Chapter 7. Acceleration – Guiding Our Extraordinary Future

Connected, Intelligent, Biology-Inspired, and Amazing (CIBA): An Opportunistic View of Change

VUCA reminds us that the world is accelerating ahead, and we need to look out for the risks, dangers, and losers in that acceleration. Let’s now look at CIBA, a world view that reminds us there are always far better destinations ahead, particularly when we look at the most adaptive “winners” at the leading edge of change.

As we’ll see, the world is improving, at an accelerating rate, at the leading edge of adaptation, though many of us aren’t ready to see that improvement. To do so, we often need to adjust our biases, and unlearn “some things we think we know that just aren’t so”, to quote a useful rhyme. See Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), or Hans Rosling’s excellent Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World (2018) for some of the details.

If you were asked to pick four qualities of life, of human societies, and of our most advanced technologies, to complement the VUCA model, and help orient us to strategic opportunities, not just security and defense, what would those be? Below are mine. Each are briefly introduced and explained in turn:

  1. Connected (and Crowds). What’s different today is that we live in an increasingly digitally connected world. First we had PCs, then the web, then mobile, and now we’re seeing the rise of crowds, and new forms of crowd-based economies. IoT, smart things, virtual and augmented reality will connect and empower us like never before. Open source platforms like GitHub have vastly more code, and programmers, than any one company. The world is becoming one digital supersystem, the “One Machine” described by futurist Kevin Kelly.
  2. Intelligent. What’s also different today is that our leading technologies, algorithms, platforms, and human-machine partnerships, are growing stunningly more intelligent every year. They are learning systems. Intelligent, in a narrow definition of the term, isn’t sufficient to keep a system adaptive. Without other adaptive qualities, like interdependence (empathy, morality), immunity (protection from predators) and sustainability (ability to successfully develop and replicate), intelligence can create dangerous instabilities. But as we’ll see in the next section (I4S), there is a way to define intelligence as a number of separable processes, all of which together are adaptive. One observation that most would agree with is that our most intelligent systems, at the leading edge of complexification, are have the potential to be the most adaptive. We’ll see how that occurs in the next section.
  3. Biology-Inspired. The more complex and adaptive our societies and technologies get, the more biology-inspired they become. The rise of deep learning (neural networks) in our AI systems is just the most obvious recent example of this. Sam Arbesman, in Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension (2016) makes a persuasive case that biological metaphors are increasingly replacing physics metaphors for the control and improvement of our technology, the more complex it becomes. Our evo devo model, covered in Chapter 11 and throughout the Guide, is our current favorite biology-inspired model of complexity, intelligence, and adaptation, and it is the basis of the I4S world view in our next section.
  4. Amazing. The accelerating complexity, intelligence, and adaptiveness of our universe, and our own social systems, means that our future is going to continue to be truly amazing (or if you like, astonishing, astounding, and awe-inspiring) the further ahead we look. It is an easy prediction that we will continue to be surprised by the speed, wealth, power, intelligence, adaptiveness, efficiency, and density of our societies, our cities, our economies, our startups, our science, and our technologies. Of all of these, we will be most amazed at how fast technology, Earth’s newest complex adaptive system, continues to accelerate its adaptiveness, productivity, intelligence, interdependence, and immunity. We tend to think linearly about change, but science and technology in certain special domains are growing superexponentially, far faster than we expect them to go. Each of these systems are on their individual S-curve of course, but their social S-curve is a lot higher than their individual S-curve, and the top of the social S-curve of what technological systems can do is certainly far beyond what biological humans can do or even understand, as we’ll see. So I would advise you to keep your money in the stock market, friends. It will continue its ups and downs, and may even grow more volatile over time in emerging technologies. But the ups will keep accelerating upward, far faster than most of us expect. Our technologies will be increasingly life-like and human surpassing, and a world of abundance is clearly just a few generations ahead.

Hopefully it is obvious that both the VUCA and and the CIBA perspectives are deeply valuable. Sometimes the world’s ever-growing complexity causes problems, and sometimes it is adaptive. We need to view global complexity from both optimistic and defensive perspectives at the same time. That dual view is our best strategy for generating useful foresight.

Until very recently in human history, the defensive view has been the most common and valuable for humanity. Fortunately, the strategic optimist perspective, while it may less quick to emerge and less commonly used, is still found broadly in our culture. Think of children and young adults who have been raised in a nurturing environment, ambitious leaders and strategists, dreamers, experimenters, risk-takers, entrepreneurs, those who feel self-actualized and safe, those who are new to a subject, and those who are in an environment of constant improvement. Some of these folks tend to take the strategic optimist perspective first, at least in many circumstances, and defensive pessimism second. In the right contexts, that can be adaptive.


