Emphasis Added

Notes on the intersection of demographics and technology

  • Young Africa Rising

    This is a repost from my April 22 column for Internet Evolution. It makes a nice overture for my work-in-progress, Young World Rising.

    A photo of the teenage pirate arrested in the rescue off the coast of Somalia last week popped up in my RSS feed-reader this morning as I was wrapping up an interview with Sheraan Amod, a social media entrepreneur in Cape Town, South Africa. While Abduwali Abukhadir Muse will surely be the young African most of America is talking about this week, Amod and thousands of others like him across the continent are the members of this new Cheetah Generation that we should really be paying attention to.

    Africa has long been seen in the West as the unhappy convergence of natural disasters and man-made mis-governance. However, across the continent, there is now a different kind of convergence taking place, bringing together the powerful forces of youth, information technology and entrepreneurship.

    Since 2006, Africa has been gaining new Internet connections faster than any other region - a curve which is only expected to steepen with the widespread deployment of mobile Web and wireless satellite-based services. Costs continue to fall, extending access further and further down the economic pyramid.

    At the same time, many countries of historically-impoverished sub-Saharan Africa have populations that are exceptionally young by global standards. Nearly 45% of Nigerians (total pop. 160 million) are under the age of 15, for example. In the Economist's "Ageing" index, which measures the ratio of under-15s to over-60s in a population, 14 of the 15 youngest countries in the world are African.

    In the past, this would be seen as a harbinger of political instability and economic underdevelopment. Now, the rapid spread of ICT and a more entrepreneurial approach to the problems of bottom-of-the-pyramid populations is turning the 20th century liability of "too many mouths to feed" into the 21st century asset of "millions of minds at work." If India is facing a demographic dividend, in the words of Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, then Africa is looking at a bounteous harvest indeed.

    While certainly the bodies attached to all those active young minds still need to eat, ICT-based development offers a path to prosperity that simply did not exist even five years ago. African Net entrepreneurs with skills and Web access can stand at eye-level with their peers anywhere in the world and enjoy instantaneous access to the prosperous consumer markets of the developed world. Compare this model with the enormous capital requirements necessary to start a manufacturing enterprise, even in a very low-cost market, and obtain the plethora of permits and partnerships to do business overseas.

    As access barriers collapse, new institutions are stepping forward with resources to fuel innovation and growth.

    "A few years ago, private equity was the only way to go for start-ups," explains Amod, whose company, Personara, plans to develop applications based on Facebook and other social platforms. "Now, there is venture capital. There is government support. There are whole networks of entrepreneurs and resources to share knowledge."

    Even the most optimistic advocates of ICT-based growth in Africa remain sanguine about the challenges. ‘Gbenga Sesan is executive director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, a non-profit focused on youth and ICT-based entrepreneurship.

    "In Nigeria, we cannot continue to depend on the price of oil for our economic fortunes," he says. "It is unsustainable. By building our ICT skills among the younger population, we can start to explore new avenues of development. There is incredible talent here."

    The problems of poverty and education remain daunting, but Sesan says the government is stepping up investments in ICT training and community-based access to serve the more impoverished areas, including urban slums and rural villages. "I believe, knowing the trend of things in Nigeria, once those things are in place, content is definitely not going to be a problem, because a lot of people will take advantage of the infrastructure to create content."

    Sesan believes prosperity will increase gradually, as greater efforts and resources go into closing the digital divide in the next 10-15 years. Amod says not to be surprised if change comes much sooner, maybe in as few as 7-10 years. He, of course, is quite young - and such is the optimism of youth.

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  • Career Blogs are For Older Workers Too

    Workplace experiences and career advice seem to be a source of endless fascination for 20-somethings, and entire communities of blogs have sprung up offering all kinds of peer-to-peer guidance on everything from getting past the job interview to personal branding.

    What you rarely hear is the other side of the story: the experiences of older workers - perhaps retired teachers or retrained blue collar workers, restarting careers in their 50s and facing the daunting world of the connected information workplace.

