Few of us today seem to feel that we can shape the future. Even if we like change, it seems difficult to believe we have much influence over it. We’re just bit players in a global game. Aren’t we?
Windshift’s latest report Tribes of the 3 Worlds rejects that idea. It depicts the important roles that people and businesses have played, and will play, in building the world[s] we live in. The foundations of the future already exist, but we still have quite a lot of control over what we build on top of them. Positioning yourself or your company to ‘be the change we want to see in the world’ does work.
What Traffic Rules Teach Us About Change
Sometimes even the most complex arrangements are driven by simple rules. Our entire traffic system [in NZ /Aus/UK] is based on [a] keeping left, [b] stopping when you see a red light and [c] giving way to your right. [Or as I think of it – if they’re going to hit me I should have stopped].
Windshift’s theory of change has only two rules: [a] people change only as much as they have to, and [b] when enough people and businesses play by new rules, a whole new system [or ‘world’] can emerge.
Our traffic rules are actually a good example of that – in 2012 the NZ traffic system changed its give way rule so that people turning left now had right of way. This could have been absolute chaos. But it wasn’t. Not only was the communications strategy exemplary, we all had such powerful incentives to learn and apply the new rule. [The imminent risk of accidents and death is a good example of a ‘burning platform’.]So we changed. We didn’t become perfectly law-abiding drivers at all times, but that rule stuck.
Rules of the 3 Worlds
Our 3 Worlds model of the future is based on two established findings. The first is that our dominant Consumer Industrial system [or, world] is collapsing in on itself. The second is the enduring business reality: even when you have a burning platform, changing the behaviour of groups is much harder than it looks.
Asia’s lower-cost factory economics have had a devastating effect on the western world’s industrial output. Here, manual workers’ wages are typically static or declining. As western workers try to make ends meet, they gravitate towards cheaper goods. It’s a spiral that eventually weakens even the largest firms. Procter & Gamble and General Motors and Nestlé and others respond by cutting costs and shedding staff. Under this weakened condition they become even more vulnerable to external changes from other worlds.
This isn’t just happening TO us. Because of our dual roles as customers AND workers, we are part of making this happen. As customers we have migrated online. In doing so we’ve opened our minds to a far more diverse array of experiences. We are also much more likely to focus on the social, economic and environmental effects of industrialism. These effects can spiral out of control.
For example\, many workers struggle to earn enough to live on. Reliably, since the global financial crisis, around 40% of respondents in Windshift’s online surveys report that their personal financial situation is static or declining. They respond by buying cheap or buying less. The ‘market’ gets ‘signals’ that they need to lower prices. So industries cut costs by . . . automating processes or hiring cheaper workers. You see where this is going.
Change is Hard
Across the world thousands of big branded industrial businesses have had to change the way they operate. But the literature on innovation and disruption is full of businesses that tried to change and couldn’t. That’s partly because they are complex systems where each part depends on every other part. But it’s also because they consist of people, not robots. People create cultures that explain what to do and why. It’s usually easier to start from scratch than change an existing culture.
So even when they feel they MUST make fundamental change, businesses latch onto only the most accessible innovations. They don’t reinvent themselves entirely, they just adopt enough new ways of doing things to disrupt the pattern of losses. For example, they may adopt innovations from Global Techno-culture like automation or programmatic advertising, but they don’t try to be Google. Similarly, they might adopt sustainable wellbeing principles, but they don’t become Fair Trade.
Hybrid Worlds Emerge
As these individual actions become repeated patterns, the rules of the new system are formed. Hybrid worlds emerge. Conscious Capitalism is becoming a hybrid world, with new ways of operating, new norms and new heroes. Another, even more widespread, hybrid has emerged in the overlap between industrialism and the ‘global techno-culture’ – the Algorithmic World. Gartner Research describes firms like Amazon and Facebook as examples of “the industrialized use of complex mathematical algorithms . . “
The success of these vast operations attracts the struggling consumer industrialists and offers them a new way of keeping up with us. Their advertising becomes ‘programmatic’, unleashed from the television it can turn up anywhere. Re-marketing causes products you were ‘just looking’ at to follow you around the internet in the [obviously not always] forlorn hope you’ll change your mind. Customer service becomes customer experience, concerned with your ‘journey’ and your response times. Automatic surveys quiz you on your likelihood to recommend them to others [the net promoter score that probably determines executives’ bonuses].
This is How We Shape the Future
The Algorithmic World is only one of three hybrid worlds that has emerged in recent years. There’s also Conscious Capitalism – a merging of consumer industrial and sustainable wellbeing worlds. Then there’s the entire built-from-scratch Sharing Economy, which blends the cultures of sustainable wellbeing and global techno-culture. There is a constant push and pull between the hybrid worlds, and their relationship back to the source worlds.
The system shapes itself around our behaviour. Meanwhile back in the source world, more subtle processes generate the same effects with much less visibility than those mentioned above. How much has Amazon and Netflix’s ‘if you like that, you’ll love this’ algorithm done to subtly shape our choices? How clever were Ebay and TradeMe and now Uber and AirBNB to use mutual ratings processes to simulate and bolster trust?
So What Will The Future Be Like?
Elysium wasn’t the best film ever, but it did have an interesting world view.
“In the year 2159, humanity is sharply divided between two classes of people: The ultrarich live aboard a luxurious space station called Elysium, and the rest live a hardscrabble existence in Earth’s ruins.”
Is this the future we’re creating for ourselves? Americans and others living outside social democracies might think so, but judging by recent news of Silicon Valley 1%ers shipping survival bunkers here, New Zealand is Elysium, so we should be sweet! [Or else the #1 target for the revolutionary mob.]
I’m kidding. Sort of. In fact our Tribes of the 3 Worlds report suggests that the Elysium future is far from a done deal, as long as we all remember that businesses need to serve people, not just farm them. If we want to embed that in the future, it’s probably best to start now.