The Pain of Change

A colleague of mine in a big retailer once told me, “Until the pain of staying the same exceeds the worst imagined pain of change, nothing changes”. He was right. Recent events around the world have certainly borne out the pain of staying the same. Now, it seems we’re up for some big changes. They too will be painful but I’m very optimistic about the road ahead.

The media has been full of bad news from around the world. Economically, the situation for the last few years has been extraordinarily dark. Earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, droughts & floods have brought hardship to many worldwide. Climate change consciousness has finally become part of the mainstream for many. Institutions like the Church, Government, corporations and the family are all being challenged around the world. The pain of staying the same seems to be approaching the threshold for change.

Over recent years, transformative changes are everywhere. In place of age-old established ways of life, new ones are arising. People seem to belong more to their professions & their social networks than to their communities, companies, countries or churches. They also seem more akin to their friends than their relatives.

What is it about family, neighbourhoods, firms, nations and congregations that’s so painful? Why are people around the world choosing Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn (even over email and instant messaging) as a primary communications & collaboration forum? Was the kitchen table conversation at home really so bad? Is the office not working as a place to work? Have parliaments and the bureaucracy failed to serve the people they govern? Have organised religions stopped fulfilling people spiritually?

There’s probably some “yes” in the answers to all these questions. But like all generalisations such as these, there’s always some truth in there somewhere. But there’s also lots of non-truth. There’s still billions of people who subscribe to one of the major religions. Nationality and being governed is still hugely prevalent. Many, many people work for big and medium sized companies or government departments. People still spend time with their families. So, what’s going one?

It seems like the last several generations have widened their horizons. People travel much more. Almost everyone sees some other part of the world on TV, the Internet. They’ve been reading about it in the media for a long time. The institutions of yesteryear – Church, State, Family, Employer – are being challenged by more globalised institutions. And this is no coincidence. It’s entirely predictable as a consequence of the rise in global transportation and communication.

The last ten years has been called “The Digital Decade” by some (including luminaries like Gates). Things that have been around for decades – like maps, music, photography, the press, telephony, radio and TV – have all been substantially digitised. Existing digital things – like email and instant messaging – have been supplanted by social networks and (micro-) blogs. Digital search has made these digital assets much more accessible than their analogue counterparts. New business models have made a lot of there resources either free or cheaper. Booming emerging economies – like China, India and Brazil – have now become the growth engines of a world where global titans like the US, EU and Japan have stalled. All of this has enabled the rise of more global institutions.

But the problems have also become more global. Climate change and other geophysical phenomena are clearly affecting many, if not most, parts of the world. The Great Recession of the last few years impacted many world regions to the extent that you feel lucky to have remained relatively untouched. Capital slips between nations and regions with almost no barriers. World religions have become globally destabilised by great shifts in demographics and adherence. Work has moved to where cost & capability dictate in the last 10 years at an unprecedented rate. Transport economics & capacity has accelerated globalisation of production and consumption. Even war has become more off-shored as the conflicts in the Middle East have shown. An election in Iran sees more activity on Twitter than a major football game in the US or Europe.

The striking things about these developments is their speed, scale and impact. After 30 years of giving “the slide show”, Al Gore made a movie of the same presentation and ignited an instant global phenomena. The numbers living in storm, flood, wave and quake prone locations have skyrocketed. The disaster events have become all the more pronounced because their causes have become more intense. A mortgage practice in the US impacts the entire world financial system at a ferocious rate. There are now more Christians in South America and Africa than in Europe or North America. There are now more information & communications technology jobs in India and China than in the rest of the world. Apple’s statement “Designed in California, Assembled in China” is emblematic of so many things in today’s world. This Christmas, due to currency movements, offshore online shopping was at an all-time high. The floods in Queensland seem as interesting to the British as to the Australians.

The old institutions seem powerless before these challenges. The UN has been active in global climate change for decades, always in the same way, with extremely disappointed effect. Nation-states or intra-national government agencies simply cannot cope with emergency management. Central banking and world-regional governance fails to manage fast-moving economic crises. The headquarters of worldwide religions or corporations fail to recognise the globalised nature of their own organisations, let alone their suppliers’ suppliers or their customer’s/adherents’ customers/adherents. The almost total offshoring of ICT product-manufacturing & service-provision to Asia has a fundamental impact in many other places in the world. All of this change is extremely painful.

So, why am I so optimistic? For centuries, the West – Europe and latterly America – has dominated most of the rest of the world. Now demographically and increasingly economically, the centre of gravity in the world is shifting. The “American way of life” that President George HW Bush said “… was not subject to negotiation” in the early 1990s in reference to the Rio Earth Summit, is certainly up for change. European dominance of trade and commerce has shrunk to the point that they can only go forward together as the EU. Japan’s post-war domination ended some years ago. Russia’s suffering of the twentieth century is diminishing. India’s on the road back after centuries of colonial repression. South America – led by Brazil – is making its way out of the US shadow. Resource rich Africa is earning its way out of poverty & sickness. For many, rather than the few, the future looks rosier.

There are threats. China’s on the way to regional hegemony. Some Middle Eastern states, like Iran, are fanatical. The situation in North Korea is frightening. Terrorism still hasn’t been defeated after almost a decade-long war on it. The status quo of the the post-cold-war era – one in which the US, EU and a few allied nations thrived – is unlikely to return for a generation. The damage done is just too deep and too fundamental.

Finding a place in this new world will be challenging for many in the old order. Surprisingly, here in Australia, we’ve seemed to find our place – supplier to China, customer of China & India, friend to the US and deeply linked to Europe. Lucky country indeed! That’s a huge reason for optimism…

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About Fred Pugsley

Digital guy. Foodie, skier, voracious reader.
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