    I first wrote about this subject in my 2008 book, Generation Blend: Managing Across the Technology Age Gap. In the interviews I conducted as part of the research, many of the folks I spoke to gave voice to their frustrations and challenges adapting not only to unfamiliar technology, but to the often-foreign, insular, and relentlessly youth-oriented digital culture. This is the voice that managers and corporate trainers don't often hear - or listen to - but understanding it is the key to successful retraining of older workers from non-tech-centric occupations into information work environments.

    Despite their knowledge and life experience, these "Boomerang Boomers" confront their own set of challenges, but lack the Internet-enabled social ecosystem of support and guidance available to their younger peers.

    Now that's starting to change, thanks to efforts like those of Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), a New York-based non-profit group training approach, which speaks directly to the cultural gap between digital natives and digital immigrants in the workforce and in society (full disclosure - I currently serve on OATS' Board of Directors).

    Starting May 1, OATS is hosting a month-long blog-a-thon at its community website, Senior Planet. Dozens of older workers, managers, community leaders and retirees will be sharing their experiences returning to the workforce, learning new technology, and taking advantage of social media to learn, engage and express themselves.

    In one fascinating post, the former CEO of a community-based organization describes her experience going back to work for a different group, this time as an entry-level worker:

    I am the oldest employee where I work. I know the least about technology and everything computer. I now must ask the 26 year old recent college graduate how to design name tags or how to get something on Facebook or how to Twitter a message to volunteers.

    I put together lists....lists of businesses, foundations, petitioners, bicyclists and other nonprofit groups.

    When someone walks in the door, I ask them whom they would like to see. Of course, they're not there to see me!

    I watch organizing taking place. I want to get in there and lend my voice, my experience, but I'm not asked. Essentially, that's not my job. They can do well enough without me.

    This blogger's story is bound to become more and more common as members of the Baby Boom start to reach traditional retirement age but remain engaged in the workforce, often in diminished or unfamiliar roles. Just like their more brazen and career-oriented younger colleagues (and, increasingly, managers), they can benefit from good advice or just the opportunity to vent.

    The OATS blog-a-thon may seem old-school, but now that older users are becoming the dominant growth demographic on many social media sites, watch for these type of older-oriented blog networks to move quickly from novelty to mainstream.

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  • Tax-Day Repost: Ragged Individualism

    In response to some of the foolishness taking place around the country on tax day today, I offer a very un-GenX take on the subject of the individual and the community, reposted from my old Emphasis Added blog from 2003:

    The concept of  the “rugged individual” is intimately bound up with contemporary conservatism. He (because the ideal is always a male in this theory) is a solitary actor who makes decisions based on principles, takes responsibility for the consequences of his actions, follows his dreams and leads his family as he sees fit. The nobility of this creature is such that he must be categorically free from all constraints of state and community to pursue his personal, economic and ideological interests.


    Conservatives see the rugged individual as the foundation of society. Empowering him means empowering the whole bulwark of capitalism –  risk, innovation, competition – with the resulting benefits of a robust free market to enrich and improve society at large. In the ideal, the entire field of play must be open to his ambition. This means that the potential rewards of success must be entirely uncapped, and the pitfalls of failure entirely unmitigated.


    The allure of this unconstrained state of nature has a powerful grip on the male American imagination (as well as on the occasional female, such as the writer Ayn Rand). It first appeared as a national meme (self-replicating idea) in the early years of the 20th century, almost precisely at the moment when the American continent had been fully settled. To frustrated frontiersman like Teddy Roosevelt, the ideal of rugged individualism as an abstract political-economic theory compensated for the lost opportunity to actually prove oneself against the rigors that had distinguished preceding generations of Americans in the taming of a wild land.


