We talk about the polycrisis a lot, and the idea of a permacrisis even more so. It’s the defining idea of the 2020s, just as digital transformation was for the 2010s. But while digital was largely driven by just two major forces, the internet and the smartphone, today’s societal change agents are more complex.
It’s worth taking a moment to step back, and look at the five horsemen who are driving us towards a polycrisis — and an apocalypse of a permacrisis if we don’t act.
We all know the story. We’ve told it often enough here. And yet, we still don’t know the ending. Yes, we can work remotely. Yes, we can now choose to live and work in different ways. But how much of that will stick? School and university education has largely returned to an in-person model. But online courses have become a staple of professional training and continuing skills development.
Many people come into the office less than they did, to the point that Londoners have coined a less than flattering name for those who only come into the office in the middle of the week; the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday crew. Some are pushing back. As part of his announcement of 10,000 more layoffs, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg made the point that their figures indicated that those who had been in the office before going remote, or those who were in the office full-time, were more productive than the always remote. Hybrid is the name of their game.
But, assuming hybrid work becomes the norm, what happens to the bars that made their money on a Friday night, if people aren’t in the city centre any more? Can urban shops survive on 3/5ths of the trade they had before? What about the economics of public transport if peak times only occur three days a week?
The acceleration has happened. We work differently. The consequences of that are still playing out in our businesses and our urban landscape.
Remember all the talk about supply chain problems? The way that a topic that was once the preserve of the oh-so-boring logistics people suddenly became a lead item on the news? It has consequences, beyond a short-term paucity of garden furniture.
Supply remains constrained of many goods, for a combination of reasons, many of them derived from the pandemic or from the war in Ukraine. Demand for those goods hasn’t significantly decreased, so prices are rising, fuelling inflation. And that causes central bankers to act, by rising interest rates. Our long years of cheap money are very much at an end. And we’re feeling the shocks. The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank and the difficulties suffered by Credit Suisse are the early warning signs at a corporate level.
On a personal level, this squeeze on our spending power and thus standard of living is both fuelling unrest, and leading to a downturn in discretionary purchases — with long-term impacts on economies. It’s not — yet — as bad as 2008. But it’s certainly a financial crisis.
A great many politicians are cursing their predecessors right now. Why didn’t they invest in renewables faster? Why did they leave us so dependent on gas? And Mr Putin continues to turn the screws…
Much like a tax return or other difficult task, many nations have put off and put off pushing forwards with renewable energy. Oh, they knew they needed to do it, for, as we’ll discuss below, there’s a climate crisis looming. But it doesn’t need to be done now, does it? We’ve a few years yet to decarbonise the economy, and there’s no huge electoral benefit in rushing forwards with it.
If we had moved faster. If we were more self-reliant for our energy needs, then the last winter would not have been so economically tough. And while most will agree that it was a price worth paying to support Ukraine against an aggressor, it stings right in the national wallet.
Just as the pandemic has been a forcing agent for the way we live our lives and, especially, the way we work, the war has been a catalyst for an accelerated energy transition. And, however painful that might be for us right now, it is at least preparing us for the next big challenge we face.
If our other horsemen were a surprise, this is one we saw coming from a very long way off. And yet, we still dragged our feet over acting. And that inaction made the economic and the energy crises worse. Indeed, one could certainly make an argument that the fundamental problem isn’t the climate crisis, but the lack of our societies to plan for the long term.
This is a crisis that is not susceptible to quick fixes. This is not something that will be solved within the lifetime of a government — or a CEO. Nobody will be the one hailed as the saviour of our society. Instead, it’s going to take a concerted effort from all levels of society to make the change. We’ve proved, through both our response to the pandemic and to the war in Ukraine, that we are capable of dramatic and sometimes painful action when the need is urgent. We’ve even proved willing to take the financial hit.
Can we do the same again for something that is both bigger, and yet less immediately apparent? If we can’t, this will be the source of a true permacrisis, as migration, famine and other second- and third-order effects hit.
The last of our horsemen is undoubtedly the most unexpected. If you’d asked most people in the digital world what the next big innovation that would impact the way we work would be, they’d say “the metaverse” or possibly “Web3”. The two punches of a crypto collapse and the sudden surge of multiple long-gestating machine learning systems hitting the point where they’re useful to the average person have changed that dynamic completely. Companies are scrambling to bring generative AI to their products as fast as they can.
However small this horseman seems compared to the others, we’d be unwise to minimise its potential effects. Look at how the internet, once dismissed as a hobbyist toy, has transformed our lives. And, like any good disruptive technology, it’s the second- and third-order effects that will have the biggest impact. What does this tech mean for artists? For writers — and copywriters? What does it mean for the education sector? Is this the death of the essay as we know it?
The handy rule of thumb that we overestimate a technology’s impact over two years, but underestimate it over ten, means that we have a decade to figure out the final answers to those questions. But right now, we’re having to come up with some provisional ones pretty damn quickly.
What does chat in search mean for search marketing? How should we assess our children? How do we figure out the copyright implications of this new tech?
Can we avoid Permacrisis?
Is this permacrisis our future? Is this our lives from now on? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Addressing these five drivers remains within humanity’s grasp. What we do next will determine how bad, and how long, the polycrisis will be — and how deeply it turns into a permacrisis.
Photo by ronniechua on Adobe Stock