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Navigating the Storms of Our New Renaissance

Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna

Much has already been written about the overwhelming amount of data and information now available to business and business staffs. What is often missing in this discussion is that the main challenge does not lie in having too much information (our brains are always flooded with more information than we can process), but in the information overflow that occurs when we lack an apt framework to make the flood meaningful. Article from Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna authors of Age of Discovery: Navigating the Storms of Our New Renaissance.

Map-making is an essential, but mostly overlooked, part of adapting to rapid change. Our narratives and language can indeed trap us in outdated views of the world. We must gain awareness of our mental maps, and redraw those that need redrawing, if we want the world to make sense to us again. It’s a corporate leadership imperative, and a societal one.

With 73 percent of CEOs seeing rapid technological change as one of their key issues (up from 64 percent last year), it’s also a competitive imperative for all businesses. Indeed, conscious map-making helps us to adapt to change, but it also drives it. Five hundred years ago in the Renaissance, Columbus, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, da Vinci, and others because their maps defined the terrain in which their age explored. As Chris Kutarna (and ex World bank VP Ian Goldin) remind us in their book Age of Discovery, we are living in our own (second) renaissance and must re-make our maps anew. Today’s voyages of discovery are likewise unveiling new worlds to us. New maps, new narratives, are emerging and will define how we understand it. If we are not writing them, someone else is.

So what areas are these new maps likely to be in or need to be about? In recent researches, Kutarna (and Massimo Portincaso of the Boston Consulting Group) suggest it is time to update our narratives and install the latest versions. Here are three examples of outdated narratives/maps in wide use today whose revision could accelerate organizations’ ability to adapt and unleash creativity.

From Infrastructure to Interstructure
Infrastructure is, literally, the structure that lies below. The way the term has long been used envisages an industry that is stable, permanent, and fixed—something that underlies the busy social and economic activity that all takes place atop it. That was an accurate narrative, once. The idea was that the builders/operators/producers of mass enablers (like electricity grids) were separated from the users.

But that is the opposite of the future being articulated today by firms in electricity, water, transport, and other industries with business models that increasingly operate within and between all manner of transaction. Increasingly, infrastructure is being reconceived as a platform, which—like platforms in the digital economy—blurs the division between producers and users, and enables uses that may be completely unanticipated by the network builders. If all that elected officials, consumers, or employees know of a given industry is that it involves “infrastructure,” then they lack the awareness to be a good partner in these transformations.

“Interstructure” more closely captures the models that are emerging in these industries. Smart electrical grids enable businesses and individuals to create, trade, and arbitrage electricity with their own generation and storage assets attached to the network. Owners of rights-of-way, from water utilities to railway companies, may enable flows of autonomous vehicles and drones along private transportation routes that do not conflict with public traffic. Owners of physical facilities of all kinds, from parking lots to warehouses to attics, will enable autonomous material flows by supplying staging sites and recharging sites.

From Mechanical to Biological Thinking
The Age of Enlightenment was characterized by linearity and predictability. It was a world where causal relationships were apparent, Moore’s law had not yet accelerated the pace of change, and economic and social systems were not yet intricately intertwined. But now, as a result of technological and scientific advances and the rise of globalization, the world consists of several big and small complex adaptive systems, which are highly entangled.

Whereas we used to be able to use a narrative of linearity and mechanics to explain the world, we now need a narrative inspired by biological and other natural systems. Biological thinking is not linear. Instead, as Martin Reeves and others have written, it is messy. It focuses on experimentation rather than managing a process to produce a certain effect.

From Automation to Augmentation
Most corporate and policy research regarding artificial intelligence and the “future of work” is centred on automation—the replacement of human labour and cognition with machines. Multiple studies report some variation of the same narrative: about half of all jobs in advanced economies may be automated away by 2050, if not earlier.

This stark human-versus-machine dichotomy gives rise to a number of blind spots and neglects important dimensions, such as the spread of complex adaptive systems and the network effects caused by their entanglement. Most important, it skips the most promising opportunity space for business and for every sector of society: the human-machine interface.
A narrative of augmentation, instead of automation, invites business leaders, policy makers, researchers, and the labour force to pay much more attention to this middle space. Companies and society need to create a narrative that focuses on the potential of AI to switch the scale of reference for several tasks, often by several orders of magnitude.

The augmentation narrative is not limited to products and processes; it also affects professions and management. Just as what it means to be a doctor is going to be reshaped by access to millions of records and machine learning, what it means to be a manager and run an organization will change significantly. The current trend to decentralize decisions will be fundamentally redefined and accelerated as decisions are increasingly supported by AI and data, “augmenting” decision makers and allowing for new management tools and new organizational structures.

Age of Discovery: Navigating the Storms of Our New Renaissance by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna is published by Bloomsbury.

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