On The Edge

 

Are you on the edge of your seat, in eager anticipation of what the future holds? Or in dismay and fearful of what lies ahead?  Either way, you are not alone.

We live and work in a state of transition between different projects, places, relationships or ideologies. Nothing stays the same for long. While it is hard to predict what might happen, we are just a step away from many possible futures.

Being on the edge is where the biggest opportunities for innovation exist, but can also be unsettling and stressful. To learn to embrace the unknown, we must first recognise just how intertwined and interconnected our lives really are.

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We are so much more connected than we can possibly realise. For instance it takes just 23 people in a room for it to be likely that two of them share a birthday. This simple paradox results from the fact that most of us think far too linearly.

With just 30 people there are actually 435 different pairs. Every single one of these combinations could result in a useful exchange of information, or could lead to a new idea or partnership, if only we are alert to the possibilities.  

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These types of connections are literally everywhere, yet our network blindness can result in missing things that could otherwise be interesting or important. We walk right past friends of friends every single day. And when we happen to discover such a connection, it is often dismissed as merely a random event.

The extent of this connectivity is starting to become both more noticeable and exponentially greater, thanks to the digital revolution. As a result our mindset and behaviours are need to more proactively connect people and sharing ideas.

We tolerate complexity by failing to recognise it.
— Steven Sloman

The networked world has created many brilliant and unexpected benefits. Our lives are now better, happier, healthier, safer and wealthier than ever by virtually every metric. New technologies emerging like machine learning, genome engineering and blockchain, create potential for breakthroughs in virtually all aspects of our lives.  

Another consequence of connectivity is the fact that many organisations are realising that the solutions to almost any problem they are facing is already out there. The innovation challenge of our age is no longer just to be great inventors and highly creative, as in previous eras. Rather we need to become better detectives and careful curators of networks, if we want to be globally competitive.

At the same time, we also need to face up to the significant challenges that the networked world presents. For instance the financial crash of 2008 demonstrated that when failure occurs somewhere within a network, it can create a domino effect with far-reaching and long-lasting consequences around the world. In addition platforms like Facebook are currently being used or abused to reshape democratic discourse and influence the outcome of elections in many countries all over the world. And a lack of coordinated action has lead the United Nations to conclude that we have just twelve years to tackle climate change. These types of challenges affect the wellbeing of everybody on the planet and cannot be tackled by any single country or institution; rather they all urgently require large scale collaboration.

Such vast complexity is almost impossible to untangle, as best exemplified by the butterfly effect where a tornado can be created by a butterfly flapping its wings weeks earlier and thousands of miles away. This type of chaotic behaviour is starting to become the norm in all aspects of our economy and society, that we must learn to better anticipate and manage.

So as we approach the edges of our old certainties and ways of working, we have begun to notice that the only constant is perpetual change. The shifting sands beneath our feet can easily lead to us getting stuck on the boundary between possible futures, wondering whether to go left or right; whether to twist or stick; whether to leap into the unknown, or whether to stay right where we are.

Alternatively we could also recognise that uncertainty can actually make us stronger. Our biggest opportunities will start to arise from where we least expect if we tear up our grand plans that do not work any more, and take things one step at a time.

Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.
— David Bowie

We really only have two options when facing an uncertain future. Either we can become paralysed, or alternatively we can confront our fears and learn by doing.

This may sound obvious, but there are always many reasons to avoid making a decision. Whether it’s drinking too much on a Friday night, or staying in a job or a relationship that isn’t working, or disengaging with politics, it’s easy to hope that things will change on their own. Yet deep down we know that they won’t and there will never be enough information to make a perfect decision. If we choose to wait another day then the cumulative effect will inevitably be a downward spiral.

Alternatively, trying something new is always risky and requires considerable bravery. The leap into the unknown is the spark from which all innovation arises. So we have to choose to jump in and see what happens, in the knowledge that we will make mistakes along the way. But the biggest mistake of all would be to do nothing.

The periphery is where the future reveals itself.
— J.G. Ballard

By doing so we will start to find many opportunities that previously have passed us by. This in turn could encourage us to contribute more fully to the communities of which we are a part.  More people, sharing more resources in new ways is the history of civilisation. This must now also become our shared future if we are to be able to survive and thrive in this connected world.

If we can all get a bit more comfortable occupying a liminal space in between many possible futures then, as Kurt Vonnegut observed, “out on the edge you see all the kinds of things you can't see from the center”. So please do join us and enjoy the view.


This article was first published in Future Strategy Club Magazine (Issue 2)

Update (18/6/2019) - Building upon his article we have just launched a podcast, also called On The Edge. The first episode features one of the most intriguing minds in the world, James Burke. Find out more here.

 
Roland HarwoodComment