    It is this sense of frustration over the need for compromise that continues to make the purity of the rugged individual idea so attractive to certain kinds of men today. Faced with unprecedented competition from women, devaluation of traditionally masculine skills such as physical strength, and a society that increasingly denies them the privileges and preferential opportunities that previous generations of men enjoyed, certain men today cling to the rugged individual idea with a fierceness that approaches religious belief, because it is all that they have left. Since it is intimately tied to a conservative political viewpoint, this too becomes tightly bound into the psychological makeup of the individual to the point where he loses the ability to rationally process experiences and information that contradict the myth.


    Time for some full disclosure here. I am a rugged individual. I own my own business. I have not taken a corporate or government paycheck since I was 24 years old, and it is my career ambition to never take one again until the day I retire. I am religiously unaffiliated. I am 36 and unmarried with no kids (though have sustained a committed relationship for 12+  (now 18!) mostly-wonderful years ). My partner and I maintain separate residences in adjacent buildings, less than 200 feet apart (alas, no longer - we share one big place). As my friends and former business associates will be happy to tell you, I have an almost pathological resistance to formal relationships and forced camaraderie, although I do my best to honor informal and meaningful friendships to the best of my ability. I have made it this far in life making relatively few meaningful compromises, partly because I am exceedingly willing to make as many small compromises as are necessary to achieve my larger goals.


    Because I have a relatively high degree of control over important things in my life, I am acutely aware of the things I can’t control. Some of my circumstances are due to my own talent and accomplishments, but little of it would have been possible without the benefits of a supportive and stable homelife, excellent schooling and an incredible amount of luck and good timing – none of which I can claim any credit for. Likewise, it is exceedingly clear from my position that business success and a rewarding lifestyle are impossible without a vibrant external community and infrastructure of services (some governmental, some private). This external superstructure contributes a great deal, and yet demands from me only money in the form of taxes and various costs and fees.


    For all individuals, rugged or otherwise, once you reach a certain point in life, some things are out of your control. I have seen several men who were much more accomplished and successful at my age than I am meet with devastating reversals of fortune later in life, when they had exhausted the resources and energy of their youth and found the opportunities were no longer there for them. This is the terrifying downside of rugged individualism – the part that is rarely romanticized or discussed by the wanna-bes and ideologues. One day, the phone stops ringing, the skills decline, the flame of ambition fades. Even those fortunate enough to avoid this fate will someday see their strength and health give way to age and disease. This is simply a certainty of life.


    If you are actually in the situation where you must consider these things on a daily basis – precisely because you have denied yourself the reliable comforts of a conventional lifestyle – the prospect of depending on your community for certain services is not some kind of dreadful prospect, but rather a critical benefit. Maybe you will get lucky and be one of the few who really can take care of himself from cradle to grave. But the numbers are not encouraging.


    Unlike the romantic ideologues and wanna-bes, real rugged individuals recognize the limits of their own ability to control their lives, even with careful planning. I carry my own health insurance and save aggressively for retirement and to cover slow patches in my business cycle, but that’s not the same as a guarantee. Investments go bad, insurance companies refuse to pay – all for reasons well outside the control of any single person. The negative consequences when those support systems fail are so great that I am personally willing to give up a certain degree of reward and efficiency to reduce the risk to zero. In plain English, that means I enthusiastically support state-mandated health care and retirement programs because it’s the only way those services can be truly be guaranteed. I am happy, eager and proud to contribute what I can now in taxes and resources because I know that there will be a time when I will need the benefits.


    It’s not surprising to me that people with less control over their lives project on the archetype of the rugged individual all the ideals and aspirations that are, for whatever reason, not available to them. Unfortunately, this very potent myth has been appropriated by some very clever and ruthless people to marshal support for irrationally-motivated and catastrophically short-sighted political agendas. And it has no relationship to the reality faced by most people who choose the individualist path.


    Take it from a real-life rugged individual small-businessman entrepreneur: you can’t disconnect the decisions and skills of the individual from the numerous familial, communitarian and public factors that enable their success. If we really want to empower the rugged individual, we need to support and bolster those supporting structures through aggressive investment, and we need to soften the downside of risk from factors beyond any individual’s control. Maybe it imposes a financial burden today, but both of those objectives are worth the short-term costs.

