This is the first article in a series of articles dealing with the topic of the great transformation we are at the beginning of. The subject is complex, and the tasks to be solved are large and challenging. Not only because we are facing multiple changes that affect all areas of our lives. But also because there are so many of them (accumulation), which are coming at us at the same time, which have to be mastered under time pressure, and which are also closely related to one another (complexity).
Digital transformation can support us in many ways in coping with the tasks ahead, but it is ultimately only one part of a larger and more comprehensive set of issues. As a first step, this article aims to show why this is the case and thus lay the foundation for further articles that propose concrete ways and approaches on how we can best prepare ourselves for the future that is not yet clearly defined. The path will ultimately be to not only anticipate our future as best we can, but also to actively help shape it based on this – as individuals, as companies and as a society.
We all talk about the fact that we are in one of the greatest transformation phases ever seen in human history.
But what does that mean exactly, what kind of transformation is it in concrete terms? What are its consequences for us – as individuals, for the economy and for society? What does it mean for us in the long run (10, 30, 50 years)?
If we don’t know this, we can’t adjust to it in a meaningful way or deal with it adequately. All our social concepts, visions and purpose declarations, as well as our own private, economic and political actions can quickly turn out to be a misguided path or wasted effort if we have not seriously clarified what is actually at stake here.
A great opportunity for a long time, which we should seize
But one thing in advance: however we feel, assess or view it – this transformation also offers us a probably unique opportunity for profound changes that can move our world globally in many respects in a direction that is desirable and therefore better for us. Not only subjectively, but also objectively.
Some of these impending changes are not just now becoming apparent, but have in some cases been on our radar for a long time, i.e. are long overdue. Others can improve conditions that are causing us discomfort and diminishing our quality of life. It would be possible to uncover considerable untapped potential in many areas of life that we have not yet used and that could even fundamentally reform our lives in all areas of life.
Ultimately, life concepts that were previously out of reach can be shaped and lived. We should take advantage of this, because ultimately we can all benefit from it, not only as individuals – but also as a society, as a whole.
On the way there, however, we have a few hurdles to overcome. Let’s therefore turn our attention to them.
The accumulation of challenges is unique
If we take the trouble to look quite openly at the great challenges of our time, we quickly realize that we are dealing here with a very large complex of topics.
The special thing about it, however, is not simply the sum of the challenges, which is considerable in itself. The fact that the challenges all have to be mastered at the same time, and that too under great time pressure, has hardly ever been seen before in this constellation.
The following list is intended to illustrate this. The selected topics are not listed in a prioritized manner, but serve only as illustrations, and the list makes no claim to completeness:
Infiltration of our democracies by disinformation campaigns & fake news, by cyber-crime and organized crime. Increasing polarization, more and more towards extreme positions. Extremism, increasing propensity to violence and ruthlessness. Religious fanaticism. Laissez-faire approach to the Internet, especially in connection with the impact of social media on all areas of our lives. Lost sense of community, boundless freedom and egoism as a concept of life. Digital transformation of the public sector.
2. Climate and environment
Rapidly achieve zero CO2 emissions or climate positivity, i.e. move away from fossil fuels & switch to renewable energy in all areas of life. Significant reduction of methane emissions. Securing water and drinking water supplies. More ecological agriculture. Alternatives for pesticides and conventional fertilizers. Preservation of system-critical species. More careful use of our resources. Plastic substitutes. Global initiative to detoxify or repair existing environmental damage. Global, systemic vs. national, local thinking and action. Solution-oriented, international cooperation.
Global perspective, more global coordination and cooperation: antibiotic resistance and super-bacteria. Virus transfer from animal to human. Prevention or management of epidemics and pandemics. Secured access to medicines and medical treatment options. Individual-focused medicine, gender-based medicine. Necessary vs. possible medicine. Review of medical ethics. Well-considered digital transformation (opportunities, threats and risks; careful balancing of interests).
4. Economy (global, macroeconomic view)
Worldwide deleveraging (private households, companies and states). Withdrawal of central banks from their risky intervention policies (misallocation of resources). Review of classical national economics – serious examination of new thinking and concepts, such as Circular Economy, Wellbeing Economy, Modern Monetary Theory, etc. More intensive international cooperation on issues of global scope vs. assertion of national interests. Review of key global institutions for effectiveness (need for reform).
5. Economy (microeconomic view)
Climate and environmentally friendly management vs. primary focus on profit maximization. Farewell to outdated ideas, concepts and management models – traditions put to the test. Mechanistic-deterministic world view vs. systemic and networked thinking. Hierarchical structures and management systems vs. agile, team-oriented and rapidly adaptable organizations. Purpose, vision and holistic, long-term strategy as the starting point for long-lasting entrepreneurial success. A new, more modern view of people that consistently exploits the untapped potential in people. People move back to center stage. Benefit-based digital transformation, carefully evaluated and considered (opportunities, risks and threats).
The connection of today’s house demands with the great transformation
But what do these challenges have to do with the great transformation?
The connection arises where we recognize, in dealing with the multiple challenges, that we can no longer get anywhere with the existing approaches, the existing technologies/means (infrastructures), and the existing concepts and thought models alone.
We need new ways, approaches and perspectives that also lead to innovative, creative approaches and new solutions. If we look at the area of climate research, for example, there are already countless scientists today who are calling for a rapid and fundamental to radical rethinking, concepts and solutions, and even a radically different way of life in the long term.
Inertia, vested interests and habit as inhibiting forces
If there is so much to be done and experts from a wide range of disciplines have long been calling for adjustments to our behavior and approach, why aren’t we tackling it? And why only now, or perhaps even: why not for another few years?
