How Our Exponentially Changing World is Challenging People and Organizations

Champion of positive #ChangeAgents, Dr. David Bray, addresses the impact of exponential technological change on private and public sector companies around the world, and explores how data transference via network devices is forever on the increase.
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By Dr. David Bray

In April 2016, I traveled to Dubai in a non-work capacity to meet with private and public sector representatives regarding how they, as companies, and as a nation, can keep up with the exponential technological changes and significant social changes happening in our world. While in Dubai, I shared these thoughts in a personal capacity outlined in this post.

Our world is experiencing exponential changes. These changes include a rapid increase of network devices on the face of the planet and an ever-increasing amount of data globally. These changes also include a rapid decrease in the cost and increase in the global accessibility of advanced technologies to the 7.3 billion human beings on the face of the planet. To put the amount of change in context:

  • Last year in 2015 there were approximately 14 billion network devices relative to 7.3 billion human beings on the face of the planet. That is up from just 7 billion network devices two years earlier in 2013. By 2022 there could be 75 billion or more network devices globally relative to 8 billion human beings. Also, by 2022 the estimates are 85% of the humans on the planet will be connected to the Internet, up from a tad less than half at the moment.This is not linear change, this is exponential change. Some statistics report that we humans went from less than 2% of the planet having a mobile phone in 2001 to more than 95% of households having a mobile phone by 2015.
  • At the same time, if you take all Internet addresses that could be addressed by Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4), of which we ran-out of such numbers in 2015 (there are approximately 4.3 billion numbers), and if you put these into a physical space the size of a beach ball – how big is Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) which is what we will be adopting over the next 5 years?The answer: the size of the Sun. Over the next few years, with regards to the Internet, we’re going from the beach ball, IPv4 with 2^32 addresses, to the Sun, IPv6 is 2^128, in terms of network address space.
  • The amount of data on the planet is also increasing exponentially. In 2013 there were 4 zettabytes, i.e., approximately 4 billion terabytes of data on the face of the planet. To give a sense of scale, the U.S. Library of Congress’ holdings are 10 terabytes. So, 4 billion terabytes is the data equivalent to about 400 million versions of the U.S. Library of Congress. Now admittedly probably a sizable portion of that data are copies of the same files, cat photos, or online videos. However, with the amount of data on the planet doubling every two years, we will increasingly face a challenge of making sense of all the new data being produced and stored.By 2022 estimates are there will be 96 zettabytes, i.e., the data equivalent of approximately 9.6 billion versions of the U.S. Library of Congress, on the planet. Some estimates peg this as more data than all human eyes see in the course of a year – and additional estimates peg this as more data than all human conversations we have ever had as a species with each other times two.

    Again, this is not linear change, this is exponential change.

At the same time these massive changes have happened, I have to step back and wonder if we as members of the public have not been fully prepared or forewarned for the seismic shocks associated with such an exponential era. This is where on this personal blog I need to make an important note: The following are personal perspectives; nothing below represents the views of any current or past professional organization for whom I have worked.

1. The World

Exponential changes will increasingly make inexpensive technologies available to just about everyone on the planet, meaning individuals half-a-world away can now compete with each other business-wise in a global marketplace. On the one hand, a global marketplace is great, enabling those with ideas to collaborate with each other regardless of physical distance. The challenge is when it comes to work tasks; if one individual needs to earn a higher wage to maintain to higher cost of living vs. another individual who doesn’t need to higher wage to maintain their cost of living, the individual needing a higher wage potentially may not find work.

There are some economists who believe that ultimately, even if there is an initial period of disruption where individuals used to a higher standard of living are disrupted by pricing mechanisms of the global marketplace – that ultimately everyone will be used to a shared standard of living globally and this will then begin to “raise everyone’s boats”. We might need to take a hard look at this unproven belief, since most economics does not assume a world with finite resources.

While perhaps one day we’ll be able to start mining resources from asteroids in space – however for now if we assume one planet going from 7.3 billion to 8 billion human beings – do we have enough resources on this planet to sustain multiple generations of individuals wanting to all enjoy a high standard of living? Increasing efficiency of technology only goes so far. If we cannot achieve the ideal frictionless case of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, then anytime we try to expend energy to bring physical order, we’ll create additional entropy. Imagine the amount of entropy produced by 8 billion human beings and 75 billion network devices on the planet in 2022.

