Harnessing Disruption

2016-03-23-1458762547-2712589-PlasmaLampLucViatour11024x768.jpg Photo: © Luc Viatour

Reflect upon the Plasma Lamp, created by futurist Nikola Tesla.

The core of the lamp is a single orb, representing convergence. The electric charges emanating from and to the orb represent disruption. Magnifying these charges reveals they are anisotropic - directionally independent and differing in size - representing divergence.

Transformative change, magnified from divergence to disruption to convergence, is affecting our world, our jobs, livelihoods and lives. Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum refers to our times as The Fourth Industrial Revolution whilst Google Ideas' (now Jigsaw) Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen have deemed it The New Digital Age. Harnessing disruption is therefore our age's key challenge.

Recognizing instances of divergence is the first step. In fact, the most apt metaphor for startling examples of divergence can be dubbed 'The Flying Black Elephant' aka 'Anti-Dumbo'.

An 'Anti-Dumbo' is a cross between 'the elephant in the room' (a problem visible to everyone, yet no one wants to address it), a 'black swan' (an unlikely, unexpected event with tremendous consequences) and 'pigs might fly' (an event so improbable, there is little to no chance of it happening).

A forthcoming 'Anti-Dumbo' could be the globalized popularizing of driverless electric cars, one of the Industries of the Future according to innovation expert, Alec Ross. Triangulating between three facts makes this case possible.

First fact: Google, with expertise in global mapping, and Apple, in pioneering mobile technology, both have plans for creating self-driving cars.

Second fact: entrepreneurial inventor Elon Musk's Tesla Motors currently creates electric cars with a charge range of 320 kilometers, with plans to double that.

Third fact: the most common job in the US at a federal state level is truck drivers.

With petrol replaced by electrical power, and the driver replaced entirely, the impact on the global economy could be extremely damaging. Or like the Millennium Bug, its impact could be incidental. It is the unknown which makes divergence alarming.

Another example of divergence relates to an act of civilization we have been committing for the past six millennia: writing.

With the ubiquitous use of keyboards, could we not only be witnessing but also be contributing to the death of handwriting? Finland, which regularly leads global education rankings, in 2016 will be phasing out handwriting in favor of keyboard skills for its schools. Whilst the average Briton adult has not written in more than a month, one in ten British teenagers don't even own a pen.

The very definition of literacy is the ability to read and write. Would that now need to be revised to be the ability to read and type?

Whilst examples of divergence tend to be more eye-catching, such as the recent rise to global infamy of the likes of Daesh (ISIS) and Donald Trump, it's the more prosaic (albeit not ordinary) examples of disruption, which, cumulatively, could have more long-term consequences for global society.

Technology is the greatest disruptive tool, simultaneously razing and scaling, with only the most competitive, innovative and resilient surviving. Blackberry is a 21st century example of disruption in motion.

In the 2000s, Blackberry was the world's default smartphone. It revolutionized business communications due to its encrypted emails, robust design, sturdy keyboard and secure messaging app, Blackberry Messenger (BBM). In 2007, more than one in three new smartphone purchases in the USA was a BlackBerry, with its parent company valued at $40 billion.

In the 2010s, Blackberry's key features, including email, were challenged by the likes of Apple and Samsung, who superseded it as status symbol smartphones. A new era of large-screen multimedia touch screen phones was ushered in, rival operating software like Android and IoS, and BBM supplanted by WhatsApp.

In 2013, Blackberry was prepared to sell itself for $4.7 billion, around a tenth of its 2007 valuation. In turn, Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014 for $19.3 billion. Still, a market for Blackberry is still needed, clearly, with President Obama its most famous customer.

Whilst LinkedIn most visibly disrupted the talent acquisition industry, the consulting industry is now past the cusp of disruption. Monitor Group, co-founded by Harvard business guru, Michael Porter, went bankrupt in 2012, to be later acquired by Deloitte whilst PwC acquired Booz & Co in 2014. McKinsey's Global Managing Director Dominic Barton has said that up to 40% of what 'The Firm' will do in three years will be entirely different from what it does today.

Convergence, in contrast, is predicated on optimism rooted in reality.

The economist Jeffrey Sachs a decade ago spoke of the Age of Convergence, which has now become The Age of Sustainable Development, based on the United Nations Global Goals for 2030. To defeat the likes of the divergence of Daesh (ISIL), veteran diplomat Henry Kissinger has described how through a balance of power between differing perspectives on global governance can help to achieve a new World Order.

The year 2017 will usher its fair share of historic events, either challenging or re-affirming any notion of convergence. Next year, these historic events will include a new United Nations Secretary General and a new US President, with potential new government leaders in France, Germany and Iran.

Nevertheless, the best measures of genuine convergence rests in the long-term, and should focus, as the Global Goals do, on eliminating poverty, dignifying humanity through justice, and saving our planet.

How we navigate and harness these disruptive forces will ultimately determine our success to that end, in this day, and in this Age.