Welcome to the 21st Century

My late grandmother was born in 1913. When she was my age, she had already lived through the Great Depression, the Spanish flu pandemic, hyperinflation, the fall of the Weimar Republic, two world wars, and, with the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, the darkest chapter in German history. She had also witnessed the birth of radio, television, passenger aviation, mass-produced cars, and the modern computer – although the last invention wasn’t on anyone’s radar yet. Whenever I hear someone saying that we are living “in crazy times,” I think of her and how it must have been to live back in those crazy times. The first half of the 20th century was an era of radical transformation. Politically, economically, and technologically so many things changed in such a profound way that over the course of just three centuries the way of life was completely turned upside down for millions of people.

A few days ago, Tim O’Reilly published a long-form essay titled “Welcome to the 21st Century” in which he argues that the current situation, and in particular the COVID-19 pandemic, might mark a point in time that, similar to the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in 1914, once more triggers such fundamental changes that the world won’t ever be the same again:

We are entering the century of being blindsided by things that we have been warned about for decades but never took seriously enough to prepare for, the century of lurching from crisis to crisis until, at last, we shake ourselves from the illusion that our world will go back to the comfortable way it was and begin the process of rebuilding our society from the ground up. […] Our comfortable “American century” of conspicuous consumer consumption, global tourism, and ever-increasing stock and home prices may be gone forever.

Especially the greatest challenge of them all, anthropogenic climate change, will bring even more natural disasters, pandemics, economic and political instability, conflict, and forced migration. This sounds terrifying but it is a fact that we will have to prepare for. The question is: How can we even plan and budget for so many unknown and uncertain futures? According to O’Reilly, scenario planning can be the answer. In scenario planning, you don’t make static plans but instead imagine a wide range of possible future scenarios – even if they seem most unlikely – and then look for data points, for indicators, which of those scenarios might indeed become reality. By making plans that hold up for a wide range of unknown futures, you increase the likelihood of being prepared.

What if there is no back to normal? What if there will be even more surveillance and, for example, quarantine enforced by sensors? What if remote work is the new normal and offices are never the primary work location again? What if the value of the commercial real-estate sector crashes? What if the school schedule as we knew it never resumes? What if government services go online, becoming as available, effective, and easy-to-use as the best consumer applications? O’Reilly envisions many possible futures, and indeed many of those futures don’t even seem that unlikely. Yet, we aren’t prepared.

Going forward, we will have to decide how we want to prepare for the shifts ahead of us. Scenario planning suggests that you come up with a “robust strategy”. Robust in this case doesn’t mean “rigid” but instead being flexible, adaptable, and also “resilient” and therefore well-prepared for a range of possible outcomes.

Preparing for constantly emerging and evolving technologies? Coping with uncertainty and unknown futures? I don’t know about you, but all of this sounds like scenario planning could also be a darn useful strategy for building digital products and the Web in general. In many of our projects, we would be well advised to imagine a broader range of possible futures instead of making rigid plans. And by prototyping, making, and testing, we would get the data points we need to evaluate which outcomes might be more likely. This would then help us to come up with a robust, resilient strategy that we could use as a basis for action and for layering tactics on top that allow us to react to the current situation. That seems like something worth exploring…


This is the 13th post of my 100 days of writing series. You can find a list of all posts here.


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