Updated: Aug 24, 2020
The following article introduces an unfolding story about the transformative forces driving disruption. It is a narrative that helps leadership, change, design and learning specialists position themselves and their purpose amidst an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.
We are living in a Time Between Worlds simultaneously feeling the pull of the future, the push of the present and the drag of the past in unprecedented ways due to the pace, scope and scale of disruption (Stein 2018). In this story, the convergence of three transformative forces is rapidly changing life as we know it.
Force #1 - The 4th Industrial Revolution
The first is an economic force known as the 4th Industrial Revolution, which has three components:
The combination of Artificial Intelligence and robotics is automating away all repetitive manual and cognitive tasks (Gahan, Healy & Nicholson 2017). As such, the need for repetitive task oriented professional roles are diminishing. At the same time, fewer roles requiring higher order thinking such as social-emotional intelligence, meta-cognition, creativity, collaboration and complex problem solving are growing in demand (Doecke, Maire & Lamb 2017). How sustainable societies build capacity for these new roles whilst realising fewer people will be needed to fill them is an intractable challenge for the foreseeable future. Add to this Deep Learning (A.I. that mimics the neurological pathways of the human brain/nervous system) and the ethical dilemmas grow increasingly consequential.
Shifting global demographics reflects the mass movement of people, skills and creativity around the planet. Human mobility brings a level of diversity that contributes to economic resiliency. It also amplifies the imperative for inclusive postures and mindsets in alignment with evolving social, cultural and economic expectations (Cariss & Vorhauser-Smith 2017). Ultimately, human mobility invokes the potential for both agency AND exploitation in ways that require a global reconsideration of how talent is recruited, retained, remunerated and legislated for (Cariss & Vorhauser-Smith 2017).
The sharing economy enables an exchange of value without the need for an intermediary to determine what that value is. Things, information and services are traded via tech platforms that facilitate mutual negotiation between consumers and providers (e.g. Etsy, Facebook, AirBnB). These platforms respond to the consumptive patterns of developing economies as they shift from things to experiences. The promise is to democratise the trade of information and promote individual agency along the way. However, the pace of change continues to favour those with the resources to adapt, leaving large portions of society behind.
Force #2 - The Anthropocene
The second is an ecological force known as the Anthropocene (Anthro = human, pocene = geologic time). For the past 50 years, natural scientists have been using the term Anthropocene to refer to a geologic transition from the Holocene, which began around 12,000 years ago, to our current epoch (Carrington 2017, Stein 2018).
The Anthropocene is marked by mounting evidence of human behaviour impacting the biospheric structure of the planet (Carrington 2017). We know this to be true based on a warming climate combined with the largest flora and fauna extinction in 65 million years (Carrington 2017). The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2050, 250,000 people will die annually due to extreme weather events, heat exhaustion and mosquito born diseases (World Health Organisation 2018). This assumption excludes pandemics, an important consideration given that COVID-19 reportedly claimed 560,000 lives in the first six months of 2020 alone (World Health Organisation 2020).
The first law of thermodynamics argues that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but is instead converted between forms. This principle holds true for the transference of complexity from natural systems to socially constructed ones, which the 4th Industrial Revolution is accelerating. As a result, the rate of change within natural systems is increasing. When the rate of change in natural systems increase, conditions are ripe for biological novelty, including the emergence of cross-species viruses (Maturana & Varela 1998). Thus, pandemics (along with the aforementioned calamities) will wreak havoc with increasing frequency as long as humanity continues on its current Anthropocenic trajectory.
Force #3 - Reductionist vs. Pluralistic
The third is a cultural force characterised by the tension between reductionist and pluralistic ways of understanding and interacting with the world. I believe this force is the least talked about but the most deeply felt, particularly now.
The reductionist worldview came online post Enlightenment and peaked in the mid-20th century. It orients toward a relationship with truth based on external, empirical and observable evidence. It is often associated with data and measurement, linear causality, hierarchical decision making, people as capital inputs, mechanised understanding of complexity, and a singular narrative about the unfolding story of human progress in which the Anglo-European experience dominates.
The pluralistic world view came online in the mid-20th century and is peaking now. It orients toward a relationship with truth based on subjective, experiential and phenomenological evidence. It is often associated with diversity, perspectival multiplicity, consensus decision-making, people as creative assets, heuristic understanding of complexity, and deconstructed narratives about the unfolding story of human progress that seeks to understand, reflect and include the experience of under-represented perspectives.
Time Between Worlds
Both reductionist and pluralistic world views generate functional and dysfunctional outcomes. The 1961 oral Polio vaccine and the 1969 lunar landing are examples of functional reductionist achievements; Anglo-European colonialism is not. The 2017 legalisation of same sex marriage in Australia and the 2019 all female space walk are examples of functional pluralistic achievements; Facebook's algorithms designed to reinforce biased, subjective perspectives is not.
Reductionist and pluralistic world views are essential AND insufficient on their own to meet the combined impact of the 4th Industrial Revolution and the Anthropocene. A new more holistic worldview is required, one that integrates the best of both in order to respond skilfully to the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of our times. It is our role as leadership, change, design and learning specialists to usher in the new; we serve as midwives to emergent patterns of understanding and relating in this - Time Between Worlds (Stein 2018).
Cariss, K & Vorhauser-Smith, S 2017, Cliffhanger: hr on the precipice in the future of work, Pageup, Melbourne.
Carrington, D 2017, 'Earth's 6th mass extinction event underway, scientists warn', The guardian australia edn, viewed 21 June 2019 <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/10/earths-sixth-mass-extinction-eventalready-underway-scientists-warn>.
Doecke, E, Maire, Q & Lamb, S 2017, ‘Key skills for the 21st century: an evidence-based review’, Future frontiers analytical report, New South Wales Department of Education, Sydney.
Gahan, P, Healy, J & Nicholson, D 2017, ‘The future of work in australia: anticipating how new technologies will reshape labour markets, occupations and skill requirements’, Future frontiers analytical report, New South Wales Department of Education, Sydney.
Maturana, HR & Varela, FJ 1998, The tree of knowledge: the biological roots of human understanding, Shambala, London, UK.
World Health Organisation 2018, 'Climate change and health', Newsroom, viewed 20 October 2019, <https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/climate-change-and-health>.
World Health Organisation 2020, 'Corona virus disease pandemic', Covid-19 quick links, viewed 1 July 2020, <https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019?gclid=Cj0KCQjwhIP6BRCMARIsALu9LfkZK_qdiBhBnff32JwdDt53rPzHWb7o2WFY1FOzdnqp_bwiT2IFAe8aAoJKEALw_wcB>.
Stein, Zachary, 2018, 'Introduction: education in a time between worlds, Institute for interdisciplinary research into the anthropocene', Education in the anthropocene: futures beyond schooling, viewed June 1, 2019 <https://iiraorg.com/2018/04/05/education-in-the-anthropocene-futures-beyond-schooling/>.