In a continuation of my series titled “A Journey through the Looking Glass”, I will touch on the next phase of human development. The post picks up from the last one where I explored two historical paths of innovation. To this point in our story about the future, we have explored the past, identified signals that may help us understand the future, and applied that learning in a way that helps us envision it. In telling this story, a common reaction is split between fear and fascination. Indeed, both reactions are human responses we must consider when gazing into the future. In truth, we are part optimist and part pessimist. I explored that sentiment in a poll dating back to 2016. In that poll, 44% identified as optimists, 16% as pessimist, and 38% were somewhere in the middle. What do you think?
In this segment, I will view the future through the lens of fascination and optimism.
THE NEXT PHASE OF HUMAN DEVELOPMENT
A growing shift towards purpose exploits our advances in science and technology to improve the human condition. Whether it is achieving standard of living parity in developing economies or advances in the current standard of living of developed nations, this shift in focus will gain more traction in the coming years. Leaders are increasingly focused on societal themes like sustainability, wellness, and mobility. This growing shift is driven by several factors. First, as mentioned, it exploits our advances in science and technology to deliver value in the context of human need. Second, activist investors are pushing Boards towards purpose-led themes, while financial institutions are shifting dollars to support these themes. Next, younger generations look for brands that are aligned to their values. Lastly, social causes like inequality and racism have gained considerable attention.
As innovation explodes, it converges with this parallel purpose phenomenon in ways that likely accelerate the path towards human advancement. This convergence creates a virtuous cycle where innovation enables purpose and purpose drives innovation. An effective way to think about possible impact is via the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These are among the best-known and most frequently cited societal challenges. I believe we are entering a period of convergence that has the potential to address these goals.
The ultimate question is this: will convergence in this century replicate or surpass the societal impact that convergence enabled in the special century? In a brilliant journey through the economic history of the western world, author Robert J. Gordon looks at The Rise and Fall of American Growth. The book focuses on a revolutionary century that impacted the American standard of living more than any period before or after. Our standard of living is typically viewed as the ratio of total production of goods and services (real GDP) per member of the population. But this measure fails to truly capture enhancements to our well-being. Human well-being is influenced by advances in the areas of food, clothing, shelter, energy, transport, education, health, work, information, entertainment, and communications.
The special century (1870 – 1970) that followed the Civil War was made possible by a unique clustering of what the author calls the great inventions – unique because inventions like electricity could only happen once. Mr. Gordon states that by 1970 the basic elements of our modern standard of living were already achieved along the dimensions identified in a visual I created to capture the innovation and human actions of that era. His forecast for the next 25 years sees limited growth, as several headwinds reduce growth in median real disposable income. In making a compelling argument, Mr. Gordon dismisses the views of many techno-optimists that see a return to productivity and enhanced well-being, as automation drives labor productivity and scarcity gives way to abundance.
I viewed this debate through the lens of an emerging future that is bursting with possibilities. To explore this topic further, I overlaid the potential for future innovation on top of the visual inspired by Mr. Gordon’s work. This framework allows us to explore the future and its potential to advance human development across the dimensions described earlier. Can we replicate or exceed the great inventions of the special century? Can we effectively manage the headwinds described by the books author? This future innovation wheel maps the promise of innovation to the various areas of our well-being. By overlaying those components on top of the original wheel, we can explore the possibilities for future human development. Not only do I believe we have the potential to improve our standard of living, but I believe we can enable global parity.
How do we know if we succeeded? How does one measure human development? Most now agree that any assessment of development must reflect a range of social factors. The favored measure is the Human Development Index (HDI), which ranks countries according to an overall assessment of per capita wealth, educational attainment, and life expectancy. The United Nations Development Program maintains the index. The visual below reflects the top and the bottom 15 countries.
This burst of possibility manifests itself through a new structure within the emerging organizing system. That structure is the topic of the next segment, where I explore the world of ecosystems.
First Post in the series: A Journey through the Looking Glass
Second Post: An Historical Perspective
Third Post : A Growth Of Knowledge
Fourth Post: Our Current World Order
Fifth Post: Convergence Drives Human Advancement
Sixth Post: Catalysts Of The Past And Those On The Horizon
Seventh Post: A Phase Transition
Eight Post: Our Complex, Uncertain, And Volatile Future
Ninth Post: The Building Blocks Of The Future
Tenth Post: Dual Paths Of Innovation