2. People + Training

Just as exponential changes will make inexpensive technologies available to just about everyone on the planet, these same changes will rapidly increase and diminish the need for different types of jobs. By now everywhere in the world has started to feel that certain jobs that used to be a sure, safe way to earn an income now are seeing less demand and may even be vanishing as exponential changes to our world make that type of work no longer needed. At the same time, demand for other jobs, for example serving as machine-learning specialist, are growing at rapid rates. Even these currently in-demand jobs might only have a period of five to eight years before something else replaces them. Not too many people write web pages by coding HTML by hand any more.

Nowadays, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, by the time someone graduates from a four-year college, approximately half of what they learned no longer up-to-date and has been replaced by new knowledge and new advances in technology. We need to think of education is an on-going process for life if workers are going to remain competitive in a global market place.

Back in 2009, I wrote a suggestion that we might want to hold an open competition to see who could write a website or app that allows individuals to specify they currently work in a field or profession X, they would like to get the training and skills to work in a field or profession Y, and then search the web for community college and online course offerings to help these individuals retrain from profession X to Y. 

There are existing codes maintained by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) that could be shared to jump-start this competition to help individuals retrain and maintain viable skills in our rapidly changing world.

3. Organizations + Adaptability

As a final point, we will have to shift from the recognition that going to high school or college, and working in a given profession for life no longer works in this exponential era. We should not be surprised that groups of people, i.e., organizations, will need to recognize such groups cannot adopt one business or mission model that will remain the same for thirty to forty years without change.

More than 50% of the companies that were on the S&P 500 back in 2001 are no longer on the index list. These organizations have fallen off, been bought, or gone bankrupt.

Yet there are a significant challenges with organizations being nimble – most notably: they’re made of people and people generally dislike change.

As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out: ‘people aren’t prone to change when they’re happy’.

Similarly, organizations, which are made of people, are not prone to change when things are going well. 

It’s not until things get really bad that people, and similarly organizations, recognize what needs to change.

This also is true of private and public sector organizations. When an organization is doing well, the few prescient voices scanning the future and urging the organization to change its business model to avoid an approaching chasm are ignored, marginalized, and potentially even fired as they’re impeding the organization from enjoying its happy success at that moment. Then when the environment in which the organization operates changes, and the business model no longer works, there usually remains a lot of denial that the world has changed – “If we just get back to our principles X years ago”. 

These organizations that deny the world has changed, and will try push to work harder at the old business model, or perhaps an incremental improvement, attempting to get back to what was so successful just a few years, or months, earlier.

It’s only when things get really bad that the organization might finally embrace those voices that say they need to do something completely different in the new environment. 

This is akin to waiting until the airplane has descended from a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet to less than 2,000 feet in the hopes of pulling the plane, with all its weight and inertia, back up before it hits the ground.

With our exponential era, we need to be ready for more organizations to come-and-go and be disrupted.

These include private organizations, in which market forces will exert such pressures, as well as public organizations, which may need to be disrupted or replaced. At the same time there are certain public organizations we don’t want to fail as the consequences would be catastrophic to the public: for example disease control or defense. Most of us probably don’t want to trust our open-heart surgery to a startup that just showed up a few months ago, or might not be around a few months later while we’re recovering from such surgery. 

We will need to encourage organizations (and nations, as nations are people too) that cannot fail to still be nimble and adaptive in our changing world.

Closing Reflection

In closing, I’d like to share with three lines from a poem “If-“ by Rudyard Kipling that my father gave me when I was twenty. The poem has been with me since then, including when I responded to the disruptive events of 9/11 and anthrax in 2001, when I deployed to Afghanistan in 2009, and other pivotal moments since then. The first three lines are Kiplings’ from 1895, the fourth is my own addition in an attempt to modernize it for our exponential era ahead:

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute
      With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, 
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, 
      And—which is more—you’ll have led humanity on!”

 Here’s to positive #ChangeAgents in our Exponential Era.

This article was first published here.

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