Adapting our thinking to the future – part 2

May 14, 2013

At the end of part 1 of this article, I had mentioned how our elders used to make progress by blending the modern with the traditional. It is quite important to keep this way of looking at our life environment quite alive. How we evolved to where we are today determines very much why we have the current possibilities available. They are the direct result of our history. Whether we like it or not, our future has its roots in our past. The art is to improve what we have, and to improve, we need to learn from the mistakes of the past. Rejecting solutions for the simple reason that they are old-fashioned or not based on science is really excluding diversity, while diversity is the fuel of progress. Reducing diversity comes down to reducing options to move forward. As someone who looks toward the future and tries to find out what is likely to come as well as what is desirable to create, I find this balance between past and future especially interesting. I often am surprised to see how many people are actually busy reinventing the wheel, while they think that they are busy innovating. Many projects and research that I see taking place have actually already been carried out in some way either in another place or in another industry. I regularly have to tell some of my contacts about similar projects that took place years and sometimes even decades ago. This is why I always insist on the need to be curious. For the future, curiosity is an asset. I could never urge anyone enough to have an open mind for anything that happens anywhere and in any industry. Maybe, I am doing some sort of transfer about this and I wished others would be as curious and eager to learn as I am, but this is so helpful to foresee the changes to come, that anyone who is interested in the future should be wired like that. Unfortunately, I find most people to not be really curious. They seem to be interested in what will serve them directly in the short term, but much less for what may serve others now but also in the future. Until someone can tell me that it is better to limit one’s perception and understanding of the world and of its possibilities, I will keep being curious and open-minded.

People really need to expand their horizons. Not only is it useful to be prepared for the future, the main reason is that it is incredibly fun to learn to know new things and new people. For the sake of humanity, it is time to open up towards others. The attitude of future business will not be about pushing new products and services to others, but to have a “what can I do for you “ and “how can I help you” mindset. The business of the future is the one that delivers solutions. In the future, successful products will be at least as much about the service included as it is about the actual physical product. This is what circular thinking will deliver. In a future where others are really what matters the most, the social perception will also change. “Old boys clubs” (which are nowadays just as much girls clubs) and other clans are not really the most dynamic organizations. There is no doubt that they are incredibly comfortable, because they are basically made out of clones. Everyone thinks the same, shares the same values, comes from the same university or social group, lives in the same country or region, has the same feeling of importance, and looks to the outsiders just as such: outsiders. There is a lack of diversity; therefore there is a lack of progress. A new interesting development that, to me, shows the quality of networks has appeared recently on LinkedIn. They visualize how much of your network belong to which organizations. I recently have seen some of the apparently very social individuals that have close to 40% of their network linked to only one company, and the second organization in his network only 1%. To me, that does not spell open network. And I thought that the main organization in my LinkedIn network was already high at 5%. Personally, I prefer by far those who have a balanced distribution of their networks. The chances are much higher that people who have a more balanced distribution of their networks have been exposed to more diversified experiences, and are likely to be more open and more flexible to different or challenging ideas. For a successful future, we must not think in terms of networks, but we all should be interconnected in the same one that would be the complete integration and interaction of all the ones that exist. My customers have demonstrated this to me. About all of my business has come from my being on the web with this blog and my books. They caught my customers’ attention who decided to get in contact with me. None of them knew me personally beforehand. The result has been business. Actually, I have not prospected once for the Food Futurist services. I just found a way of being visible beyond any limitation of network boundaries. The Food Futurist has become part of that global web.

One of the main differences between nowadays and yesterday lies in how intricate our world has become. In the past, things used to be more compartmented. Today, the whole world has opened. Knowledge travels fast and is accessible from almost anywhere on the planet. The level of interaction between industries and technologies is much higher now than it used to be. Most innovation that will help progress in food and agriculture in the future will not originate from the food and agriculture community, but from many different fields such as robotics, nanotechnologies, telecommunications, software development or medicine, just to give a few examples. Although technology will definitely play a major role in improving what we do, it will be important to not see technology as a panacea with dictatorial tendencies. I always underline the importance of the balance that we must maintain between technology and steering human nature for the best. In the end, technology is only as good and useful as the way we use and master it. Just take the example of gun powder. When the Chinese started to use it, they made fireworks for entertainment purposes. The “white man” chose to use it to kill others. Clearly, a similar technology used with different philosophies of life will serve different purposes. This is still true with today’s technology and it will be true with tomorrow’s. It will depend on the leadership. Technology needs to pass the test of morals and ethics, unless we accept that it might serve to be used against us. Technology and leadership go together, just like science and philosophy do. It is important to not forget it. If curiosity is an asset for the future, clearly, so is having a critical mind for the reasons just presented. It is essential to keep control on what we do and that we address concerns. Of course, this may delay some valuable financial objectives for some, but the quality of the future will depend on us doing the right things. The debate that results from critical thinking may be time-consuming, but open debate is an integral part of the democratic process. Open debates protect us from going back to dark ages. Looking back how what such ages have caused in human history, and unfortunately still do in some parts of the world, the need to learn from the past is clearly essential for a prosperous future.

