An ongoing roundup of fresh thinking and emerging perspectives.
Why We Should Grow And Not Scale
In this gorgeous piece for Grow magazine, the writer and artist, Claire L. Evans draws our attention to the difference between growth and scalability. Citing the anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Evans notes that scalability is not an ordinary feature of nature. In nature, nothing grows alone. Growth is “a process of entanglement and mutual transformation." Some mushrooms, for example, resist cultivation and thrive only in a “mutualistic relationship with forest trees, foraging nutrients from the soil in exchange for carbohydrates. These encounters are a catalyst for diversity." While nothing living expands without change, scaling in business is “the capacity to expand without change, like a fractal." Scaling means reproducing efficiently without regard for context. Shifting our focus from scaling to growing means taking into account the interconnectedness and interdependence of the natural world: "Life is nonhierarchical, and it shirks top-down control. But scalability relies on hierarchy, on the isolation of elements stripped of history and context. It is predicated on the assumption that nature is little more than a raw material to be processed and commodified until it is spent. This is, of course, unsustainable — at any scale. So what is the alternative? Can we redefine “scalability” as a process as dense, complex, and generative as the living world?"
Why The Future Brims With Possibility
In this opinion piece for the New York Times, Jerome Roos, a political economist, sociologist and historian, reminds us to look beyond the one-sided narratives of either impending doom or continuous human progress, which "are equally forceful in their claims — and equally misleading in their analysis." The future, according to Roos, is much more open-ended than these two linear narratives suggest. Throughout history, crises have been devastating, but they are also the drivers of history: "We are ourselves in the midst of a painful transition, a sort of interregnum, as the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci famously called it, between an old world that is dying and a new one that is struggling to be born. Such epochal shifts are inevitably fraught with danger. Yet for all their destructive potential, they are also full of possibility. As the 19th-century historian Jacob Burckhardt once noted, the great upheavals in world history can equally be seen 'as genuine signs of vitality' that 'clear the ground' of discredited ideas and decaying institutions. 'The crisis,' he wrote, 'is to be regarded as a new nexus of growth.'"
Why We Must Resist Deterministic Thinking
In her latest blog post, danah boyd warns against the fallacies of deterministic thinking which create unchecked projectories (i.e., deterministic-inflected roadmaps) consolidating the power of those who seek to invent the future or otherwise control the narrative in a moment of destabilisation. The power of deterministic thinking lies in attracting attention (from the media) and other resources (from investors), not in its ability to "determine" the future. Instead of deterministic rhetoric, we should apply probabilistic thinking. It allows us to take a more holistic approach to technological disruption and carefully design interventions that lead us towards a desired future. According to boyd, a moment of disruption calls for a more nuanced, thoughtful and reflexive account of technology and society: "This is the fascinating thing about a disruption like what we’re seeing with AI technologies. It rearranges power, networks, and institutions. And we’re watching a scramble by individuals and organizations to obtain power in this insanity. In these moments, there is little space for deeply reflexive thinking, for nuanced analysis, which is especially unfortunate because that’s precisely what we need right now. Not to predict futures (or to prevent them) but to build the frameworks of resilience."
The Need to Enhance Our Decision-Making
This essay from 2020 by Roger Spitz of the Disruptive Futures Institute argues that humans need to enhance their decision-making and become anticipatory, antifragile, and agile (AAA). With the world becoming more complex and artificial intelligence moving up the decision-making value chain, humans must step up to avoid being surpassed in autonomous strategic decision-making. Spitz writes: “Ultimately it is an existentialist question around agency, as evolutionary pressure dictates that the best decision-makers will be the ones who survive. If we do not fundamentally redesign our education and strategic frameworks to create more AAA leaders, we may see that choice made for us."
The Proliferation of Catastrophic Thinking
In this opinion piece, David Wallace-Wells, the author of "The Uninhabitable Earth", notes how catastrophic thinking now permeates our culture, and most notably dominates the recent debate about artificial intelligence. As Wallace-Wells observes: "It’s common to hear invocations of the A.I. revolution as an event as significant as the arrival of the internet — but it’s one thing to prepare for a cultural earthquake like the internet and another to be preparing for the equivalent of nuclear war. And it is especially remarkable, given the pervasive utopianism of the internet’s original architects, just how dystopian those ushering in its next phase seem to be about the very new world they believe they are spawning."
The Importance of Rigour in Foresight
In the first half of this podcast episode of Looking Outside, Amy Webb talks about her data-driven approach to foresight, how it helps to instil confidence in executive decision-makers and why foresight should always be strategic and lead to some action. Amy also explains why she shares her tools freely: "If we are all doing more rigorous and better work then that work is going to be easier to socialise, which means it will land better, which means all of us who are in this field are more likely to succeed."
You Don't Actually Know What Your Future Self Wants
In this TED Talk, Shankar Vedantam talks about "the illusion of continuity" - our misguided idea that the future is going to be more of the same. The truth is we will become different people in the future with different preferences, strengths and capabilities. "If we are going to become someone different," argues Vendantam, "we might as well be in charge of who that person is going to be."
Matt Klein's The META Trend Report: 2023
Matt Klein's astute take on this year's trend reports. According to Klein, the number of trend reports tripled in the last five years. Despite this avalanche of trend reporting at the end of every year, we seem no closer to feeling less uncertain or disoriented about the future. This has to do with the quality of the trends out there. As Klein notes, "to conduct cultural analysis correctly (accurately and ethically) we need many things: a coherent and consistent methodology, quantitative rigor, a diversity of input and collaboration, iteration (learning from past findings), a removal of organizational and personal bias or agendas, reflection, risk, realism, a curiosity about the fringe and overlooked, and a vision of a preferred future." However, less than half of published reports analysed by Klein included a methodology and only two out of 50 reports reflected on what they have shared a year earlier. In the same vein is Nick Lidell's critique published earlier this year. Although I don't necessarily agree with his viewpoint on reporting trends beyond one's immediate context and area of expertise (e.g., politics, auctions, technology), I do share his sentiment that trend reporting is lacking in rigour and that underlying forces and relationships need to be examined in greater depth to capture more meaningful opportunities.