The Econ­o­mist is one of the best-writ­ten jour­nals pub­lished. And while it skews toward a con­ser­v­a­tive bent, it doesn’t shy away from tak­ing on BIG ques­tions. The cov­er sto­ry from the Jan­u­ary 12 issue is a good exam­ple. “Inno­va­tion pes­simism: Has the ideas machine bro­ken down?” is an exten­sive analy­sis of whether inno­va­tion today is lead­ing toward mega-growth or, instead, just tweak­ing the big changes that have already occurred in soci­ety.

The jour­nal does a good job of pre­sent­ing both sides of the argu­ment. It quotes thinkers such as Tyler Cow­an who argues that we have reached an era of “Great Stag­na­tion”. What is this point of view? To quote The Econ­o­mist in this regard: “The var­i­ous motors of 20th-cen­tu­ry growth — some tech­no­log­i­cal, some not — had played them­selves out, and new tech­nolo­gies were not going to have the same invig­o­rat­ing effect on the economies of the future. For all its flat-screen daz­zle and high-band­width piz­zazz, it seemed the world had run out of ideas.”

There are oth­er thinkers and com­pelling charts to sup­port the the­sis that the grand inven­tions of the past (such as the steam engine) that spurred enor­mous growth in world economies are now great mem­o­ries not to be repeat­ed any­time soon. Some­one who holds to this argu­ment, The Econ­o­mist calls an “inno­va­tion pes­simist”.

Sub­se­quent­ly, the arti­cle dis­cuss­es “The oth­er side of the sky”, here, too, with rep­utable experts quot­ed exten­sive­ly. This view asserts that soci­ety-shak­ing inno­va­tions are not passé: “Across the board, inno­va­tions fuelled by cheap pro­cess­ing pow­er are tak­ing off. Com­put­ers are begin­ning to under­stand nat­ur­al lan­guage. Peo­ple are con­trol­ling video games through body move­ment alone — a tech­nol­o­gy that may soon find appli­ca­tion in much of the busi­ness world. Three-dimen­sion­al print­ing is capa­ble of churn­ing out an increas­ing­ly com­plex array of objects, and may soon move on to human tis­sues and oth­er organ­ic mate­r­i­al.”

Happy and sadThis is the side of the argu­ment that The Econ­o­mist itself takes. It believes that tech­no-progress could, in fact, be so strong that work­ers could actu­al­ly be replaced by tech­nol­o­gy to a lev­el that makes today’s reduc­tions in force seem puny. The Econ­o­mist clos­es its thought­ful essay with a ref­er­ence to Japan where, in order to man­age bet­ter an age­ing pop­u­la­tion, the devel­op­ment of robot­ics “is pro­ceed­ing by leaps and bounds”. This, says the jour­nal, could lead to strong gains in social wel­fare. But, it also notes, “the adjust­ment peri­od could be dif­fi­cult”.

The clos­ing sen­tence of the essay should be food for at least a week’s worth of thought for all of us: “In the end, the main risk to advanced economies may not be that the pace of inno­va­tion is too slow, but that insti­tu­tions have become too rigid to accom­mo­date tru­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary changes — which could be a lot more like­ly than fly­ing cars.”

What, then, is this arti­cle real­ly about? To me, it is a fas­ci­nat­ing study between the speed of new think­ing and the speed of organ­i­sa­tions. I, too, share the con­cern that too many firms are still try­ing to catch up with the great inven­tions of yes­ter­day. I’m think­ing of those com­pa­nies that still ask cus­tomers to reg­is­ter any com­plaints via the old ways (snail­mail or tele­cons). And then there are the organ­i­sa­tions that con­tin­ue to fly peo­ple around the globe to attend half-day meet­ings that could be done via the Inter­net. And let’s not for­get the large health care cen­tres that have patients fill out paper­work to pro­vide infor­ma­tion that the patient has already pro­vid­ed, per­haps sev­er­al times over, with one or more doc­tors or with some­one else.

There is per­haps no greater argu­ment for nextsens­ing than this. Peo­ple who can only think back­wards (mas­ter­ing what worked well in the past) are for­ev­er trapped by their own self-imposed lim­i­ta­tions. The goal of nextsens­ing is to pro­vide bet­ter ways to think about the future of soci­ety and its organ­i­sa­tions. Any­one who can nextsense will be far less like­ly to be crushed by the speed of new ideas, if for no oth­er rea­son than they will be the ones com­ing up with them.

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