The Journey: Our Complex, Uncertain, And Volatile Future

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 potential for a phase transition in the last post. In this post, I will now explore the complexity, volatility, and uncertainty that inhibits our ability to envision the future.


In the series post on the current world order, a visual captured the major building blocks that shaped the modern era. These building blocks converged in ways that were impossible to predict. Yet in hindsight, we see that multiple domains came together to shape the modern world and establish the current world order (click on visual to expand). This historical perspective provides a framework for envisioning possible futures.

However, our starting point looks different than it did during the period between 1870 and 1970. First, the sheer number of available building blocks dwarfs what we dealt with back then. Second, we have additional domains to consider in the form of philosophy and the environment. Therefore, envisioning the future is more challenging than it was for prognosticators of the prior era. There exists more complexity, uncertainty, and volatility. Many will argue that these conditions have always existed. While true, the pace of change, volatility across every domain, cycles of history, and evidence of a phase transition could make the emerging decades unique in history. This is where complexity science comes in.  

What is complexity science? A detailed description of this emerging approach can be found here.  In short, complexity science is a study of a system. It is concerned with complex systems and problems that are dynamic, unpredictable, and multi-dimensional, consisting of a collection of interconnected relationships and parts. With this perspective, there is an appreciation of the complex, dynamic and interconnected relationships occurring within a complex system or problem. In simple terms, we must connect dots. It is not enough to see the building blocks and understand them in isolation. These building blocks are intersecting at an accelerating pace. I explored this intersection phenomenon here. Leaders of tomorrow will move towards systemic leadership, as they strive to connect an increasing number of dots.

Systems thinking is a holistic approach to analysis that focuses on the way constituent parts of a system interrelate and how systems work within the context of larger systems over time. As leaders, we struggle with this holistic approach, choosing instead to focus on short term versus long term, and delivering immediate results versus positioning for the future. This focus conflicts directly with where our complex future is taking us. Our struggle as leaders stems from our need for certainty. Ambiguity and a lack of certainty do not provide the confidence we need in the decisions we make. Add the pace of change to an environment of uncertainty and our challenges are amplified. If we cannot shift with the rapid shifts on the horizon, society will struggle. Soren Kaplan, the author of a recent article on strategic uncertainty, said it this way:

Forget 10-year visions. Forget 5-year roadmaps. Forget three-year plans. Long term is a year. Short-term is a month

– Soren Kaplan

Given collapsing time horizons and using the past as prologue, how do we envision possible futures? I propose that we do so by embracing critical aspects of our story to date:

  1. Embrace uncertainty
  2. Think at the systems level
  3. Identify relevant building blocks
  4. Connect the dots
  5. Envision possible futures through storytelling

A model to accomplish this emerges when we study the building block visual that depicts the establishment of our modern era between 1870 and 1970. In hindsight, we can see how we got here, but living at that time, the outcomes were impossible to predict.  What if we could construct views of the future using a similar approach? The capturing of possible building blocks across critical domains would be a constant and iterative effort. In the process however, we build a steady stream of foresight that allows us to envision possible futures. But instead of attempting to predict, we could set out to create those possible futures that advance our human development. Whether we view this through a business or societal lens, we should be striving to create the best future possible as we manage the transition.

If we looked back from 30 years in the future, what would a similar visual look like? What building blocks came together to shape the world of 2050? We would look back much like I did for that one hundred period and identify the major building blocks across those domains that helped shape the world. We can identify the pandemic as a catalyst and can safely conclude that extreme weather events will be another. But what else can we identify?

We can construct a broad macro-level convergence model that identifies a comprehensive number of building blocks. We can then attempt to identify those building blocks that are likely to influence the path of a given domain. Let’s say we are focused on the future of mobility. We choose the building blocks that we believe create possible mobility futures. Since we established convergence as a key determinant of outcomes, we must then understand how these building blocks may converge. A story begins to emerge that allows us to describe possible futures. Storytelling then takes over, utilizing visualization and crisp messaging. This visual depicts the approach.

This is the halfway point of the story – the bridge between an instructive past and a look into the future. We will dig deeper into future building blocks in the next post.

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

Sixth Post in the series: The Journey: Catalysts Of The Past And Those On The Horizon

Seventh Post in the series: The Journey: A Phase Transition

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