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  • Scenarios for the Outcome of the Economic Crisis Part 4: New Blood or Blood in the Streets?

    The final two scenarios look at the potential outcomes of a world in which the established centers of institutional power have crumbled before the onslaught of bottom-up insurgency.

    In A Thousand Flowers Bloom, this insurgency is led by the global Millennial generation, united and empowered by knowledge networks and fueled by an entrepreneurial approach to problem-solving. Countries with large populations of younger people reap a demographic dividend that helps them surge past the tired, aging nations beset by debt and legacy infrastructure. This new world is dynamic, media-saturated and cosmopolitan.

    Shards of Glass represents the triumph of populism, for good and ill. Here, power has devolved because existing institutions collapsed under their own weight and dragged the system down with them. Communities, localities, small businesses and cooperative organizations flourish, but so too do religious extremists and fanatics of all stripes. Technology, knowledge and economic growth are stalled. These are the "exciting times" of which the Chinese proverb warns.

    A Thousand Flowers Bloom

    Mao provided the image, but Adam Smith's ideas of free markets and free minds dominate in a world refreshed by youth and new sources of cultural energy.

    Quadrant: Bottom-up innovation, rapid and robust growth.

    Brief Description: Young, rising economies armed with new technology and a sense of purpose unleash a wave of entrepreneurial innovation, upending the economic order

    Business Climate: Freewheeling, vibrant and innovative companies emerge seemingly from nowhere with revolutionary new products and business models, spurring an upsurge in new investment. Many of these new companies move to acquire established industrial-age businesses at bargain prices as ways to enter new markets and leverage the trust of familiar brands. Government regulations exist, but the demands of the market, consumers and partners tend to be higher in any case.

    Information Work: A collaborative global creative class, made up largely of ambitious young people from fast-growing global regions, powers economic growth with their ideas and conversations. Employers vie for the best talent on a global scale. People and communities make use of new technology to achieve work-life balance, manage their financial and healthcare choices, and pursue their independent career paths.

    Consumer Experience: Consumers are bewildered by nearly limitless choices, constant changes to products and features, and companies that come and go quickly, often leaving behind inadequately supported products. Consumers use networks and technology as a filter to identify their best choices and support each other when companies leave them behind.

    Social/Political Climate: Regions and cultures, moreso than countries, are engaged in intense competition for primacy and attention. Occasionally this bursts into incidents of violence and chauvinism or sectional discord. Politics is fractious and an extension of the fast-moving consumer culture: loud and boisterous, but not always coherent or pragmatic.

    How We Got Here: As the economic superpowers of the 20th century squandered their advantages during the downturn of 2009, rising economies capitalized on infrastructure investments, political reforms, falling prices of technology, and the energy of their young, tech-aware and ambitious workforces to surge to prominence. Newly-wealthy entrepreneurs in these fast-growing regions bought up household-name institutions and assets in the developed world at bargain-basement prices. Prosperity helped tamp down the embers of extremism and historical conflict, creating room for political liberalization and the establishment of durable civic institutions.

    Shards of Glass

    An angry mob, fed up with injustice and choked with resentment, has taken a sledge hammer to the plate-glass shop window of the world economy, leaving this scenario in its wake.

    Quadrant: Sluggish, stagnant economy, bottom-up insurgency.

    Brief Description: Institutional failures lead to populist uprisings, religious fundamentalism and isolationism, hindering economic recovery and increasing political turmoil

    Business Climate: Many of the pillars of the global economy have failed, and their local and regional replacements lack the resources to operate at the same level. Capital is scarce and government does not have the power or the prestige to safeguard transactions, so it is difficult for anyone to scale up and take advantage of the market gaps. Managers have to think tactically because of resource constraints and operational uncertainties that cloud strategic vision.

