I'm in a room laden with media technology, including an umbilical cord of cables descending from the ceiling watching as grad students from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at Tisch, NYU set up to present their four future scenarios. This annual presentation, open to the public, is the culmination of Future of the Infrastructure course.
These interrelated futures of new media and the global economy ironically came the same day as the New York Times summarized five “natural security” scenarios based solidly in our physical world and as potential sources of conflict.
Eerily, the students’ interactive media scenarios and the military's appear inextricably connected. Wikileaks for better or worse manifests an interactive media/military DNA.
I’m a big fan of Art Kleiner, adjunct professor ITP and noted author and editor-in-chief of Booz & Company’s strategy+business magazine , who set the context for the evening. Art provided a brief review of the scenario criteria students used – that they emanate from predetermined trends, however the outcomes are uncertain and they must have a degree of plausibility.
A few of the context trends were:
- Moore’s Law continues through 2022, that is the march of computer power and data’s prevalence gets cheaper.
- Revolution in fabrication of physical computing (making things), which changes business models for how we buy, uses and store objects. Think 3D manufacturing and cloud computing.
- Streaming Link – in 2010, Wikileaks happens in all futures
- Economic crisis of 2008 exists
- Demographic shift – less children are born, an aging population, education levels down, the balance of economic burden between generations becomes greater
- Twelve years ago, the dot-com bubble hadn’t yet burst, Amazon.com was just three years old, and China was known for Mao, not for manufacturing.
What will the world be like 12 years from now?
- No More Secrets: Democracy evolves -- not with a bang, but with a wiki.(Insular media, wikipedia-like disruptions and rivalry among superpowers combine to change our conception of information flow, security, and public discourse – on the internet and elsewhere.)
- A New Knowledge Ecology: The structure of institutions, starting with schools, is decoupled.(Bureaucracies in any field, struggling to manage order, cannot hold their lead against the new open institutions enabled by new media – but maybe not in ways that people expect.)
- The 21st Century City-State: The power and influence of the nation devolves to local metropolitan areas.With the price of oil rising, an explosion in fabrication technology, and increasing migration to urban areas, the nation-state is fragmenting, and people look locally and globally for their identity.
- Becoming Superhuman: The greatest plausible expansion of real-time information and augmentation.Information technology is no longer found primarily behind the screen. People make more informed decisions about the physical world, and it makes more informed decisions about them.
A lively discussion sparked by Art’s question to the students, “What do you want?” expanded the four rather “dystopic” scenarios. Faculty, alumni, friends and invited guests offered insight to the dialogue. A few notable comments from presentations and discussion:
A “reputation defender package” – on demand scrubbing and identity protection
Privacy vs. secrecy, reputation eclipses accreditation, data stream validated by experience, people want to feel omnipresent, do I own my data/control my identity?, do I have control or feel in control?
Outside of the technology arena, the interest level [with interactive media] is overestimated; technology is not part of all lives.
Decline of the nation state happens for different reasons – devolves to “low grade war all the time”, “power [emerges] for systems to create their own institutions.”
I found the rise of “alternative institutions” comment to be particularly interesting as Ann Swidler, earlier this year at Harvard (Hard Problems in Social Science), suggested one of the hardest challenges in the social sciences is to understand how institutions form.
Kleiner commented, “each scenario represents creative destruction” referring to Joseph Schumpeter, and a “redefinition of person to person, person to institution, institution to institution” is in progress.
Reflecting on the knowledge ecology scenario, “knowledge is open for acquisition, but where is opportunity for practice” drew a continuation of expressed concern over the demise of a credentialing bodies and conversely the reality that we already seek out friends advice in selecting the best “professionals.”
“What is a professional?” Art asked. The boundaries are blurred now amongst writers, consultants, investigators, researcher, etc. I thought of David Brook’s, Bobos in Paradise – we’re slipping into amalgams. Consciously or not? What’s the implied impact on organizations, I wondered?
Art wrapped up with “It’s glib to say one [scenario] will replace the other in response to immense creative destruction. All the scenarios are plausible and it is our human nature to feel discomfort, but are we up to the challenge?”
And what about those “natural security” scenarios reported in the New York Times?
Thom Shanker writes in Why We Might Fight, 2011 Edition
… the 21st century will be shaped not just by competitive economic growth, but also by potentially disruptive scarcities — depletion of minerals; desertification of land; pollution or overuse of water; weather changes that kill fish and farms... A basic question frames their[national security experts]thinking: What are the new relationships among resources, diplomacy, crisis and conflict?
Natural security scenarios:
Rising and hungry: China - As rising nations industrialize, they compete for resources, or use resource exports as bargaining chips in disputes; China does both
When Fish and Farmland Are Scarce: Yemen and the Horn of Africa -Climate change feeds anarchy in poor societies
Too Rich for Peace: The Niger Delta - Pollution and extraction complicate local conflicts in lands rich in minerals and fossil fuels
Stalking a New Frontier: The Arctic - Rights to the seabed under the melting Arctic icecap
Guarding a Planet’s Air: Brazil -What one country can do in the interests of all
Each of the student presentations had tangential nods to these global drivers, however I found most very US media centric. If I were to challenge the students to ramp up their scope, it is to reach more globally, to hold their scenarios up to the emerging physical world portrayed in the “natural security” scenarios. It is the content of their media scenarios.
“Creative destruction” coupled with “disruptive scarcities” makes for an unstable mix for which “scenario learning*” is a useful antidote. To Art Kleiner’s question, are we up to the challenge?
If you are interested in using scenarios, I highly recommend Liam Fahey’s Learning from the Future , also in Google books. I’ve used his process successfully with international groups. The process enables taking real action for strategy execution in businesses. Fahey uses the term “scenario learning” rather than the traditional scenario planning as decision making becomes intertwined with plausible scenarios. Learning is knowledge put to use with continuous dialogue. And it embraces a whole system view.
There is no denying that we are in an interconnected, emerging global future. However, in many organizations the means of approaching complexity and emergence still uses models for a stable linear world. I offer as a 2011 New Year’s resolution to anyone not up to speed on networks, systems, complexity, and scenarios to look around, read up and try out some of these approaches to understanding your organization’s sustainable future. You may be surprised by how better prepared you are for the unpredictable.
~Victoria G. Axelrod