The Journey: Catalysts Of The Past And Those On The Horizon

My previous posts launched a series that will tell the full story of a reimagined future. Described as a journey through the looking glass, the story began with a series description and a look back in time. The series continues, with each post featuring a piece of our journey. We explored the role that convergence plays in advancing human development in the last post. In this post, I will now shift gears and focus on the catalysts that drive convergence.

In the previous post of this multi-post series I explored convergence. While convergence shaped our current world, History tell us it was the presence of catalysts that drove human action. An overwhelming amount of convergence occurred in the period spanning the late 19th century and portions of the 20th century. The major catalysts of the period were astounding levels of innovation, World War One, The Great Depression, World War Two, and the eventual democratization of innovation. Major world events fueled each other in a virtuous cycle that would forever alter our world. The first was World War One, which took place between 1914 and 1918. The war altered the European landscape, began to shift the balance of power to the U.S., and planted the seeds of bigger, more controlling Government.

The second major catalyst was a Great Depression that lasted from 1929 to 1939. The unprecedented shock of the Great Depression drove the U.S. government to address the need for national economic statistics – they had been flying blind prior to that. This virtuous cycle created ripple effects that would impact decisions for years to come. Alan Greenspan in his book titled Capitalism in America provides an example of this cycle at work: the car industry reduced its production of cars by two-thirds between 1929 and 1933. That in turn produced a decline in demand for steel, which produced a decline in demand for ore and coal. This decline in production meant a decline in demand for labor, which spread throughout the economy: less construction meant less demand for builders, plumbers, roofers, suppliers of raw materials, etc. The Great Depression is a story unto itself, but the instructive part lies in the convergence that it played a role in enabling.

The third – and perhaps biggest catalyst – was World War Two. The second World War – more than anything else – pulled the U.S. out of the Great depression. As the most expensive war, it consumed an average of 30 percent of the nation’s GDP from 1942 to 1945. Unemployment disappeared and the work force was extended to women. Perhaps most importantly, it forced companies to innovate and boost output as they did their best to contribute to the war effort – the result was the biggest boom in American history: real GDP almost doubled from 1939 to 1944. World War Two and the Government funding that went with it built the foundation for the prosperity of the following decades.

The final catalyst of this era was the democratization of innovation. The great inventions and those that followed would have had less impact if they could not be enjoyed by the masses. Post-World War Two, people bought homes, cars, electronic servants, and more, as each of these became affordable. This dynamic will need watching, as we look towards a future with the potential for unequal sharing of emerging innovation. As we dig deeper into each of these catalysts, we can understand how they drove convergence. The Great Depression and World War Two directly contributed to what Robert J. Gordon calls the Great Leap. This helps us understand the nature of catalysts: had there been no Great Depression – there would likely have been no New Deal.

As we look ahead, what catalysts force stakeholder actions that ultimately shape the future? If we accept that the next two decades are likely to experience astounding levels of innovation, then this period requires actions and decisions that help us create a constructive future. Convergence will be required across the same domains experienced years ago: science, technology, economy, business, geopolitics, and society. Add to this the need to consider ethics and the environment. The challenge then is to manage a more complex level of global convergence to create a future that once again elevates our well-being – and this time on a global scale.

With the question of catalysts in mind, I ran a poll multiple times to search for answers. The impetus behind that poll was the growing need for human action to steer a very uncertain, rapidly changing future in a positive direction. Now, many are viewing the global pandemic as the biggest global crisis since World War Two. Considering that, the significance of the poll may seem more relevant – versus what may have seemed to some as a future-oriented exercise. Our inability or unwillingness to see beyond short term horizons allows the future to shape us, versus the other way around. Since that poll, so much has changed. The world feels very different, more so than it has since the post-war era established our modern society. If history tells us anything, it’s that catalysts will emerge. Here are the results of the poll, capturing the thinking of my Blog audience (click on images to open in a new window). Climate change – more so now than ever – is already serving as a catalyst. Social unrest has undermined many societies through the ages, and the signs are there again. There were many write-in answers to the catalyst poll question, and I captured them in the second visual.

Feel free to respond to the quick poll and add your voice to the conversation. Each of the topics covered thus far in the series tell the story of a coming transition. The next piece will focus on this transition before moving on to possible futures.


First Post in the series: A Journey through the Looking Glass

Second Post in the series: The Journey: An Historical Perspective

Third Post in the series: The Journey: A Growth Of Knowledge

Fourth Post in the series: The Journey: Our Current World Order

Fifth Post in the series: The Journey: Convergence Drives Human Advancement

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