    Information Work: Much creative class and professional work has a poor reputation, owing to popular resentment of elites who tried to cling to their privileges at the expense of workers in other sectors. Energy, agriculture, industrial arts, construction and transportation jobs are most relevant to the economy as it exists, and consequently there is not much of a wage premium for information work.

    Consumer Experience: With little money and few choices, the consumer does not have much to say.

    Social/Political Climate: Domestic politics in most countries is full of blame, finger-pointing, and scapegoating, with little productive discourse. The surge in the youth populations of South Asia, Africa and Latin America - concentrated among the urban and rural poor - has led to an upsurge of fanaticism and violent nationalism, including some bloody confrontations and atrocities. With no authoritative sources of news following the collapse of global media and local papers, most people get their information from narrow channels that suit their ideological biases.

    How We Got Here: Chastened by populist backlash following bungled attempts to bail out dying industrial-age institutions during the 2009 downturn, governments stepped back and let them fail, with calamitous results. The wave of unemployment and wealth destruction dragged the global economy into a full-fledged Depression, which created fertile conditions for the spread of extremist politics and apocalyptic religious sects. Communities banded together and began developing local resources, but distrust between groups, social classes, countries and ethnicities remains high.

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  • Scenarios for the Outcome of the Economic Crisis Part 3: Institutional Stagnation or Managed Growth?

    This post looks in detail at the two top-down scenarios described in the previous post: Petrified Forest (sluggish economy) and Atlas Stands Tall (robust economy).

    Both of these scenarios assume that large institutions - big businesses, industry groups, governments and regional blocs, and incumbent economic elites - will maintain their leadership positions, despite the pressure on them from populists, outsiders, and insurgent competitors.

    In the case of Petrified Forest, the recalcitrance of these institutions to accept change creates a stalemate that prolongs the economic downturn and inaugurates an era of slow growth and declining opportunities. This represents the predictions of various groups who claim that the recovery policies proposed in the United States and elsewhere do not do enough to solve the problem, incur unsustainable amounts of debt, and/or leave failed strategies and incompetent individuals in place.

    Atlas Stands Tall represents the opposite outcome. In this scenario, the coordinated efforts of governments and the more-or-less willing acquiescence of incumbent elites to reform measures successfully reverses the downturn, restores confidence, and lays the basis for a more sustainable growth model moving forward. Although this scenario embodies the best-case promises of the Obama Administration and its supporters, it recognizes that stability also likely means less economic dynamism, less entrepreneurial innovation, and the kind of "father knows best" cultural stasis that characterized a similar era, the 1950s.

    Petrified Forest

    Ancient oaks stand immobile and immovable in the twilight, their inner life-force turned to stone, clinging to their old forms because that is all they know.

    Quadrant: Top-down governance, sluggish/stagnant economy.

    Brief description: Large organizations (businesses and governments) refuse to allow change, fight among themselves to preserve control of a shrinking resource base.

    Business Climate: Nearly a decade of flat growth has pushed businesses into an instinctive defensive crouch where all new investment must be justified by cost-savings. Defense of market share is the driving imperative, along with a constant search for cheaper labor and supply. Export-oriented sectors suffer from high tariffs. Commodity and energy prices continue to escalate, putting more tension on a frayed global economy.

    Information Work: Employers hold the upper hand as work is scarce. People generally work long hours and accept reduced pay and benefits. Successful firms are continually implementing process efficiencies designed to drive greater productivity from existing people and equipment. Entrepreneurism is on the wane because no one is willing to risk venture capital.

    Consumer Experience: The consumer is king, as companies terrified of losing market share make every possible concession to the fickle, demanding market. Price-wars are fierce, although the high cost of commodities keeps some products out of the reach of all but the most affluent.

    Social/Political Climate: Governments and big businesses employ every manner of surveillance and intimidation tactics to keep a surly and resentful public in line. Part of this is justified by ongoing concerns about security and external enemies.

