You are incredibly fortunate to have been born into the current era. Life expectancy is the highest it has ever been. Death rates as a result of violent conflict (war, crime, terrorism) are at an all-time low. And for the first time in history, more people in the world today die as a result of over-eating, than as a result of famine.
As we look back on how this happened we are struck by how quickly the transformation took place. Progress has not been linear, it has been growing exponentially. I like to think about this in terms of the time since our species became ‘human’ as we would now recognise it (purists, please suspend your knowledge of the genus homo for a moment – I am talking in everyday language). Taking a conservative view of the evidence it is clear that by about 30,000 years ago, we would recognise our ancestors as human. Their cognitive abilities had developed to a stage that if we were able to transport them as babies forward to today and raise them as we were raised, they would fit right in.
So, what did our ancestors do with this amazing brain power? After the initial impact which included the invention of art and starting the extermination of the Neanderthals, the answer is not a lot. Hundreds of generations would pass with the human experience substantially unchanged. It would take 20,000 years before a significant change – the agricultural revolution. I think that if we understand this, we will start to appreciate what exponential growth looks like.
This causes of this phenomenon are complex, but if we zero in on one of the main factors we can get a good appreciation. The one I will focus on is the speed of diffusion of innovation. Our ancestors of thirty thousand years ago had the same mental capability as we have today. The thirty thousand years since has seen a progressive accumulation of innovation. At various times this accumulation creates tipping points, resulting in step-changes such as the agricultural revolution, the renaissance, literacy expansion after the invention of the printing press, the scientific revolution, and the industrial revolutions. Overall the trend tracks exponentially with time, as the implementation of innovation also leads to improved diffusion speed.
It took twenty thousand years to accumulate enough innovation in the areas with the right resources to create the agricultural revolution. This created large population centres with guilds of specialisation and vibrant trade routes which sped up innovation diffusion. Subsequent advancements took less time. The accelerating trend continued with each new innovation generally making the development and diffusion of the next one quicker.
Fast forward to the industrial revolution and we see that accumulation of innovation results in a tipping point and a step-change occurs in the ability to utilise energy. This is the first industrial revolution, powered by the invention of the steam engine. Long distance communication is subsequently transformed with the electric telegraph also enabling a step-change in the ability to communicate to a wider audience.
These precursors sped up the onset of the second industrial revolution; the widespread adoption of mass production, electric power and the telephone. They in turn accelerate the start of the third industrial revolution; the digital revolution.
The fourth industrial revolution is underway now at dizzying speed. Never before have so many innovations occurred at such breakneck speed. This revolution will be defined by the fusing of artificial intelligence with biological and physical systems (Schwab 2017). It will create a world which we literally can not imagine.
In every revolution, there are losers and winners and so it will be for this one. The losers will be the ones stuck in a static or linear mindset. The winners will back exponential growth. But more importantly than just backing exponential growth, the winners will fundamentally change the way they operate. Every previous revolution signalled a fundamental shift in our political, social and business operating models. Alpha male command structures were overtaken by formal hierarchies and stable processes. Next came accountability and meritocracy. And readers who are my age witnessed the rise of the stakeholder model, values-driven culture and personal empowerment.
So where are we going next. The truth is that no-one knows for sure, but there are some intriguing trends emerging. The one that I am particularly interested in at the moment is espoused by Frederick Laloux (2014). His “Teal Organization” is based on the metaphor of a living system enabled by three breakthroughs; self-management rather than hierarchical management,a wholeness of self rather than separate personal and work personas, and
evolutionary purpose rather than top-down vision.
Laloux, Frederic. 2014. Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the next Stage in Human Consciousness. Nelson Parker.
Schwab, K. 2017. The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Crown Publishing Group. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=ST_FDAAAQBAJ.