Erik P.M. Vermeulen

@erikpmvermeulen

A Guide for Dealing with Our Future

How to Improve Creativity & Choice in an Uncertain World

Last week, I was in Denmark to speak about the impact of disruptive new and future technologies on business, government and education.

There was a clear consensus amongst participants that the digital age is exciting, but also extremely daunting.

Everyone seemed to agree that a big part of this challenge was the pace of technological change and the constant pressure to integrate new technologies into existing patterns of working.

I can see this in my own life; “artificial intelligence”, the “Internet of Things” and “blockchain technology” increasingly pop up in the workplace conversation.

Of course, we have always had to deal with the challenge of new technologies, but the current pace of innovation and discoveries means that the situation is different now. We face unprecedented issues and are anxious about as-yet-unknown future challenges.

So, what should we be doing to prepare for the future?

Well, for a start, we need to have a better understanding of how disruptive technologies affect our decision-making and develop strategies to better prepare us for new realities of an uncertain world.

From a World of “Experience” . . .

We live in a fast-changing world where “experience” — understood as the accumulated practical wisdom of the past — can no longer provide guidance in the way that it once did. This is true for individuals and organizations (businesses, universities, and governments).

Let me explain.

Imagine that you are confronted with a problem at work. It could be anything, but let’s assume you are asked to negotiate some kind of agreement with another organization.

The standard response to this task would be to look for a comparable situation in the past and ask:

How did we deal with a similar situation the last time?

You would start by digging up the previous agreements concluded by your organization and they would provide the basis for the task of negotiating / drafting the new agreement.

And, if there was no “past experience”, you could always “Google it” to find someone else’s experience.

Problem-solving and decision-making relied on the application of pre-existing templates to any “new” situation.

Accumulated experience was a vital institutional resource that provided guidance in the handling of any new task. Experience was a key element in the “culture” of an organization — the institutional memory, if you like — and the quality or richness of that experience was a crucial factor in determining the success of an organization.

The organizations that could best accumulate and leverage experience maximized opportunities for success.

But, what happens in a world where there is no “last time” that can provide this kind of guidance?
What do we do in a world where there is no relevant previous agreement sat in a filing cabinet somewhere that can be pulled out to provide the basis for the next agreement?
Or, what if Google doesn’t give you a clear and accurate answer?

We live in a world where “past experience” is less valuable or relevant than it once was. In a world where the only certainty is that tomorrow will be different from today, we can no longer rely on settled templates from the past in guiding our decisions about the future.

What then replaces experience as the primary basis for decision-making in a digital age?

. . . to a World of “Creativity”

I believe that a premium is now on the capacity to adapt creatively to a fast-changing reality.

Creativity is replacing “past experience” as the key determinant of individual or organizational success.

But what do we mean by creativity? And, how is such creativity best achieved?

To help us be “more creative”, here are three strategies that we need to understand and embrace.

Crucially, these strategies are all made much easier by the proliferation of new technologies.

“Technologies” are replacing “experience” in an uncertain world.

#1 — Build collaborative “environments”

The capacity for creativity is greatest when people collaborate. Building a more open and inclusive environment — whether it is a team, an organization, or even a society — facilitates collaborative relationships that are more likely to be creative.

Traditionally, society and business organizations were built on closed hierarchies. This worked in a world where we could rely on past experience. The most experienced (and, therefore, “skilled”) people tended to be higher in the hierarchy. But in a world with unknown and uncertain challenges, closed hierarchies don’t work anymore.

We need to develop environments where the “best idea wins”, independent of the age, gender, or status of the person or persons proposing it.

#2 — Re-think traditional “roles”

This means re-defining our understanding of the different roles that individuals are expected to perform within a team or organization.

In this new world, “bosses”, “teachers” and “leaders” will be more and more replaced by “influencers”, “creators” and “visionaries”.

This is a “flatter” world in which the influencer-creator-visionary is a more modest figure that seeks to inspire, to motivate and to nudge those around him or her. The influencers of today understand that they too are on a journey of constant learning and don’t have all the answers.

Equally, the employee-student-citizen is a more dynamic “figure” that needs to take more responsibility and be less respectful of traditional authorities. They don’t only consume information, but challenge, inspire, motivate and enter into a dialogue with creators.

In this way, the opportunities for “co-creating” are maximized.

#3 — Be open to the “never-ending pool of knowledge”

New technologies — social media, instant messaging, Skype, etc. — make it possible to interact with people from all over the world. You can effortlessly have a dialogue with persons you’ve never met before.

These technologies are very powerful and certainly have their own challenges.

But, they will lead to surprising — and often unexpected — new opportunities, ideas and breakthroughs. They offer the chance to experiment and test ideas. The instant feedback that these technologies facilitate makes it possible to immediately change, develop and improve these ideas.

What is great is that existing platforms, such as Medium and its publications, offer a never-ending source of knowledge that is needed to help you prepare for the future.

Traditional distinctions between “writers” and “readers” get blurred as everyone becomes “co-creators” and “collaborators”.

Such new platforms will become more and more important to deal with and solve the challenges of the future. This is particularly important to researchers and scientists. They should all aspire to become “influencers”.

But What about the Past?

During the discussion in Denmark, it became clear that for many people “clinging to the past” is an appealing strategy for dealing with the uncertain challenges of the future.

We could choose to downplay the extent of technological developments and continue to use elements of “old world experience” (for example, “fundamental” concepts, models, and paradigms) in order to understand and respond to the future.

This might appear to be a safe strategy, which makes sense because we simply don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Many politicians seem to understand this and employ this kind of rhetoric to gain popularity.

But history suggests that this is not a sustainable or winning strategy. Our culture has already embraced the “connectivity”, “convenience” and “choice” of a digital age.

As difficult as it can (and will) be sometimes, there is no going back.

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