    How We Got Here: Half-hearted and ill-conceived attempts to reverse the economic downturn in 2009 did not achieve results, but squandered huge amounts of resources and drove the debt load of developed countries through the roof. This debt overhang dragged down economic growth for more than a decade, as industrial-age institutions did everything in their waning power to forestall inevitable changes. Countries turned inward to address mounting social problems, leading to increasing international friction, trade wars, and security concerns.

    Atlas Stands Tall

    In haughty defiance of Ayn Rand's libertarian titan, this revived Atlas embodies the collective will of the world community and proudly shoulders the burdens of social, economic and political harmony.

    Quadrant: Top-down governance, fast recovery/robust growth.

    Brief Description: Coordinated actions of governments, central banks and large businesses lead to economic recovery. A new cooperative model of capitalism emerges.

    Business Climate: Industrial activity is regulated and harmonized by an assertive government that uses modern IT and management practices to diminish boom-and-bust cycles. Free trade is vibrant between partners adhering to international environmental, labor and product safety standards, with non-compliant governments sanctioned or facing barriers.

    Information Work: Most information workers work for large companies or the government, and enjoy relatively secure healthcare, pension, and work/life balance benefits, although wages are highly taxed. Creative class professionals associate easily with colleagues around the world.

    Consumer Experience: Consumers are empowered but largely satisfied. Companies are on a very tight regulatory leash and attempt to rebuild trust by being proactively transparent.

    Social/Political Climate: Incumbent world powers attempt to manage the smooth entry of rising economies into the global system and lean heavily on disruptive players to reduce conflict. Diversity is celebrated. Political discourse is generally pragmatic rather than ideological.

    How We Got Here: Cool, steady decision-making by governments and central banks in the heat of the financial crisis of 2009 paid off in a relatively rapid and robust recovery. Large institutions and incumbent elites were permitted the time and space to regroup, in exchange for their support of public investments in healthcare, infrastructure, and greater regulation. A coordinated international response defused political tensions in the Middle East and South Asia, building confidence in the renewed leadership of the United States and its allies.

    Next: The Insurgent Scenarios: New Blood Refreshes the System or Old Blood Drowns It?

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  • Scenarios for the Outcome of the Economic Crisis: Part 2

    In the previous post, I talked about the critical uncertainties and driving themes (forecasts) that formed the starting point for thinking about the outcomes of the financial crisis. Now comes the fun part: developing the scenarios themselves.

    In my view, the two critical uncertainties hanging over the future are whether economic growth will resume or continue to be sluggish, and whether the primary mode of leadership will be top-down or bottom up.

    Think about each of these uncertainties as defining an axis of a graph. The horizontal (X) axis represents economic growth. At the left pole of the axis is the slow-growth/stagnation outcome, and at the right pole is rapid recovery.


    The predominant leadership mode is graphed on the vertical (Y) axis, with top-down decision-making at the northern pole, and a more bottom-up/insurgent model defining the southern pole. (see below)

    With the uncertainties mapped as poles of each axis, the graph now defines four quadrants (clockwise from upper left):

    • Sluggish economy with top-down leadership
    • Recovering economy with top-down leadership
    • Recovering economy led by outsiders and bottom-up insurgents
    • Sluggish/depressed economy with decentralized leadership

    Each quadrant of the graph represents a distinctly different picture of the future, or scenario. To add further color and character, I have assigned each scenario a descriptive name: Petrified Forest, Atlas Stands Tall, A Thousand Flowers Bloom, and Shards of Glass.


    So what are the primary characteristics of each scenario? How and why are they importantly different?

    Petrified Forest postulates a world where large organizations retain control, but have not succeeded in restoring economic growth. The logic of this outcome is fairly easy to see: the incentives motivating each large organization, be it an industry group, individual business, national or local government, etc., all dictate that each should hold onto its own prerogatives, making collective action impossible. Necessary reforms are stymied at every turn, creating a world where big interests scramble over a constantly-shrinking pie.