As long as our willingness to think globally and in large time frames (decades) does not grow, to include the consequences of our current actions in our considerations in the future, and to partially renounce today’s standard of living in favor of future generations, we will hardly be able to master the great challenges in time and successfully.
One of the problems here is that we won’t manifest the consequences of the decision not to take care of big challenges today for years, maybe even decades. So the pressure is not immediate.
It is in the inertia and nature of us humans that we tend to prefer to wait and see in such situations, downplaying the importance of adjustments or changes and thus shirking our own responsibility.
The complexity of the task as a problem
In addition to the accumulation of challenges already mentioned, there is another inhibiting force: the complexity of the task when we consider it as a sum – and it is very great.
This is because we can actually only view our planet as a system consisting of innumerable parts that are interrelated, i.e. that depend on each other, interact with each other and, in addition, also build up or slow down each other’s effect in cycles. What these parts, subsystems, circuits and relationships are, we would first have to work out seriously.
This systemic way of thinking and thinking in networks is not new, but it has not yet really established itself or become widely accepted in our world. The degree of globalization today, which could increase significantly once again, and the growing awareness that we live on a planet where everything we do also influences others on it, virtually calls for a rethinking in this direction.
Our linear-deterministic thinking as a brake
The rethinking in the direction of systemic thinking begins with the realization that we no longer get very far in many areas with our mechanistic-deterministic view of the world.
The limits of linear thinking to grasp complexity
In our linear thinking scheme, we assume, somewhat exaggeratedly, that more or less everything is in a linear relationship (causality). Everything builds on each other in a direct line. This structure is recognizable and thus ultimately can be analyzed correctly.
This serves us well in many areas. For example, in technology, because the individual processes or solutions in this area are based on natural laws that have been researched and understood in the classical natural sciences. So where it works, we don’t have to question this thinking.
The problem starts where we also transfer this way of thinking to living beings (like us humans) or living systems (e.g. ecosystems, companies and organizations). These are, simply put, dynamic in nature and much more complex in structure that we can no longer easily analyze or understand. This also means that we cannot anticipate their behavior as easily or as well. In addition, in living beings and systems, different processes usually run in parallel, which also influence each other. So sometimes feedback effects take place, which result in cycles of effects, which build up or calm down themselves.
If something happens or changes in such a system, which was previously in equilibrium, this has a variety of effects on different parts in the system or on the system as a whole.
With this complexity of relationships and effects, we quickly reach the limits of linear thinking.
The limits of our deterministic thinking scheme
From the classical natural sciences, e.g. physics or chemistry, we also borrow the deterministic scheme of thought, which, to put it simply, assumes that something we observe is ultimately always subject to one or more recognizable and repetitive law(s).
If we have found correct laws, we can apply these again and again practically and receive then also again and again the same result. If, for example, we do not change the setting, the materials used, the procedures, etc. in a physical experiment, we will always get the same result when we repeat the experiment. The result is predictable, i.e. determined.
With this way of thinking, however, complex living beings and systems cannot be understood in a realistic way. An indirect consequence of this way of thinking, which is still widespread in our cultures (e.g. in politics/economy), is also that wide circles of the population are still convinced that we will be able to solve the upcoming challenges in time with the help of technology. Not just by jumping on the digital transformation bandwagon, but by developing technical solutions in general.
Where this leads is clear, for example, in climate and environmental protection, when global commitments to take serious care of this result in agreements that are then hardly observed or implemented. People trust that we still have enough time to develop technical solutions.
If we were to work through, present and understand the issue of climate and environmental protection systemically, we would quickly realize that we are dealing here with a complexity and mechanisms that impose tasks on us that cannot be mastered by technical means or technical solutions alone.
We need the systemic thinking, the systemic view
If we can no longer do justice to the complexity of our world and the sum of the great challenges with our classical way of thinking, we will inevitably have to look for new ways.
The biggest challenge for us will be to learn to critically question what has been done so far and what is generally accepted and regarded as valid. Why? Because our previous thinking and attitude have brought us to the situation we are in today. If everything had worked well, such a critical examination would not be so urgent, and this article would not exist.
Yes, we have achieved a great deal, but the price was high.
If we want to achieve the great transformation, we must first be prepared to rethink in many areas. Where classical thinking slows us down, we need the systemic view. It means that we have to learn to think in systems even more and to understand them better with systemic thinking. Then we can re-evaluate our current actions and gradually bring them in line with this more holistic view.
Thinking in networks (networked thinking) is not outdated and dead, but can also provide us with valuable services in this process as a helpful thinking grid.
If we continue to follow the traditional path, and if we continue to trust that future developments in the technical field will provide us with the required solutions in good time, we are playing a dangerous game. In doing so, we risk not only ever higher and, in this purpose, avoidable future costs, but possibly also considerable collateral damage.
The role of the digital world in addressing the great challenges of our time
The phase of the great transformation in which we find ourselves is not the same as the digital transformation that everyone is talking about today.
The digital transformation is only part of it, because we are talking about much greater upheavals that are imminent. Some of these require a new way of thinking, which in itself shows that we will not be able to master them with technical means alone.
If we rely too optimistically on technology, which includes the digital world, then we will simply continue along the same path with modifications. This would make technology part of the problem, not the solution – and that is precisely what we must avoid.
What does all this mean for you, your company and your employees?
The aim of this article was to lay the foundation for further professional contributions.
In further articles I will show ways and methodical approaches how you and your company/organization can best face the great challenges of our time in a concrete, constructive, proactive and systemic way of thinking and acting.