The next Zeitenwende

We are living in a world with multiple crises. It’s the end of an era – a Zeitenwende. But which era exactly is ending, and why?

It was a Sunday, three days after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, when the German chancellor Olaf Scholz proclaimed a Zeitenwende (change of era). His speech was mainly about defence policy, but the Zeitenwende moniker stuck. It neatly captures the 2022 zeitgeist, with many crises in parallel leading to the end of an era.

But if we look more deeply, immediately the question arises of which era we are talking about. At NEXT22, we learned about very different fields, and each comes with its own historiography. In his opening keynote, David Mattin bid farewell to modernity. This is the end of an era that has lasted for around 500 years.

However, postmodernity has been around since the latter part of the 20th century. The late sociologist Ulrich Beck came up with the concept of reflexive, second modernity in the eighties. We’ll probably need to leave the question of exactly when modernity ended to historians down the road. The digital revolution could prove to be one of the final nails in the coffin of modernity, if and when this era finally ends.

The first 50 years are over

To put the digital revolution in perspective, Ben Evans compares it to the car. The first 50 years in the car industry were about creating car companies. The second 50 years were about what happened when everyone had cars: creating a world optimised for cars, with big-box retailers and the separation of living, working, shopping, and entertainment. The digital industries are now so mature that all remaining questions revolve around what happens when everyone has a computer (or a smartphone, which is a computer).

This Zeitenwende is certainly smaller than the end of modernity. We’re looking at a timeframe of 50 years, not 500. But it’s still significant, because it suggests that most of the coming change won’t take place in the tech industries, but everywhere else. Media and retail/commerce have already changed significantly over the last 25 years, thanks to the internet, but this game will continue in the foreseeable future:

What the web did to media and music is happening to every other industry — still. There are new winners and new gatekeepers emerging all the time. Netflix is now spending more on commissioning media than anyone apart from Disney, and both spend more than the top five EU broadcasters combined… But these are no longer tech discussions, they’re media and TV problems because the tech piece is solved.

Adding to the look and feel of Zeitenwende at NEXT22 were the appearances of foreign policy expert Jessica Berlin, NATO’s Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges David van Weel, and the former commander of the UK’s Joint Forces Command, General Sir Richard Barrons. For sure, tech includes military technology. But just a few months ago, you wouldn’t have expected those people taking the stage at tech events.

Zeitenwende in systemic terms

In retrospect, a certain level of ignorance can be seen here. Putin annexed Crimea back in 2014, and this was hardly his first breach of the international order. We deliberately chose to look away and allow ourselves to be lulled by the Russian supply of cheap natural gas. This house of cards collapsed only this year. Now, we need to deal with geopolitics, cyberwar, and technology that is changing the definition of warfare. And then there’s the energy crisis, which in turn is related to the climate crisis.

Jessica Berlin had a clear message for us:

  • We are living in the aftertimes.
  • Every business is in national security.
  • Collective action is better than collective inaction.
  • We cannot afford not to act.

These crises have in common that they didn’t arrive overnight. Even the pandemic was predictable and predicted. Here, the Zeitenwende is not the emergence of a new, unforeseen crisis. Rather, the new era starts when the push comes to shove and we start to act. It’s the era of complacency that is finally ending. We are forced to act. This is a pattern that we have seen again and again over the last two and a half decades: it is clear that we need to act, that there is even a first-mover advantage, and that we know what to do. So why do we only act at the very last moment?

At least in part, we can explain this with the systemic paradox: systems change to ensure their continuity. External pressure needs to build up first, then it must be internalised, i.e. translated into the system’s own code. Let’s keep in mind that we aren’t talking about a single system, but a multitude of systems. Hence, it’s not a single process, but a multitude of processes. This comes with a high degree of complexity.

Good-bye VUCA, hello BANI

Remember VUCA? Well, there’s a new acronym on the block now: BANI. Without diving into the BANI world, let’s note that the “N” is for nonlinear, such as, but not limited to, exponential. Nonlinearity is an extension of complexity.

In a Nonlinear world, cause and effect are seemingly disconnected or disproportionate. Perhaps other systems interfere or obscure, or maybe there’s hidden hysteresis, enormous delays between visible cause and visible effect. In a nonlinear world, results of actions taken, or not taken, can end up being wildly out of balance. Small decisions end up with massive consequences, good or bad. Or we put forward enormous amounts of effort, pushing and pushing yet with little to see for it.

A lot of the phenomena we discussed at NEXT22 are nonlinear. Let’s take for example cyberwar. Way back at NEXT14, the year when Putin annexed Crimea, Mikko Hypponen was outspoken about this systemic threat. When he returned this year, he was even more clear:

Governments are creating cyber armies to fight their wars. We’re seeing this play out in Ukraine right now. But innovations don’t do away with old forms of war. So, cyberspace is additive to the places we fight. And there will be more.

Cyberwar adds to the complexity, and its effects are nonlinear.

Here, we see a Zeitenwende on a more abstract level. The VUCA world – volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity – is replaced by a BANI world: brittle, anxious, nonlinear, incomprehensible. Sounds scary? That’s because it is. But Jamais Cascio, who coined BANI in 2020, closes his post as follows:

Something massive and potentially overwhelming is happening. All of our systems, from global webs of trade and information to the personal connections we have with our friends, families, and colleagues, all of these systems are changing, will have to change. Fundamentally. Thoroughly. Painfully, at times. It’s something that may need a new language to describe. It’s something that will definitely require a new way of thinking to explore.

At NEXT22, we explored a lot of this system change. In this post, we’ve only touched briefly on a few of these topics. Over the next couple of weeks, we are going to reflect on what we’ve learned.

Stay tuned.