    Atlas Stands Tall is the mirror opposite of this, where the collective action of the large stakeholders succeeds in restarting economic growth. It is a world of greater stability but less innovation. Disruptions are seen as threats to the new equilibrium, whether they are genuinely worrisome regional conflicts or the legitimate aspirations of outsiders trying to break into the club.

    A Thousand Flowers Bloom paints an alternative way out of the financial downturn - one lead by emerging economies, bottom-up business models, innovation, and a rising global generation of new talent. This world is much more dynamic and fast-paced, but prone to risks, bubbles, and outbreaks of institutional amnesia that typically accompany high-velocity culture.

    Shards of Glass represents the triumph of bottom-up populism, for better and worse. In this future, the failures of large institutions have deepened the crisis and strengthened the hand of extremists of all stripes, even as power devolves to more human-scale communities and organizations.


    In the next posts, we will examine each scenario in more detail, looking at a few key questions. What is the business climate like in each future? What is the role of information work and information workers? How does the consumer experience differ? What are the social-economic forces at work? And finally, how did we get to this future - in other words, what signs should we look for as indicators that we may be moving in this direction?

    Those questions can be addressed by looking at how the dynamic themes play out in the different conditions of each scenario. Stay tuned.


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  • Four Scenarios for the Outcome of the Economic Downturn: Introduction

    As part of my work with Dan Rasmus at Microsoft, we're revisiting the scenario planning framework we developed in 2003 (as explained in our book, Listening to the Future) in light of current events. The following few posts will outline my own "unofficial" (e.g., not Microsoft-sanctioned) view of potential outcomes to the economic crisis. This post will explain the process and lay out my assumptions.

    Scenario Planning 101

    As former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once observed, "there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns." Both of these complicate the planning process, as Rumsfeld found out firsthand, but at least with "known unknowns," you can construct some contingency strategies in case you are not, you know, greeted as liberators, even if that was the plan going in. Scenario planning tries to identify critical uncertainties: factors where an unexpected outcome could lead to dramatically different future circumstances. The goal is then to construct a series of "what-if" questions to flesh out a finite set of plausible stories that describe the destinations at the end of each fork in the road.

    Good scenarios should tell a story, and also answer questions that the scenario-builder(s) may not have considered at first. For example, a scenario built on good social/political/economic assumptions should be able to tell you whether you will be driving a flying car  or riding a donkey in that version of the future, even if transportation wasn't one of the initial conditions being investigated.

    Critical Uncertainties

    These are the two "known-unknowns" that define the poles of my scenario matrix. That is, I suspect the disposition of these questions will define the characteristics of the next 10 years, but I do not want to assume an outcome for either of them:

    Economic circumstances - will the downturn continue for a long period, leading to slow and/or poorly distributed global growth, economic hardship, continued defensive investments, and disputes over who gets what resources... or, will a recovery happen relatively quickly, leading to a restoration of confidence, new opportunities and new innovation

    Leadership mode - will large organizations such as big businesses, governments, central banks and powerful institutions dominate the decision-making process, or will control devolve to self-organized communities, insurgent groups, and other "outsiders" to the traditional process?

    Driving Themes

    Driving Themes are forecasts of trends or dominant events that we can reasonably expect to happen within the timeframe of the planning project, based on analysis of current data. They include things like demographics, technological innovation in particular areas, policies that governments or businesses may try to pursue, and changes to the culture. The themes themselves are the product of informed speculation, and may not be 100% accurate, but what's really important is how the character of the themes changes depending on the outcomes of the critical uncertainties. For example, the prospect of a large youth population looks very different in a world where economy recovery is rapid and robust, versus one where growth is sluggish.

    Part of the process of generating the scenarios is running the driving themes through the wind-tunnel of the critical uncertainties to figure out the specifics of each possible future. That sounds abstract right now, but it will be clear in future posts how it actually works.