Thinking ahead like a chess playerOther advantages of critical thinking are that it stimulates reflection and is a source of ideas. It is also important to make clear that critical thinking is not about criticizing but about questioning. Sterile boring criticism is just as useless for our future as not thinking at all. Let’s face it, critical thinking is not easy. It requires emotional distance. It is about accepting that what we may have believed appears to be wrong, or that they are better ways and beliefs. To be a good critical thinker, one needs to have enough confidence to overcome disappointment and to accept to change the course. Not that many people are willing to deal with such challenges. Yet, if we want to prepare for a prosperous future, we will have to accept that exercise, because, the future will be quite different, and in particular our interaction with our environment and the world will change and evolve further. Critical thinking actually requires a rather Zen mindset. One needs to have the calm and openness to observe and listen before speaking. One needs to accept being wrong as the debate that arises from the exercise will also show the value of other people’s points of views. Critical thinking is an exercise in humility. Humility is a highly valuable, yet often neglected quality. Yet, it is essential to be humble when thinking about the future. The challenges are quite serious and dealing with natural forces that may or may not be about to unleash upon us will not be an easy task. We will need to understand our relationship with Nature and accept the idea that, in spite of all our cool technologies, we are vulnerable and mortal. One of the arts of future thinking will be about pushing the system while knowing where the limits are that we must not transgress. That is what sustainability really is about. We really do not want to open Mother Nature’ Pandora’s Box. To be equipped properly to face the future, we need leaders that will think like chess players. We need leaders in all areas of society that can understand how the consequences of their decisions and of their vision will trickle down through the system. They must be able to foresee what may happen when they make their moves. Many already hardly can foresee what comes next. Those we need are the ones who can visualize what happens two, three, four and more degrees ahead, so that they can adjust their choices and already develop alternatives before troubles arise. A good plan A always includes a plan B, and preferably even a plan C. Plans that lack alternatives are not plans, they are merely wish lists.

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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Adapting our thinking to the future – part 1

May 3, 2013

Everybody will agree that the coming decades are presenting many new challenges. Never before have we faced such a population growth and demand for about everything, food and water being the most essential. The difference between success and failure will reside mostly in our attitude towards change and our willingness to adapt to a different new situation. For obvious reasons, the economic model of mass consumption and resources depletion that generates a mindboggling amount of waste is coming to an end one way or another. A new system needs to come and will come. Whether it will be the easy way or the hard way really depends on us all and in particular on our leaders. I like to tell that our future will be only as bright as our leaders. It is a bit of a joke, but not quite.

The circular will look linear when approached from the right angle

What does need to change in our thinking and attitude, then? In a finite world, we must understand that always more is not sustainable. This is especially true when several billion people are thinking of having the same consumption lifestyle as developed countries have had over the past 60 years or so. The pie is not big enough to allow that kind of party (and neither is the bakery that must produce the pie). This is where we seem to be stuck in our thinking. We have learnt to think linear in the past several decades. It can go only in one direction, and it has to be up, doesn’t it? God forbid of anything going down. In the field of farming when I hear the linear argument, I like to mention two things. The first one is that if farming stats must go linear, there should not be any farm left in developed countries in the not so distant future, and the same should happen in developing countries, too, just a bit later. No farm means no food. Apparently, that does not seem acceptable. There goes a crack in the linear thinking. My second argument against thinking blindly linear is that in biology and in population dynamics, there are no linear functions. All curves are curbed in some way. There are bell curves, sigmoid curves, exponential and logarithmic curves, just to name a few. None of them are linear. If we want to plan our relation with our environment in a prosperous manner, we need to leave the linear thinking and start thinking curbed, and the curve that fits the ability to renew indefinitely our access to essential resources best is the circle. Circular thinking is the never-ending linear. That is just as much of a thinking revolution as moving away from the concept of a flat earth to embrace the idea of a spherical one, or to fathom the curbed space. Shifting from linear thinking to circular thinking simply means a shift in thinking from always more to always enough. All it means is that we need to change our ways, but it certainly does not mean the end of the world. It would only mean the end of a world. With a growing population, circular thinking actually presents a lot of business opportunities, especially considering that the alternative is going nowhere eventually. There is no doubt that those who will catch these opportunities will be the winners of tomorrow.

