal pleasure to take part in today’s conference inspired by the late Professor Mike Cooley, great Irish scientist, trade union innovator and activist and pioneer of the concept we now call ‘Just Transition’. As a friend of Mike Cooley’s, may I thank the Vice-President of Dublin Council of Trade Unions, Finn Geaney, for proposing this event to commemorate his life and legacy, and also Jack O’Connor for inviting me to address you today.

Today’s conference will provide an opportunity to hear from speakers with an interest in labour policy, offering an invaluable opportunity to discuss the future world of work, and, by drawing on insights from the work of Mike Cooley and others, consider how we may achieve a new and fulfilling paradigm of work, one that fosters human flourishing, dignity and respect for hard-won rights within the context of a ‘just transition’ towards a sustainable economy and society.

Mike Cooley, from his earliest book, Architect or Bee?, and in all his life, was deeply committed to how the delivery of science and technology might be delivered for universal benefit. While he was a man of great passion and intellectual curiosity, Mike Cooley was above all committed to a deep social responsibility, both as a person and activist. This isreflected in all of his writings. Professor Cooley was, in practice and at heart, a most morally engaged scientist and technologist.

A native of Tuam, County Galway, Mike Cooley attended the local Christian Brothers school, where his closest friends were playwright Tom Murphy and trade unionist Mick Brennan. In spite of considerable resistance (they had to convince their mothers), the bright trio wanted to attend the local ‘Tech’ to learn technical drawing and metalwork – “to make things”, including an aeroplane. The three friends would later go on to train together as apprentices under the brilliant Viennese machine master Franz Kaplan in Tuam Sugar Factory, the largest industrial complex west of the Shannon in the 1950s.

Whether working for De Havilland or Lucas Aerospace, or later when he served as shop-steward and pioneered the concept of skills audits in response to factory closures, or in the 1980s when he was director of technology at the Greater London Enterprise Board which he founded with Ken Livingstone, in his engaged life Cooley was driven by his grounding views on the importance of work as a human-centred activity. I was fortunate to draw on his advice and services on the closure of Digital Equipment Corporation in the 1990s in Galway, something that occurred while I was Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht and a TD for Galway West, a Deputy for the Labour Party.

In recent years, I had the honour to write the foreword for Professor Cooley’s work, Delinquent Genius: The Strange Affair of Man and His Technology. The book, in advancing the debate on the recovered symmetry we so desperately need between science, technology, ecology and economics, explores the relationship between humankind and technological development, analysing the social impact of technology and the dangers of accepting the “one best” scientific idea of progress.

Cooley looked at vantage points for realising neglected human purposes – such as creative work and environmental sustainability – through the medium of technology. Delinquent Genius, in particular, looked upon a period of intense restructuring in the industrial manufacturing landscape, the effects of which are still felt today. This, his last book, is, above all else, a brilliant account of that dangerous hubris which can lead to that which should be instrumental becoming instead a dangerous source of domination, with implications for citizens of a passive rather than active existence, devoid of what my colleague sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls a “resonance with the world”. Hartmut Rosa in his book Resonance, so like Mike Cooley’s perspective, writes of a reflection on humanity’s lost relationship with the world, and of efforts towards belonging, how we are taken into that world, and how it may contribute to deep human fulfilment.

It is Mike Cooley’s 1982 book Architect or Bee? that is probably most well-known for its incisive and accurate critique of the automation and computerisation of engineering work. The book draws on a comparison made by Karl Marx on the specificity and uniqueness of the creative achievements of human imagination, and Cooley puts forward the case that a new organisation of technology could provide social good rather than merely being limited to efficiency, productivity and profit maximisation.

In Architect or Bee?, Mike Cooley coined the term ‘human-centred systems’ in the context of the transition in his profession from traditional drafting at a drawing board to computer-aided design. Human-centred systems, as used in economics, computing and design, aim to preserve or enhance human skills, in both manual and office work, in environments in which technology tended to undermine the human and personal skills that people use in their work.

A central argument in Cooley’s work is that if we are going to move from producing commodities for consumption, to producing goods that people need and want, we must change our attitude towards the definition, assumed purpose, and application of technology.

After all, technology has evolved from the concept of the division of labour. In a capitalist system in which the maximisation of profit is the chief objective, and those who work are regarded as units of labour power, the division of labour and fragmentation of skills is assumed to be absolutely rational and scientific, an aspect of modernity in a singular form and assumed to be inevitable.

However, an adverse and neglected consequence of this system is the deskilling of workers and their increased alienation. A division between theory and practice is created, really a privileging of what is abstract, with a bias towards theoretical knowledge at the expense of work that involves a human flourishing. The skill and practical knowledge of the worker, thus, becomes redundant, ignored, even derided, with the culture associated with it perceived as lesser, crude, untutored.

Cooley’s own life was one of deep commitment to the importance of the person, in every type of work, and to the trade union movement’s important role in advancing these aims. The trade union movement must be the one giving the leading definition of work and change.

A unique thinker who successfully critiqued the dominant view of the role of advanced technology in society, Mike Cooley offered an alternative vision in which the dignity of every individual is respected in a symbiosis of human and machine.

In a significant gesture, Mike Cooley’s library was donated to the Waterford Institute of Technology, and a laboratory centre for science excellence based around Cooley’s work was opened last year.

