In Our Exponential Era: Choices Can Either Connect or Disconnect Us

During the month of March 2018, I had the tremendous opportunity to travel as a Marshall Memorial Fellow in Europe with 16 colleagues from the United States.

We all started in Brussels and later six of us traveled to London. While in London we had the opportunity to meet with officials from the Bank of England, Chatham House, House of Lords, U.S. Embassy, Mayor of London, and more.

The number one conversation individuals wanted to discuss with us as Fellows while in London was Brexit, and the unclear future for the United Kingdom.

On Brexit, on one hand, the people of U.K. had held a referendum and voted to leave the European Union. On the other hand, the Brexit referendum as simply that — a referendum of what the people at the time indicated they wanted, whereas the actual business of sorting out how the U.K. would interact and relate to the E.U. post-Brexit still is being sorted out by both sides. Will customs need to be in-place between the border of Ireland and Northern Ireland? Will workers from the E.U. still be welcome to work in the U.K. or will they need to return to the E.U. and does the U.K. have a sufficient population to fill these jobs in the private sector and their National Health System?

I should note this post is not intended to debate the either the politics or merits of Brexit; rather share aggregated perspectives from different leaders in the U.K.

Voting as an Emotional Signal of the Future

One of the most compelling conversations while in the U.K. centered around the raw emotions that led a majority of individuals to vote for Brexit. Some held the view that the emotions came from a source of concern of job stability and potential loss of a way of life in local communities — especially in the face of what some have called the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” that will automate certain professions.

Polling after the Brexit referendum also supported that strong emotions correlated Brexit with a “pro-U.K. first” stance, triggered in part due to economic concerns that certain communities still had not necessarily seen the benefits of the Second or Third Revolution yet, and associated a “pro-U.K. first’ stance with a better chance of either navigating or averting the job and community displacement effects expected by automation.

Another speaker in the U.K. made the point that every industrial revolution has displaced and impacted middle-tier jobs and professions the most, with a widening reach of jobs and professions displaced with every successive industrial revolution.

This happened with coal, steam, and trains. This happened again with oil, steel, and electricity.

Eventually more jobs were created to offset the jobs lost, however there was most certainly a period of turmoil and transition and the time required for more jobs to be created to offset those lost was not immediate.

From my own conversations over the last 4 years this resonates strongly — while I remain an optimist about the future, I think both the private tech sector and public-sector officials are kidding themselves if they don’t think there will be a period of massive transition with automation on the horizon. Non-partisan polls from both Western Europe and the U.S. show a shrinking middle class and widening disparity gap that has been occurring for quite some time.

An Obligation to Reseed Displaced Communities

Another U.K. speaker discussed a missed opportunity for national banks — namely that banks did not spot the reality that for communities who have had outdated industries and jobs displaced by a newer industrial revolution, the newer industrial revolution does not happen automatically. Think of it as clear cutting a lush rainforest. A new rainforest does not grow-up overnight.

In fact, clear cutting the Amazon yields desert if intentional efforts to reseed and reforest aren’t also done.

That same U.K. speaker emphasized that representative governments over the last decade seemed to have missed the opportunity to “reseed and reforest” the looming displacements caused by automation and the expected Fourth Industrial revolution. The talk by Silicon Valley has only fanned the flames of emotional concern about the future of individual job stability and a way of life in local communities.

How many of us in the United States have celebrated “disruption” of industries without recognizing the need to resow and reseed either within organizations or across sectors those communities displaced by such a disruption ?

The take-away from several speakers in the U.K. is that Brexit was a consequence of the people indicating their emotional concerns about the future. Similarly, a rise in anti-immigration sentiment was also linked to such emotional concerns too.

An Obligation to Listen and Engage Locally

What I found novel while in the U.K. was that the Bank of England was starting to do local panels around the country to active solicit feedback from the population. These would be local-level chances for input on what were pressing concerns and a chance for a dialogue on what the Bank of England was doing and why.

While at the end of the day the Bank of England would still be an independent body and make decisions it deemed fit for the economic stability of the United Kingdom, this effort for an interactive dialogue and feedback on what was being seen and felt at the local level is laudable.

Imagine if we did something similar in the United States with our government agencies? Could we do this at an effective scale nationally?

The views while in the U.K. raised the sentiment that Brexit happened because emotions about the future were not optimistic — local communities were feeling unsure about jobs, growth, and their continued way of life.

And it may very well be that with progress, jobs will change and be replaced by others, that the human condition has always been that of change and that ways of life too will change.

That said, if both the private tech sector and public-sector officials ignore these rising emotional concerns — or fan the flames of such fears and instability — we may find a fragmenting of communities and of the social contract that brought us together as humans in the first place.

We co-exist because of the belief that we can achieve certain things better together than alone.

I should note that yes definitely individual freedoms and individual choices matter — and individual agency to live the life and pursue happiness that we each want should continue.

However, a future in which there is no co-existing or welcoming of strangers is a very dark one indeed. If there’s no way for us to come together and ensure we don’t devolve into a Hobbesian state of nature where only “might makes right”, that probably is not a future we want for our children.

Design Choices Can Either Connect or Disconnect Us

On final interesting perspective that was shared in the United Kingdom is that in some more rural local communities, bartering was on the rise.

The speaker noted that bartering also resulted in them feeling more closely connected with their local community — and the speaker suggested that historically money arose to replace bartering because civilizations began to interact with strangers.

Money allowed a common way for anyone to buy or sell to anyone without knowing their past or reputation in the community. The speaker in the U.K. suggested that the trade-off of using money is that it also primes us all for the default behavior of treating everyone like strangers. No longer do we feel as close of a connection to our community that we would if we bartered.

I’m not suggesting we all revert to bartering or give-up money as a way of exchanging services and goods, however I do think as we look to the future of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the rise of automation that is expected to impact at least part of at least 50% of jobs in the next five years — we should ask what are we either losing or gaining in terms of a sense of a connected community?

Are virtual currencies and the blockchain amplifying or diminishing treating individuals are strangers? Are the ways we use internet-based technologies making us more welcoming of different views and perspectives or less welcoming?

So as a final question to ponder on the future choices that can connect (or disconnect) us:

How can the private tech sector work with public institutions and NGOs to navigate the expected turbulence of the upcoming Fourth Industrial Revolution, and cumulatively ensure a more optimistic and more people-centered and community-building future for the decade ahead?

Ideas and comments welcomed!

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David A. Bray

David A. Bray

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Championing People-Centered Ventures & #ChangeAgents. Reflecting on How Our World Is Changing. Leadership is Passion to Improve Our World.