Struck by lightning.
Drowned in a flash flood.
Swept away by a tsunami.
Rendered homeless by a typhoon.
Swallowed up by an earthquake.
Trampled to death by mammoths.
Vaporised by a volcano.
Piste off by an avalanche.
Awestruck by the aurora australis.
Terrified by a solar eclipse.
Made miniscule by the Milky Way.
Since the dawn of early man, homo sapiens has struggled to contend with a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous natural world. As a species, we have been hugely successful in this regard and have carved out a niche in even the most seemingly inhospitable of environments. We’ve also tried to make sense of the universe around us. This quest has led us to some of the very finest achievements of humankind. From the long migration out of Africa and the epic voyages of the Polynesians, to Cook and Amundsen we’ve been filling out the map of our physical world with Google Maps being merely the logical extension of this pursuit. From Newton to Hawking we’ve explored the forces acting upon us and every atom that ever existed. Crick and Watson have launched our journey into innerspace and through the efforts of people like Edward Jenner and Dorothy Hodgkin we’ve conquered many previously fatal conditions. Pierre-Simon Laplace ( 1748-1827) is considered to be the father of modern scientific deep-sea exploration but we’ve only recently started to turn our attention in earnest to the ocean deep with James Cameron, erstwhile director of Titanic, diving to the deepest part of the Mariana Trench in 2012. And our fascination with the outer reaches of space continues unabated. This year, having travelled a distance greater than five times the Earth’s distance from the Sun since it’s launch in 2004, the Rosetta mission successfully landed Philae on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.
For all this understanding, the natural world still has the capacity to reach out and overwhelm us: The 2004 Indian Ocean and 2010 Japan earthquake and tsunami; the 2010 earthquake that devastated poor, benighted Haiti and Hurricane Katrina being some of the more memorable examples of recent years. And of course, creeping insidiously out of the tropical regions of Sub-Saharan Africa comes the nightmare of Ebola.
We’ve also tried to make sense of our place in the universe, our higher brain function making it impossible to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we might very well be simply another animal on a uniquely habitable outpost of this particular galaxy at this point in time. Meaning and purpose has eluded us. It’s led us to ascribe our existence to that of a higher power, an omnipotent deity. It’s led to organised religion – an experiment that seems to have run amok with devastating consequences. The natural world and our own human bodies are incredibly complex and much remains unknown. But in our increasingly busy lives we find solace in the simple pleasures of wondering at the world around us. Walking barefoot in the park or on the beach. Sharing a spectacular sunset with loved ones. Making snow angels in fresh drifts. Staring out to sea on a blustery day. The slightly giddy feeling you get when you see a perfectly formed rainbow after a downpour. These simple things let light into our hearts. A dewdrop on a spider’s silk fishing line. Simple. Simple. Simple.
Our imagination and creativity, our big brains, make us great builders of things. We have brought into being some of the most beautiful constructions – arguably rivals for anything the natural world has to offer. But we seem incapable of building with simplicity in mind and at heart. Remember collateralised debt obligations? Top of the Pops of the greatest hits of the Masters of the Universe? A financial product so complex that nobody understood it. A financial product so toxic that it brought us almost to the brink of collapse. In the UK, the people who run the financial regulators tell the people who run businesses that they must explain in clear language the terms and conditions of their products and be sure that people who might buy those products understand what they’re getting themselves into. But they don’t. So we get the PPI mis-selling scandal. We’ve created technologies for efficiency that have efficiently filled up all the gaps in our lives, blurring the boundaries between work and home life. There’s a meme that puts WiFi at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And like all clichés, it’s a cliché because, sadly, it’s true. People who work in organisations create structures and processes of such Byzantine complexity that it becomes a job of work all of it’s own just to navigate them. Org charts that are meant to identify accountable people simply present increasing layers of obfuscation and opacity. People who talk about legacy pursue short term gains. And working life is getting exponentially more complex.
You can tell that a business bandwagon is really rolling when it gets a fancy name. Well, this one’s VUCA. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Why? Cause that’s how we’re building our future. So all talk turns to how we can prepare people to be more creative, innovative and agile in the face of an every shifting landscape. Treating the symptom, not the disease.
The future we’re building fails the beermat test. Plain and simple.