Part 1: Sensing the Future
New maps to navigate our complex societies and economies
“Software is eating the world”, wrote digital entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreesen in 2011. In the process of digitisation, no stone remains unturned. This could be the time to shape a future that is healthy, vibrant, and sustainable for all of us. Yet many sectors of society seem to either observe the changes in our lived environment with suspicion, are stuck in paralysis, or use the disruption of new technologies to cement old dysfunctional behaviours and power dynamics.
In this series of posts, I am proposing an alternative: let’s use the digital momentum of the present moment and develop a vision of the future that serves humanity’s long-term goals and that of the planet that sustains our lives – a vision which we as innovators, entrepreneurs, and policy makers can turn into reality.
To this end, Part 1 outlines the need for a new map that helps us navigate, intellectually as well as psychologically, our increasingly complex societies and economies. Part 2 identifies digital dynamics as giving us concrete clues as to what this future may look like. Part 3 embeds these dynamics in a larger map of human development. Part 4 explores how this map can be used by founders and funders in the innovation system. The posts that follow these first four chapters will then move on to a case-specific exploration of current innovative companies, organisations, and policies, providing us with a more coherent understanding of the opportunities at our hands to create the kind of world we want to live in.
Drowning in or riding the new wave?
New business models, based on platforms and networks, threaten the survival of established 20th-century companies and established employer/employee relations. Digital retail concepts disrupt each stage of the production funnel and fundamentally change consumer behaviour. Organisations are turned upside down by new leadership styles that flatten hierarchy and call for self-organisation. Online communication tools challenge the political system, hollowing out confidence in established institutions and opening the doors for fringe views.
The world is in motion. That in itself is nothing new. Yesterday’s caveman is today’s yoga instructor. The speed of change and its direction is what’s different about now. Change appears exponential and multidimensional.
As individuals we are witnessing an unprecedented increase in complexity, i.e. our age contains more diversity and non-linear developments. People coming of age in the 1980s still received most of their information about current events from their (national) newspaper and evening TV news. Today we have access to over 1 billion websites.
While in the analog age I could assume to have a sufficient grip on events and share a common corpus of knowledge with the people around me, today it seems difficult to grasp the world as something cohesive. When everything seems to be connected to everything else, it is challenging to grasp relations between events. With the cellphone in my pocket, my playing field is potentially global. Yet do I really possess the mindset, skills, and capacities to adequately respond? Or am I drowning in a sea of disconnected information?
Little wonder so many feel overwhelmed and disoriented. Fear and anxiety follow these developments and are amplified by the fact that many of our elites – politicians, established business leaders, and media representatives – also seem clueless about the new age we are entering. German interior minister Thomas de Maizère posits that jurisprudence developed in the analogue period would also suit the digital age (personal communication, 26.9.2014). In the year 2017, the chairman of Deutsche Telekom Foundation dismissed machine learning and big data analysis as “hype phenomena” (personal communication, 18.11.2017).
There are three mainstream approaches for dealing with the new complexity (Rowson, Spiritualise). Neoliberalism proposes we trust the market to do the job. Neo-Nationalism offers authoritarian leaders to fend off the challenges of diversity. Tech companies rely on technological solutionism, making us believe that our problems will be solved by the invisible hand of algorithms and machine learning.
None of these offer adequate perspectives on the fundamental transformations we are observing.
- if everything is moving at an exponential speed, we need new mindsets to understand our increasingly connected world.
- as everything is more interconnected, we need new visions for doing business, as well as governing and living within complex systems.
- when realising that we are the makers and shapers of the world we want to live in, we need new ethics to design for maximum s
- as complexity radically increases we need to work on ourselves (inner work) and find ways of enduring, processing, and mastering the tensions that accompany the emergence of this new era.
Of course, we have been here before.
500 years ago, many people were sure the printing press would have a negative impact on society. The scholar Johannes von Trittenheim complained that monks would become lazy once nobody needed them to copy manuscripts by hand. Conrad Gessner, a renowned Swiss scientist, prophesied that people would lose their bearings through the wealth of information, and wander aimlessly around like shipwrecked people on the open sea. Others took the same line: they believed the many books available made people completely stupid and superficial. Even back then, special attention was paid to young people who elders feared would be corrupted by obscene sex stories. Evidence was not long in coming: in the so-called Wicked Bible, there was a misprint in the 10 commandments that prompted readers to pursue a fling: “Thou Shalt Commit Adultery”.