Balancing VUCA and CABA: A Leader’s Lifelong Challenge

Great leaders see both VUCA and CABA perspectives simultaneously, in every context.  They are also continually mindful of timing, strength, and balance with these two perspectives. Let’s say a little about each:

  1. Timing. It is usually more adaptive for us to go to defensive pessimism first, fastest, and strongest in our minds, and optimism second, slower, and more tentatively. VUCA conditions abound, and we will manage them better if we are always looking for downsides. We all have very limited intelligence by comparison the complexity of the world. Pessimism first can make us better anticipate and manage hidden and costly threats. But there is always a time to switch to strategic optimism. In some cases, that is early in a Do loop cycle, at other times it is late. Finding that time is an art.
  2. Strength. Sometimes we want a little pessimism and caution, over a long period, sometimes a variable amount, and sometimes a very strong pessimism at the beginning or end of a Do loop, to get ourselves or the team appropriately aware of current conditions, and motivated to keep running their loops. Again, determining the strength of our optimism and pessimism, at any time, is an art we learn with experience. The point is to always be conscious of your options, and to make the choice deliberately, and look for evidence of its impact.
  3. Balance. As we discussed in Chapter 1 it is now the most adaptive, in our modern, increasingly civilized world, to have two optimistic thoughts for every pessimistic one. In our communications with others, this balance should be more than twice as high. As John Gottman has concluded so far, successful relationships and teams have five to one optimistic to pessimistic, positive to negative, or praise to criticism interactions with each other. On average, Gottman’s “Magic Ratio” is our current “set point” for maintaining intimacy and trust. Ignore these ratios, on average, and you may become less adaptive, as an individual and a leader.

All of this is subject to context, of course. Under conditions of danger, threat, or conflict, we skew strongly toward pessimism, authority, and hierarchy, as we should. But most of us aren’t in such conditions most of the time. In environments of plenty, opportunity, or cooperative potential, it is best to skew toward optimism. Trusting first, and seeking to verify and punish cheaters, is by far the best way to generate mass collective action.

Consider that bonobos (pygmy chimps) live in conditions of plenty, and they are genetically tuned to optimism first, intimacy, and cooperation. Common chimpanzees live in conditions of scarcity, and they are tuned to pessimism first, autocracy, and intergroup competition. Curiously, according to primatologists and ethologists like Frans de Waal, bonobos, even with their smaller stature, appear to have successfully defended their more plentiful niches against chimps for millennia, and their secret many be their ability to launch a better coordinated, longer sustained, and more numerically massive defense. We shall see if future science bears out these observations.


The Leader’s Vision: Seeing and Motivating Toward Potential Progress

My evo devo perspective offers a framework in which I find it reasonable to expect that various forms of progress are occurring in our most complex and adaptive systems, including our societies and our global system. We’ll discuss those forms in the I4S model of change in our next section. While that progress can often be volatile, erratic, and dangerous on the individual level, with three forward steps often being followed by two backward steps, and with many Kuznets effects and individual losers, I believe that for the system as a whole, on average, we’re increasingly clearly coming to see and measure accelerating movement toward better states of the world.

Good leaders are always able to see that potential progress, and motivate others to seek it out, in all four of the POGU domains.

There are certainly still problems. Plenty of people being left out of CIBA improvements. We still have conflict, plutocracy, poverty, terrorism, hunger, ignorance, disease, pollution, and environmental damage. Our world’s leaders have not realized their responsibility and ability to stop the violence in our autocratic, failed and failing states. Rich-poor divides are still growing. But progress is occurring nonetheless, it just isn’t sufficiently widely shared in many cases.

Our great moral choice is better seeing and guiding the increasingly bio-inspired nature of our machines and societies, and learning to see the human-machine partnership for what it really is–an accelerating and increasingly adaptive learning system. To paraphrase Rosalind Russell in Mame, “Life is a banquet, and most of us are starving at the table.” Our biases and attitudes can keep us from seeing the positive trends and abundant opportunities in front of us. Helping to adjust those biases is one of the priorities of this Guide.

To paraphrase the novelist Marcel Proust, “Our greatest opportunity is not found in new frontiers, but in seeing what is in front of us with new eyes.” We all have the have the ability to be far better fair competitors and smart cooperators than we have ever been. To develop better foresight, we need the hindsight to better see where we came from, and the insight to see the world, and our selves, as they really are today.

I think an evidence-based history so far shows that our non-living universe, prehuman life on Earth, and now human society and its technology, have been evolving and developing more adaptive forms of complexity at steadily accelerating rates. As our complexity science grows up, I think we’ll learn how to measure those forms of progress in increasingly universal ways, making it something that everyone sees, once their own mental models have the appropriate definitions and complexity.

Some of my critics have called me a techno-utopian” thinker, as I talk about such topics as statistically inevitable accelerating change (barring some planet-level extinction event), and the increasingly adaptive and intelligent nature of our technology. What I actually am is a protopian thinker, someone who believes that progress of various forms is continually occurring, in our most adaptive systems, and to better understand that progress I favor a bio-inspired and universal perspective on complexity and change.

Let’s take a look at five primary ways we can see and measure such progress now, in the third and most comprehensive view of change that I recommend a better strategic foresight perspective, in all four POGU domains.