HOW THE EQUAL AND OPPOSITE FORCES UNLEASHED BY COVID-19 ARE REORDERING OUR WORLD
Newton’s Cradle demonstrates Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion: that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. This is a law of nature, yet it also describes the nature of societal change throughout history.
What we all need to draw on now is a capacity for staring uncertainty in the face and keep moving anyway. Isn’t that what we are all called to do as leaders, and in particular in this moment?
We are at the beginning of the beginning of a period of significant structural change.
Our current global pandemic is just the first release of the ball drop. But the forces that allowed the ball to reach the point of release have been brewing since the last massive disruption: WWII. The technological advances, hardening free-market ideologies, and global trade systems that shaped us over the last 70 years, also shaped a new world order. Our sense of reality, from WWII to recently, was defined by these conditions, as was the sense of normality we now mourn.
That world order has been deteriorating and shifting on its own for some time. Today, the pressures of global immigration and economic disparity have been met with resurgent populism and nationalism. At the same time, breakthrough technologies such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and quantum computing are reshaping how we live, how long we live, and how we work.
The story of the next 10-30 years is one of complete and utter transformation. This includes a re-ordering of the economy, social and political institutions, and also of the planet, of nature itself, and what it means to be human. At the beginning of the beginning of a global shift, there’s only one thing that’s certain: we’re in for a wild ride. This will be a period of turbulence, one that will be both thrilling and scary as we sort out a new world order.
The good news is that we’ve been here before, and we will sort it out. The hard news is that we may not be prepared for how desperate things will get in the short-term.
In my book “Think Like a Futurist,” I identify four forces – resources, technology, demographics, and governance — that remain constant no matter what changes occur. Of the four, government is the most malleable because it’s made up entirely of humans and it’s particularly relevant right now.
Government sets the rules for how we cooperate together and, as such, becomes the container for human activity of all kinds. Interestingly, governance is rooted in a conception of human nature. Every form of government, for instance, reflects a particular point of view on fundamental questions about how people, bound by a shared purpose, work and live together. It’s like the house rules in a family, but on a really large scale. And there’s nothing like a big crisis to test those rules!
Every generation is marked by a period of reorganization of power among nations. Right now is our generation’s period, for which the pandemic is a tipping point — or the ball’s release, to keep Newton on our minds.
Much of the turbulence in this next phase of our society will come from both social movements and technological innovation. Crisis turns up the heat on both. We will see highly reactive lurches and swings because the safety net the government is supposed to provide for its citizens — the security and stability of its people over time — is not equipped to handle this moment. Instead, our weaknesses are being exposed and our resources drained.
We have the will… and the way: a wealth of technology and creativity that will be mobilized for experimentation in nearly every sector.
What we’re seeing now is that the old systems are breaking in part because we have ideologies that are unsustainable.
We shape society largely from our own mythologies, narratives, and the resources available to us at a given time. In the United States, Enlightenment was a strong influence on our founders as they shaped the design of our new system of government; reason and individualism trumped entrenched traditions. What grew from that was the American belief in Manifest Destiny, that American expansion was justifiable and inevitable.
The tragedy of American life is that our stories — and ideologies — eventually become obsolete. This is as true for economic and political periods as it is for technological innovation; it’s as true for personal triumphs as it is for personal narratives. That’s what we’re seeing now: the old systems are breaking, in part because we have ideologies that are unsustainable. The ideologies that grew out of WWII, carve out the belief that markets can do everything and the government doesn’t have to do much. The pandemic has revealed the very real deficits of that thinking.
All of this is likely to be in play over the next decades. And though we recognize how destabilizing these changes are — for a life, an identity, a government, and the belief that it will last forever — we will still be finding ourselves with lives that offer love and nourishment, creativity and opportunity, awe and wisdom.
The future is neither positive nor negative, it’s different.
The period we are entering will shift everything. What do we do? We allow our deepest sense of purpose to steady us through the swings of change. Structural transformation doesn’t arrive gently nor does it finish its business quickly. It needs the very best from each of us now: lots of innovation and even more patience. As we go, we can remind ourselves that conflict and disruption is how history unfolds.
Deep tensions are surfaced and, ultimately, the polarization will transcend in the birth of a new order. It will have its own strengths and weaknesses, with periods of stability until it too becomes obsolete and undergoes the process of reinvention. Again. It’s not just the American Way, it’s nature’s way.
Both our leaders and strategy benefit from seeing the ways things as they truly are. As a new order is established, we will be called to reinvent ourselves and our organizations. Adapting and staying relevant is important now more than ever.
© 2021 by Cecily Sommers. All rights reserved.