Despite the prophecies of doom, none of Gutenberg’s contemporaries expected that printing would ring in the Reformation, the scientific revolution, and the Enlightenment. That suddenly man instead of God would be at the center of the world.
In order to cope with their new world ushered in by the advent of print, people in the Renaissance created new mental and physical maps, which included the New World, heliocentrism, and empirical science. What had provided orientation in the mid-15th century – God, the Pope, the local ruler – was completely outdated 100 years later.
A similar task awaits us today. Which of the assumptions we use to understand the world are obsolete?
We need new maps to help us better understand our changing world. To identify the possibilities of the future as well as the dangers. To know which direction to go in order to overcome the fatigue we are so clearly experiencing and create the new operating system for our economy and society.
Current dysfunctions call for a new OS for society and the economy
Before drawing new maps, a preliminary remark about the social challenges of our age.
We live in contradictory times. On the one hand, mankind has never been better off. While our ancestors’ main efforts were to defeat hunger, disease, and war, today three times more people die of obesity than of malnutrition. Our life expectancy has increased continuously over the last few decades (today it is 71.5 years globally). And there has also been great emotional change: within the last 150 years, our empathy has expanded from our families, to people in slavery, to animals in factory farms.
At the same time, we are facing new existential challenges, among them the following four which seem to me especially urgent.
- The environmental destruction that threatens the ecology humanity depends on.
- The gap between rich and poor, especially within the same society, is widening. Millions of people are failed by the current economy. Eight people own as much as half of the rest of the world’s population.
- The existential misery of people. So many humans are searching for meaning and depth. This is witnessed by the sad fact that every year more people die from suicide than from violent crime, terrorism, and war combined.
- The risk of out of control technology. Opaque algorithms and masses of data in the hands of a handful of technology companies can be abused for manipulation and control, thus depriving citizens of their ability to use their own discretion and their freedom of decision-making.
These crises, however different they may be, have one thing in common: they cannot be resolved within our current political and economic system. Here the quote attributed to Einstein hits the nail on the head: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them“.
We need a new operating system. We need to rethink in a fundamental way how our society and economy operate, what we value and how we achieve it.
Why? Well, most of today’s threats present a conflict between individual interests on the one hand and the public interest on the other. Most of us – even the guys featured in the Paradise Papers – know that our lifestyles, which include massive consumption and stagnant pooling of wealth, contribute to the systemic damage described above. The fitness function of most companies is optimised for shareholder value and profit maximisation, thus leading to severe environmental damage and huge wealth accumulation in the hands of the few. In turn, the few who have the most money also have much greater leverage to affect government policy to their favour, a cycle that continues to widen the gap.
But since the connections between us as individuals and the global commons are complex, we find it difficult to fully internalise and comprehend them. Alas, we keep going on as before, instead of restructuring our global financial and tax systems, the food industry, exploitative labour, and so on to serve the well-being of as many people as possible.
We are on the wrong path, and the status quo is in many respects not worth protecting. What we need are not only external changes – new forms of political participation and more sustainable forms of economic activity – but also internal changes, broader perspectives, attitudes, and capacities that are relevant for creating a future that serves human needs and those of the planet. In this series of posts, I will introduce a new paradigm for planning and assessing human behaviour and social endeavours, which has the potential to not only change the way we do business but also our approach to the grievous challenges that face contemporary society.
New Tools for a new Operating System
In the next post, I’ll be taking a deep dive into the potential of digital technologies. I believe they can provide us with the necessary framework, adequate tools, and competencies for our new OS. Hopefully you’ll be surprised, since digitisation turns out to be a much more interesting development than commonly assumed.
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As far as necessary, all rights to the images used here have been clarified with the artists or producers. For some images I have paid a small amount of money. For others I made a donation to non-profit projects in agreement with the artists. However, most of the creators agreed that their works are used here free of charge. I’s like to express my gratitude to all of them.
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A few key references:
Jonathan Rowson, Spiritualise, 2017
Ian Goldin, Chris Kurtuna, Age of Discovery. Navigating the Storms of our Second Renaissance, 2017
Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow, 2017
Thomas Hübl, Stephan Breidenbach, Mystik im Alltag, 2015