Cooley’s work, as laid out in these seminal books, could not be more relevant in our present circumstances as the debate on the future of work, the impact of technology, sustainability and the perilous state of our planet, is getting underway. 

We can draw from his work in our responses to the great challenge of ‘just transition’, a framework which after all was developed by the trade union movement to encompass that range of social interventions which are needed to secure workers’ rights and livelihoods when economies are in the process of shifting to sustainable production, while having, as primary aims, the combating of climate change and protection of biodiversity.

The term ‘just transition’ appears to have been first coined by North American trade unions in the 1990s to describe a support system for workers that were facing unemployment owing to necessary environmental protection policies. One early proponent was Tony Mazzocchi, who described its purpose as bringing into being a “superfund for workers”, one that would provide financial support and an opportunity for higher education for those displaced by emerging environmental protection policies.

The concept of ‘just transition’ can be considered as an ecological application of an economic conversion that was first developed in the 1980s when anti-war activists sought to build a coalition with workers in the armaments industry, thereby giving them a stake in the anti-war movement and peace economy. However, it was Mike Cooley’s work promoting the theory and practice of human-centred, socially useful production and innovation that brought the concept to the next stage, influencing the scientific and wider policy discourse.

‘Just transition’ requires sustainable investments in low‐emission and job-intensive sectors and technologies. These investments must be undertaken through a process of due consultation with all those affected, respecting human and labour rights, as well as principles of decent work. Technological developments can be advanced from a humanistic perspective, as Cooley advocated so passionately throughout his career. Human-centred, socially useful production can become a lead focus of research and technology, crucially, if we choose to make it happen.

‘Just transition’ is, therefore, about profound structural change that has personal and societal ramifications. However, it is a transformation that will of course be defined by the values we bring to it, hence the importance of all partners, trade unions and socially concerned employers, being involved in the dialogue as to how the industry or sector is to be restructured in a way that is fair, and that can satisfy the best aspirations of all partners.

There is a concern, which is correct in my view, that periods of economic structural change could leave workers, their families, and communities to bear the sometimes painful costs of the transition, thus leading to unemployment, poverty, and exclusion for those left behind, in contrast to those with more flexible and mobile skills sets who are able to afford and adapt to the transition.

This is a bona fide concern. It is one based on evidence of previous structural transformations that have occurred, such as that in the 1980s with the closure of the coalmine industry in Britain, and the devastating consequences that ensued for the lives and livelihoods of the miners, their families and communities, and the loss of a social cohesion that has not been recovered to this day.

‘Just transition’ attempts to address this concern by anticipation and planning of change, by promoting sustainable actions to help workers in a transition, by ensuring workers’ voices are part and parcel of any conversion. Uniting the great and urgent projects of social and climate justice by means of a just transition necessitates, for example, that we comply with demands for fairness for coalminers and peat-extraction workers in coal- and peat-dependent, regions who lack employment opportunities beyond coal and peat; fairness for farmers who are required to change practices for the protection of climate and natural systems; fairness for workers in emerging economies who demand their share of the so-called ‘industrialisation dividend’; fairness for those having to abandon their homes as the impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels, manifest themselves, threatening coastal regions and islands; fairness for those populations impacted by air pollution and broader environmental impacts of fossil fuel exploitation.

Mike Cooley understood very clearly how that, together with appropriate investment and labour market policies, we will require new, fortified social protection policies to safeguard and protect the most vulnerable. Local economic diversification plans that support decent work and provide community stability during the transition are all part of the suite of actions that must be delivered.      

What is extraordinary in the life, the work and the social contribution of Professor Cooley, and those others who shared his vision, is that he and they saw that excellence could be achieved through a combination of hand and brain, that curiosity was not an impediment to learning, but rather a source of innovation.  Perhaps even more importantly, he and others saw that the fruits of this collaboration and co-operation, of science and technology, of scholar and citizens, offered the best prospect for a cohesive society and a dynamic economy. Indeed, in a paper which argued that moral neutrality in technology is a myth, Cooley wrote:

“We have become far too smart scientifically to survive much longer without wisdom”.

I wish to finish, if I may, with a quotation from Professor Cooley’s acceptance speech upon receiving the Right Livelihood Award in 1981 for “designing and promoting the theory and practice of human-centred, socially useful production”. Mike Cooley wrote:

“Science and technology is not given. It was made by people like us. If it’s not doing for us what we want, we have a right and a responsibility to change it.”

Cooley understood only too well what a moral outrage it has become, what a great failure, with all the material resources available, that our boundless capacity for creativity and innovation, and the fruits of enterprise, science and technology, remain focused in so many parts of world, not on the ending of global hunger or famine, or the promotion and preservation of peace, or indeed on reducing sources of inequality, but on the pursuit of technologies as instruments of war, and the promotion of a paradigm of consumption and accumulation as a suggested, desirable, even inevitable, form of a life of fulfilment.

We, all of us, have a right and responsibility to change this, utilising global-level institutional initiatives, effective and accountable in a multilateral framework. On this our future human flourishing, and that of the planet, depends. Let’s make the coming decades the decades of the creative worker giving a lead in applying science and technology for universal social benefit, while restoring the symmetry of ecology, economics and a just society. We must do it together.

Is féidir linn. Beir bua.