These are challenging times. Whether its the shifting fortunes of the Eurozone, uncertainty about power and democracy in the middle east, concerns about sustainability with nine billion people expected to occupy the planet by 2050, these appear to be difficult times.
What is in fact happening is that we are in the "in between" times between two major patterns of socioeconomic reality. One pattern, now coming to the end of its natural cycle, is one in which a major super-power dominated economically and militarily, established institutions like the IMF, World Bank and UN were able to steer the world in an direction the dominant powers could support and the global economy functioned well in the interests of the wealthy and the growing middle class. The emerging pattern is one in which power is shared between a number of different interests - China, India and sometimes Russia balance the interests of the US and the EU, as we saw with the vote at the UN concerning Syria in early February 2012 - and the "old" institutions appear no longer "fit for purpose". The relative power and authority of the US, not to mention its economic strength, is changing as other countries strengthen their economies and secure growth.
But there are other changes which are important in that they are shaping the shift from the old paradigm to the emerging frame which we will use to understand the world in which we live. Six particular patterns are shaping this new reality, each will be described briefly here. As we think about each, the challenge is to see them as opportunities for a new enlightenment - a new renaissance.
Demography is not destiny, but it is clearly shaping a great many issues in the developed world. Canada, for example, has a birth rate below replacement as do many countries in the European Union. What this means is that fewer people will be in the workforce and able to support those too young or old to work or unable to do so. It also means that immigration becomes the source of new labour and the sustainability of the economy, with implications for culture, community, identity and values. As many will live longer, thanks to advances in regenerative medicine and social conditions, strains will be felt in health care systems and on personal wealth. It will be the best of times for communities and the worst of times.
Economies are changing dramatically. US sovereign and public debt and unfounded liabilities exceed $210 trillion while private indebtedness stands at $14 billion. Growth has stalled in many parts of the world and there are various forms of economic crises, ranging from the challenge is sustaining the Eurozone, the UK's failure to tackle growth and fiscal responsibility to the slow down in the rate of growth of both India and China. The rosy millennial forecasts now look not just like "cockeyed optimism", but wishful thinking. We are looking at a sea change in how the global economy functions.
Power is shifting. From the continued fall out from the Arab Spring, to new power alliances over climate change which have emerged post-Copenhagen and new roles for the BRIC economies, we see the dominance of the US in decline and the rise of issue based coalitions. There is no post-Washington consensus. The weakness of the military performance by the US led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan are also signals that "all is not as it once was". What is clear is that power is uncertain and major challenges to the stability of regions - Syria, Iran are examples- show that power and authority are now diffuse.
Sustainability and the balance between human activity and the well being of the planet remain delicate issues, but are shaping strategies for energy, transport, innovation, growth and development. With seven billion people living on the earth and two more billion expected by 2050, we need to get smart about our life style expectations, social corporate responsibility and leadership. It is clear that using guilt as the basis for encouraging action - the thrust of the climate change movement - has led to only modest and insignificant changes in behavior. But a focus on the opportunities created by population growth and making the innovation challenges of sustainability an imperative could enable adaptation and change. Whatever happens, we need to change our behavior so that we can feed, shelter and support sustainable lifestyles for nine billion people - a major challenge.
Technology has enabled major change. Technology enabled flash mobs to staged the overthrow of corrupt governments, is the engine of the global economy, the reason so many people will live longer and the new way in which people meet each other for marriage. Whether it is regenerative medicine which is using stem cells and related technologies to regrow organs or restore function to failing organs or information technologies which are changing the way education is delivered in countries that are unable to build and staff schools, technology has been transformative and disruptive. The book, music, travel, banking and communications businesses are changed forever. The ways we manufacture goods using robotics or undertake police investigations using new forensic tools are all indicators that technology is having an impact on the day to day lives of billions of people. And we haven't seen anything yet if technology futurists are right. Technology will continue to disrupt.
Identity is changing. A young boy of seven in a small remote village in the Canadian Rockies explained to me that he had 149 friends, only six of whom lived locally. His other "friends" lived in eleven countries. With some surprise he told me that his French friends knew a lot of French and could help him with his French homework! But this story masks an issue. He is in fact very lonely and disconnected from his local "real" world while highly engaged in a virtual world. His identity is not rooted in reality, but in the world of Facebook, Twitter and computer games. He has not spent time playing actual games like football, baseball or hockey but does play basketball online with friends in Germany. I was seeing him because, as a psychologist, I was a point of call for his depression and anxiety. Identity is also a challenge for those immigrants recently arrived in a new country who are trying to come to terms with different cultures and social expectations, not to mention values and beliefs. Identity is a growing challenge in the new paradigm.
Making Sense of the In Between Time
These six patterns of change are the drivers of the shift to the new paradigm. They are leading to new economic realities, new power balances, new cultural realities within communities and a new focus on sustainability. It would be easy to be pessimistic - the natural state for those who dislike change and would prefer to cling to the past than to leapfrog to the future.
What would help is if the future were clear - a vision and understanding of the innovation expedition it will require for us to "arrive" somewhere on the S curve of the new paradigm. But this vision is elusive and unclear, with many articulating a bleak view of the future.
The renaissance was like this, at least according to Jacob Burkhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1878). It was an “in between time” with many seeing the rise of individualism, the new economic reality of States and the decline of feudal power as a paradigm shift. Renaissance thinkers saw the opportunity and created new approaches to politics, new institutions, new forms of art and literature, new ways of thinking. They leveraged emerging technology to make things happen and they found centres of excellence which became lighthouses for what the future held. This is what is needed now.
There are developments which suggest elements of a new renaissance emerging. From the RSA's academy in Tipton, the Eden Project based in Cornwall, remarkable experiments in pairing seniors with young children to promote literacy, new technologies for personal health management, plans to build carbon neutral cities and communities, new forms of energy being found and exploited as well as advances in social engagement and the occupy movement - all are signs that people are reaching out to the next paradigm.
A vision of a sustainable planet where nine billion people have access to water, food and shelter and are able to live a life that they find has meaning so that they can give meaning to the lives of others through compassion and social action is worth pursuing. A vision for enlightenment, focused on leveraging our innovative capacity to respond to challenges as opportunities rather than threats is a mission worth pursuing. A strategy aimed at lowering barriers to the sharing of ideas, understanding and knowledge so as to accelerate development and give more people the chance to live meaningful lives is a strategy we should support.
These are the elements of the society we are working towards, but it will be a messy journey. We can expect conflict driven by scarcity, envy, ideology and misunderstanding. We can expect an increase in distress before we see an increase in hope. We can imagine mist-steps on our journey to a different future. What we can't expect is to go back.
The great baseball legend Yogi Berra once famously said "the future isn't what it used to be". He was right. We should take comfort, then, from Dan Quayle's belief that "the future will be better tomorrow".
*This talk was given to a meeting of Canadian Fellows of the RSA held in June 2011 in Vancouver. Dr. Stephen Murgatroyd, PhD FBPsS FRSA is a writer, management consultant and entrepreneur based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.*