Such a change in thinking also results in rethinking the meaning of growth. Currently, growth, and the GDP as its favorite indicator, means mostly volume and consumption. Actually consumption is probably not the correct world to describe our societies. Buying is a more correct one. Producers want consumers to buy. Consuming in this process is really optional. What counts is the act of purchasing over and over again. We think of growth as quantitative growth. Future growth will have to be a qualitative growth. With so many new people who will need employment in the decades to come, it will be crucial that future growth will have to fill a positive social role. Similarly, to have a livable planet, the future will have to contribute positively to maintaining a healthy environment. Social and environmental responsibility will become the standard. There is no escaping this. Well, that is with the angle of building a prosperous future. If not, chaos is always a possibility.

One of the most visible consequences of a growth model based essentially on quantity and mass purchasing is waste. As consumption goods became cheaper credit became easier and disposable income increased, consuming has become about buying and throwing away. The mountains of garbage in landfills around the world should be a reminder, although we seem to have located them far away from the eyes of the wealthy and in the backyard of the poor. Quite convenient. This way, consumers could forget about the consequences of their actions… and keep on buying and throwing away. Although this happens for all consumer goods, this is especially immoral when it comes to food in a world where about a billion people do not have enough to eat. It is immoral, simply because food means the difference between life and death, and wasting food is indirectly contributing to the death of others. It is also immoral because food waste is also the waste of all the inputs used for the production of food, be it water, energy or money. Waste is an indicator of the level of efficiency. Highly efficient systems generate little or no waste. Inefficient systems generate a lot of it. I will let you judge how efficient you think we are. Waste is also an indicator of our attitude. It is not just about morals, but also about discipline. Our societies waste a lot, because we still are much too lenient with ourselves, and also because in many cases the financial incentives to do the right thing are sadly lacking. We choose the path of least resistance.

As life became easier in a number of countries, people have started to lose some essential reflexes for survival. It is not necessary to go all that much back in time to see the change. My parents, grandparents and ancestors grew up in times that were not of plenty, simply because there was no consumption society, and incidentally there was the occasional war. People would not waste anything not so much out of morals, but because they simply could not afford it. Yes, mass wasting is the fruit of luxury. My elders would not waste and they were very skilled at circular thinking. They knew that nothing is created or lost, but that everything is transformed. As resources were not plenty, the right answer was to show plenty of resourcefulness. This is how things were by then.

To take the example of food waste, they would make sure that leftovers would be on the table the next day. They would most certainly not end up in the garbage. They would feed the pigs with what they could not eat themselves. Actually, they were turning low value products such as potato peels in high value protein in the form of pork. When I was in the agricultural university, my animal nutrition teacher once told a joke that I have never forgotten, especially considering that I have spent a substantial part of my professional life in animal production. He told us that modern animal husbandry was the art of turning high value protein into cheap fat. Not quite untrue, and so much the contrast with the pork made out of table scraps. This contrast is very much present in the ongoing debate about meat production systems.

We can find many answers for the future by looking at the past. In our current times of science-based facts obsession, many seem to look down at words such as experience, wisdom and philosophy. This is not wise. Our elders might not have known all the scientific background of what they were doing, but they knew what was best for them to survive. They knew how to manage a finite world of finite resources to sustain themselves. Passing on that knowledge, experience and wisdom was an essential part of survival. There was no conflict between modernity and that knowledge, experience and wisdom. They integrated the new and the old to build a better world. Although, there is still a lot of work to eradicate poverty, let’s not forget that the result has been the emergence of prosperous societies in which a record number of people are living now.

(Part 2 of this topic will be published soon)

Copyright 2013 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.