The world is always changing – it always has been. But every now and again there are moments in history where all the forces of change seem to combine together to produce an era-defining shift. That’s what we study when we study history, even naming these times to help us remember them and mark their significance: the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the Reformation, Industrial Revolution and others.
We are living through one of these times of era-shift, when history itself is changing and the rules for success and failure in every area of society are being rewritten. Evidence of the magnitude of the times comes from multiple sources. In businesses, across almost every industry, we can quickly find deeply disruptive forces, for example. Uber, AirBnB, Amazon, M-Pesa and PayPal have all stormed into their respective industries as deeply disruptive digital alternatives to long established norms and rules. Email, which itself disrupted the way we communicated, is being rapidly replaced, especially by younger people, with a plethora of new connection tools and systems.
But it isn’t just technology that provides examples of deep disruption. In many varied aspects of society we see the rules changing – and changing rapidly. Just a few examples include: the growing acceptance of same sex marriage, the increase in people living alone (either through choosing to not marry as young people, or by living longer at the end of their lives), migration, especially into urban areas (cities are growing faster now than ever in human history, and by 2050 about 75% of the world’s population will be urban), and, the rise of fundamentalism across the world. All of these are signs or symptoms of a rapidly changing world. In fact, not just a world where change has increased in speed and scope, but rather a world where change has become disruptive, structural and history-changing.
Our era is indeed characterised by some remarkable, disruptive changes to the world. Here are just a few specific examples to prove we’re living in a transition era like no other:
- Longevity: Life expectancy has skyrocketed and will continue to do so. My father’s mother, Ethel, was born in February 1914 when life expectancy was around 47 years. We celebrated her 100th birthday with her in 2014 – she has more than doubled her life expectancy at birth. The remarkable thing is that she is not remarkable – not in longevity anyway. Nearly 400,000 people are over 100 years of age right now. In fact, more than half of all the people who have ever turned 80 are still alive. Maybe even more remarkable is that my oldest daughter, Amy, who was born in March 1999, will live in three centuries (unless a tragedy strikes her). She should plan to live to about 140. Clearly this changes things: who we marry, and whether it will be “until death do us part”; when you can afford to retire, and if you can afford to do so at all; what a career looks like; how we spend public and private money on healthcare; and what rights we have to end life – these are just a few examples of profound change and issues we have to face today.
- Abundant, cheap and clean energy: We’re entering an era when the alternatives to oil are becoming ever more viable and prevalent. Fracking is opening up shale gas reserves, solar panels are becoming significantly more efficient and cost effective, but most significantly, rapid advances in nuclear fusion technology are promising almost free energy within a decade. The most notable experiment in this regard is ITER (see http://www.iter.org) outside Marseilles in France, which will be one of the largest manmade engineering feats in history, turning seawater into energy (it sounds like science fiction, but it’s not).More significantly, America is about to become energy independent. This has been a dream of theirs for half a century or more, and it will become reality by the end of this decade. When America is no longer dependent on foreign oil or gas, the world will truly change forever.
- Graphene and other new wonder materials: Over the past few years, researchers and scientists in different parts of the world have discovered or created remarkable new materials within amazing properties and potential to revolutionise the world in the same way that electricity, steel or the wheel did. Probably top of this list is graphene. It is a material that is a single atom thick – a layer of carbon. It is lighter than air, but 200 times stronger than steel. It is stronger than diamonds, yet flexible like rubber. It can conduct electricity, be programmed like a computer and is impervious to water. It sounds like science fiction, and yet it is real, with it’s founders being awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010. The uses of graphene range from better batteries to smart clothes, and from electric airplanes to cures for cancer. We’ll see commercial applications of this wonder material in the next few years.
- On demand workers: Sometimes called the “gig economy”, The Economist highlighted this remarkable shift in working practice in January 2015 with a cover article. Some estimates say that as many as 70% of the world’s workforce might be “on demand” by 2025, as computer automation takes over many full-time office jobs, forcing workers to become freelancers or to simply “fill in the gaps” that computers can’t do. And yet business people I know have yet to even look at ELance.com and investigate its potential. Add to this the increasing number of people who will choose to not retire along with increasingly easy global migration, and a fundamental shift in workforce dynamics is imminent. We’re about to experience the biggest change in the workplace environment since the Industrial Revolution.
- Smart devices, the Internet of Things and Technology: If we’re looking for evidence of disruptive change, we could write a whole book on technology. It is THE driving force for change in our world right now, as we stand on the edge of new technology golden age. From driverless cars and drones to 3-d printing and robots, our world waits to discover the implications of an explosion of computing power, automation, augmented reality and digital connection. Probably the most significant set of advances have been grouped together under the heading of “the Internet of Things” (IoT) in which every object in the world can potentially be connected to the Internet via sensors and controllers. This will truly make our world smart – interconnected and intelligent.
Dealing with Disruption
The evidence is all around us: we’re not just going through a time of change, we’re at a moment in history when the ways in which we live and work are being disrupted. There are many, many more examples we could list, but those above are enough to prove the point: we’re living at a time when we need to accept new rules, new ways of living and new ways of working.
To do this will require shifting our ways of thinking and our mindsets. In his excellent 1972 book about the future, “Future Shock” futurist Alvin Toffler tried to predict what the world would be like thirty years in the future (the book is still worth reading, by the way, especially the last chapter on leadership qualities that will be required in the future). We are living in the world he was contemplating, and his insights are still valuable. He said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but rather those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
In a time of disruptive change, the most important leadership skill is the ability to be adaptable – to not hold fast to old ways of doing, thinking or being – but rather to recognize the need for new approaches, new mindsets and new systems. Indeed, UNlearning is key.
It’s both harder and easier to do this than it sounds. It involves a conscious decision to engage with the changing world, being deliberate about creating time to track the trends that are coming to disrupt us, experimenting more, actively seeking out diverse and even opposing voices and bringing them into your team, learning the art of asking great questions and developing the skills needed to catalyze and navigate change successfully in yourself and others. Each of these can be learnt and developed with practice and intent. But it all starts with a change of mind.
As Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the things you don’t know that will get you into trouble, it’s the things you think you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
If this article by Graeme has left you thinking more about the topic and you’d like to find out how specifically TomorrowToday can help, we suggest you either call one of our team directly, or book one of our speakers for a keynote presentation or workshop which addresses this very topic.
Tomorrow’s World Today would be a great starting point for any organisation wanting to shift their thinking, and start facing the future with confidence.
Our online video series, ‘Thinking Like a Futurist‘ would also be something we could recommend!