Jester Jeroen Toet is a fan of the future. What is his take on what is coming up next?
Q: Tensions between China and the US, the rise of ChatGPT: there is a lot happening in the world. What is your take on the current state?
Jeroen: ‘I honestly don’t know. It’s interesting times we live in, for sure. There’s so many things I can see go different ways. Who knows, perhaps in a few years we’re in a world war as the result of a conflict regarding Taiwan. Perhaps, in the end, cooler heads on all sides prevail. Perhaps I’m unemployed because ChatGPT has made me obsolete, perhaps ChatGPT has proven a fad or has been legislated into uselessness. There’s a lot going on nowadays that makes it hard to wrap your head around.’
Q: Many people say change is happening much faster nowadays, what do you think?
Jeroen: ‘I agree, or at least the potential for change is greater than in previous decades. My take is that especially technology plays a big role in this, as globalization has already been around for several decades. Increased computing power and the ubiquity of the internet has made ideas and concepts flow more quickly, freely, and become more scalable. Whether it is the rise of disruptive new business models or corrosive conspiracy theories gaining a foothold, traditional gatekeepers of change, such as governments, always seem to lag behind, to be on the backfoot.
I feel that the internet, especially now that there is global access to it, has been a major factor in social and economic changes as it has removed the barriers of time and location that were still there some odd twenty, thirty years ago. It’s as if there’s hardly any brakes or an ‘off-switch’ anymore for change. Also, the ‘Pax Americana’, the era of US dominance and values like democracy or liberal market-driven economies, is facing competition. Historically, every time a hegemony is challenged, uncertainty and conflict erupt and China and other actors are certainly chipping away at the US and global west’s position nowadays. Throw in the wild card of what climate change will do over the coming years and there’s even more potential for disruption and change.’
Q: In recent years we have seen many organizations struggling in dealing with predictable surprises (e.g. Covid, Ukraine). Why do you think this is the case?
Jeroen: ‘We humans hate uncertainty, we hate bad news. We rather engage in wishful thinking and discount or deny information that endangers that wishful thinking, our hopes and dreams. Before the covid pandemic, we have witnessed several years of relative stability and growth after the previous major, systemic shock, the 2008 financial crisis. I’ve seen many organizations relapse into behavior they displayed before that crisis, as if they have not learned a single lesson. This is often data-driven. The trendline was moving upwards, so they deemed that their rosy outlook was actually supported by data. Why take into account a downturn or disruption if it is not supported by the data? It is easy to get lulled into comfort after years of relative stability.
t is easy to get accustomed to years of growth and see that as the new normal. Who wants to entertain that coming to an end? Who wants to bear that news to their shareholders, or their constituents? That’s not a popular message, so certain warning signs are easily, and sometimes even willfully, ignored. After every crisis, I’ve seen organizations become more aware of risks, of contingencies of multiple possible futures. Great news for me as a scenario planner. However, when there’s some newfound stability or good fortune, those lessons are quickly forgotten. We then automatically try to explain away and underestimate signposts of possible disruptions. It’s not like there were no warning signs; we often just chose to ignore or discount them because they did not support our favored narrative of the future.’
Q: What can organizations do to be better prepared?
Jeroen: ‘Expand their horizons and, above all, do this more frequently. This especially means looking at developments outside of their industry or individuals’ specific expertise and adopt a more systemic point of view. The war in the Ukraine is a notable case of point for me. I have been supporting a client, comparable to an industry association, in a yearly trend report and update thereof. Some years ago, for the first version of the trend report, I proposed to include the trend of increasing geopolitical instability. The client was quick to argue not to include it, as that was regarded a trend that for many of its members was too abstract, something they would not deal with on a day-to-day basis. Of course, after the war broke out, inflation and energy prices soared to record heights and interest rates have also seen a notable uptick. It suddenly came close to home for their members. Naturally, now geopolitical instability has been included in the trend report.
It’s important for organizations to challenge themselves in looking at changes in their operating environment, and especially to look a bit beyond the immediate environment they’re used to and adopt a more systemic perspective. This does not come naturally to an organization. Many executives are so busy with the day-to-day goings-on that they take little time to actually pause and look at the world around them. It helps to have somebody from outside of the organization to help with that and challenge them, to tell them what they need to hear, not per se what they want to hear. Contingency and scenario planning are some great tools to stimulate such discussions, but it takes leadership and guts to admit your organization’s vulnerability to external change.’
Q: Wat is the next predictable surprise lurking around the corner?
Jeroen: ‘There are several on my radar, actually. Currently I’m working on an article regarding these, so stay tuned. Some of them are related to a specific underlying trend or concrete event, others are more general in nature but nonetheless relevant for organizations to plan for. To name just a few, an escalation of the China-Taiwan conflict, US internal strife and chaos, a new financial crisis, a major cyber disruption, water (and resource) conflicts… Of course, some of these might never happen. I would prefer that actually. I would love to cry wolf regarding these. But I do think we’ve come at a point where certain ‘systems’ are nearing a breaking point, where the capacity of these systems to deal with shocks is potentially too overstretched to absorb and neutralize these new shocks.
In the past, you might have found several reasons to discount some of these predictable surprises but these excuses are running out. I believe some of the predictable surprises I just mentioned should be seriously entertained by organizations. In that sense I was happy to see that Fitch downgrading the US’ credit rating recently. It’s not a message people want to hear, but Fitch recognizes that the past few years some fundamental things have shifted and present a clear risk to the US’ future political and economic stability. Of course, not all of the mentioned predictable surprises are equally relevant or urgent to every organization but it always helps to at least have a blueprint for action ready if such a relevant event actually occurs. ‘The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war’ as the late US general Norman Schwarzkopf used to say. Who knows, perhaps in preparing for such events you come up with brilliant ideas you can use no matter what the future holds.’