The Agri SA Virtual Congress 2021 provided food for thought on issues concerning the economy and climate change. At the event, speaker and futures strategist John Sanei put forward various scenarios and highlighted ways to help us seek out and enjoy these challenges without a familiar sense of closure or the comfort of “absolute outcomes”.
“Transformation has three stages,” John explains. “We have ‘The Sad’, which is what most people are experiencing right now.” This stage is caused by the loss of moving away from familiar comfort zones and certainties.
Eventually we get to ‘The Adventure’, where there’s enough momentum to go forward. “Unfortunately, right now we need to focus on the Sad and the Strange, because that’s where we are in the process.” We need to put certain changes in motion.
A poverty of imagination
“We’re experiencing a crisis of meaning in many ways, because the society we’ve built has been absolutely addicted to absolute outcomes,” says John. “Everything we do has been about gaining a measure of certainty and comfort. But today’s world has no outcomes or guarantees, and this model doesn’t serve us very well anymore.”
Part of the reason for our addiction to certainty is that our brains avoid uncertainty. It’s constantly searching for points in the future to latch onto that can make us feel safe and comfortable.
One initiative John is part of, the UNESCO Futures Literacy Programme identifies the issue in education around the world a ‘poverty of the imagination’. “Humanity hasn’t been taught to imagine the future, but has always looked for safety and security,” he says. “We need to be rich in imagination to create the new rather than to hold on to the past.”
John takes us back to the agricultural revolution, where the most important things were understanding the seasons and the soil, and having the physical strength to do the work. During the subsequent industrial revolution, these qualities were no longer as relevant. “In the industrial revolution, we prized education and intelligence – the left-brain, logical thinking we’ve been doing for the past 200 years.”
According to John, we’re entering another era that where these qualities will be superseded. “In the new quantum-digital world, we won’t be able to compete with machine learning and AI, which will together be far more intelligent, efficient, and much faster at the same tasks. We will once again have to adapt. We now have to start utilising curiosity, excitement and intuition to make decisions,” he says.
A second cycle has been the shift in trade flows from globalisation, which opened up international markets and collaboration, to digitalisation about 20 years ago. As connectivity becomes cheaper and faster, access keeps increasing – every revolution puts the previous one into high gear.
“The new flow is called ‘dispersion’ – the move away from focal points people used to congregate at such as universities, schools, restaurants, hospitals and offices. “Whatever business you’re in, you can focus on how to service people in their own space rather than places of gathering, such as shopping malls.”
John suggests cycles repeat every generation of 80 years or so, and each generation goes through different seasons. “After every Sad and Strange, there will be another Adventure.”
Resilience in the face of such sea changes is necessary, but it can also be a trap, warns John. “Just like transformation, resilience has three parts: respond, recover and reimagine. The poverty of imagination means we usually only respond and recover, then stop. This is holding us back.”
The world we know has been very complicated, says John. “The world of linear innovation is a world of repeating patterns. Because of that, we can use accounting and mathematics to extrapolate from the past into the future to formulate very effective strategies. Such a world supports automation.” This paradigm relies on economies of scale and efficiencies to achieve success.
In a complex world, however, the patterns don’t repeat themselves. Since so many different aspects are changing and affecting one another simultaneously, the future doesn’t progress along a linear trajectory. This also affects automation. “In a world of complexity, you no longer focus on economies of scale, but on economies of learning; not on efficiency, but on robustness.”
“It’s about how quickly you can unlearn to relearn. As new things start to arrive, we have to become as adaptive and as wise as possible,” says John. “As Alan Watts says, ‘the knowledgeable man has to learn something new every day, but the wise man has to unlearn something new every day.’ This is how we become wiser, more agile, and better prepared for the future.”
Innovate and disrupt
John suggests the best way to be conquer uncertainty and planting seeds for the future is to create ‘today’ and ‘tomorrow’ teams. “Today teams focus on the 1-2 year horizons, on economies of scale and profitability. These are the innovators. But you also need Tomorrow teams with a different set of skills. They’re focused on economies of learning, experimentation and new business models. These are the disruptors and experts of tomorrow. This way, you can respond and recover from crises, as well as reimagine the world we’re moving towards.”