    Here are the driving themes - e.g., my best guesses about stuff that might happen --  that I identified for my scenario-development process:

    Industrial-age institutions face the moment of truth as economic circumstance make old models increasingly unsustainable. Do they exhaust their resources fighting against change, resist necessary reforms, and use their local political leverage to extract subsidies? Do they reinvent themselves? Do they accommodate change or get acquired by rising insurgents? Or do they simply collapse, leaving a yawning vacuum and enduring economic devastation?

    More of the world gets connected - increases in broadband, wireless and mobile connectivity, plus the falling prices of powerful new devices, brings information within the reach of unprecedented numbers of the world's population. Does this lead to greater innovation, disruption of traditional social/economic power structures, political upheaval?

    The demographic divide between Old World and Young World widens - aging populations in Europe, Japan and Russia place unbearable strains on health and pension systems, just as regions in South Asia, Africa and Latin America start reaping the "demographic dividend" of billions of working-age Millennials. Will young populations lead to prosperity or increased aggressive nationalism? Will aging countries wither away or open their borders?

    Governments press strong regulations on businesses and consumers to promote environmental and energy imperatives, fair trade and labor practices, or subsidies for preferred industries. Is the effort coordinated and effective, or does it break down? Do better methods of regulation emerge from networks, via transparency and reputation systems?

    The global creative class coheres, united across borders by technology and shared values. Is it a force for innovation, discredited by malfeasance and scandal (e.g., financial analysts) or bogged down in a culture war against nationalists, traditionalists, and competing economic interests?

    The entire world of beliefs and cultures get maximum exposure as technology connects like-minded people, allows religious sects to proselytize, and opens formerly-cloistered communities to wider scrutiny. Do new ideas and beliefs create new sources of inspiration, or does increasing fundamentalism make compromise and pragmatic dialogue impossible?

    Companies adapt to sophisticated consumers and invest heavily in technologies and practices to engage in dialogues, accept input via public networks, deliver customized products and new delivery models, and manipulate the information space using better marketing techniques. Do consumers embrace their new responsibilities, or was there hidden value in the mass market model after all?

    Social networking and collaborative capabilities reach the saturation point - information and relationships are fluid and accessible everywhere, all the time, on every device. Old industries like print journalism and publishing die away. Does something better replace them, or do the old structures of linear knowledge simply disintegrate?

    Technology penetrates the physical world (via sensors, GPS systems, RFID, etc) - will it provide greater transparency or greater centralization of control and information?

    Next: The scenarios.

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  • Managing the Blended Workplace

    My friend, colleague and co-author Dan Rasmus has a new piece in Strategy + Business called "Keeping up with Workforce 2020." In it, Dan looks at some of the major themes of the coming decade that managers should keep in mind, including moves toward the punctuated workday (where more people choose when, how and where they engage with work and life), the rise of citizen regulators (a natural outgrowth of the type of scrutiny and conversations that Millennials engage in via technology) and the need for "just-in-time learning" to support connection-rich but knowledge- and experience-poor younger workers as they climb the organizational learning curve.
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  • This is Radio Rob

    I'll be on State of Affairs hosted by Robin Fischer, on WFPL 89.3 FM in Louisville, KY in about an hour, talking about Generation Blend.
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  • Back After a Blogging Break

    Sorry for the long dry spell. I had to recharge the batteries after a busy fall and holiday season. Plus, I'm blogging regularly at Internet Evolution, which absorbs a lot of my spare time. I'm now hoping to get back to a regular blogging schedule here at GenBlend. In the meantime, my colleague and co-author Dan Rasmus has a new piece on the application of scenario planning to higher education, here.
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Generation Blend is must-reading for managers who mean to succeed over the next decade.”

 – Lawrence Wilkinson, Chairman, Heminge and Condell & co-founder, Global Business Network


About Rob

Rob Salkowitz is a writer and consultant specializing in social technology and next-generation workforce. He is the author of Generation Blend and co-author of Listening to the Future, and a principal in the Seattle-based communications firm MediaPlant.

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