Swimming with the current – Ben Hammersley on surviving the disruptive surge of megatrends
Challenge: Militant myopia
Before we can fully capitalize on the megatrends, we need to overcome some rather large challenges. Key among them is the “weaponized nostalgia for a past that never existed” mentioned in part one of this interview. This is not simply disagreement as to what is going on. It is an intentional and reactive refusal to even take a look.
According to Hammersley, this is because some people feel threatened by what is going on. “Culturally, there are whole groups of people who are very bound to old and traditional ways: of thinking about society or social roles, or of how companies should operate, how they consume media, how they educate themselves, etc.”
For instance, Ben Hammersley believes that “so-called climate-change deniers actually accept the problem, it’s just that it is basically impossible for them to think about the necessary actions required by that. These are so abhorrent to their way of life that the only way they can cognitively deal with it is to deny the problem exists in the first place. This leads to the suppression of evidence on climate or disease control, which allows some people to not think about the problems.”
Challenge: Unbalanced benefits
Strongly reinforcing this reactive resistance is the uneven distribution of the benefits of working with, and not against, megatrends such as the digitalized gig economy. The benefits vary from place to place.
Hammersley puts it like this: “How the future affects you depends on the country in which you live. Labor laws and civil rights are much stronger in some countries than in others. For instance, in some countries, if you’re between gigs, you don’t lose your healthcare, you don’t starve to death, and you don’t lose your housing.” But, “in some other countries, you really are screwed! You’re bankrupt, and things can go horribly wrong.”
Every society thus needs to strive for a good social balance. “When we have conversations about the gig economy, it’s usually from the point of view of the multinational, knowledge-working, information-technology-heavy elite. For them, the gig economy is very good.” But, in Ben’s view, everyone needs to feel like a winner, not just some.
Challenge: lack of imagination
Both militant myopia and unbalanced benefits can be seen as effects of a deeper cause, according to Ben Hammersley: a lack of imagination and vision to see where the megatrends are leading us, as well as a lack of vocabulary, and cognitive and legal structures to discuss and act on their impact.
And it is because we have not yet developed the new ideas and structures we need that we are vulnerable to using old ones that don’t really fit. “As the world accelerates in the light of all of the megatrends we are seeing, we are seeing a potent backlash, the appeal of which is an imagined return to a simpler past where everybody knew their place.”
“But when you live in an era of massive change, a reaction of militant nostalgia will cause you to recede, because you are going backward – relatively speaking – even if you are standing still, because everyone else is going forward.”
The challenge of facing challenges
Given these challenges, is futurist Ben Hammersley optimistic about the future? Yes, but cautiously so: “What makes me pessimistic is that some countries are going through a generational spasm of the last remaining years of the political and economic power of people for whom considering those problems is cognitively unacceptable.”
But in Ben’s view, the megatrends engulfing us will carry us along, whether we like it or not. “There will be pendulum swings and backlashes, but over the next few years, we can expect to see a rallying of support for dealing seriously with these megatrends. In many places, you can almost feel the pressure building up to take constructive action.”
Ultimately, Hammersley is optimistic. Resistance is futile, so to speak, and the tide of history is already moving us to where we need to be. Clearly, there is much work to be done, and “much will have to change in the way we live and work”. But “what makes me optimistic is that we know how to solve the challenges we face.” For one thing, we have the technological tools!
Solution: embrace the change
As Hammersley sees it, one of the best ways to prepare for the future is simply to start taking ownership of the present. How? First of all, we have to take care of one another. “Society should look after society. Individuals are interconnected with everybody else. For widespread social change to work, it has to be at a political level where we as a collective decide how, and what changes to make.”
Second, we need good leaders. “The type of political leadership will be crucial to what happens next. Some countries will say that we know that the gig economy is going to be painful, so we as a society are going to work together to find you a new work identity! After all, it is the government’s responsibility. These are the people we elect to do the administrative work around the collective infrastructure which is the tissue of our very existence.”
“The truth of the matter is that in every country we need to face these megatrend issues.” In other words, there is no escape from the future, and it’s already happening. For instance, “we’re going to start to see not just a social trend toward higher-density cities, but also a political trend. A political push toward trying to get people to live in higher-density urban living.”
The importance of words and ideas
We will also need new ways to conceptualize and discuss changes and their ramifications. “Our brains are fine – we don’t need any cyber-punk upgrades to our cognition. We simply need to develop new vocabulary, and new cognitive and legal structures to describe what is going on and talk about it.”
Hammersley thinks that one of the ways in which this will happen is through “shifting our traditional cultural analogies and metaphors” to create new spaces in which to think. “To prosper in the face of all of this change also requires a much wider and much more forward-thinking approach: we can’t keep thinking of all of these things as being separate: we need to take a holistic approach, and to look at them with open eyes.”
Ben says that we need to develop new ways to cognitively interpret and collectively discuss where the megatrends are taking us. How do we do that? Ben gives us a glimpse in this short video, “Shifting analogies is the definition of innovation”.
Expect the unexpected: role of serendipity
Ben’s method for thriving in the future is simple. We need to pay more attention to what is really going on around us now, and be more open to discovering the unexpected in our observations. “Quite simply, you cannot prepare for 20 years’ time. You can only prepare for tomorrow – and that only by constantly and actively questioning everything you do today.” To put it another way, we must accept serendipity.
Serendipity is at the heart of Ben Hammersley’s method for dealing with the future (see box). Fairy tales and stories for children are full of serendipity. A princess kisses a frog out of simple human kindness and is surprised to find true love, for instance. Children love these types of tales, in part because they are still receptive to whatever life delivers. They expect to be surprised and are delighted when it happens. Ben Hammersley suggests that we learn from our children, and return to a state in which we open ourselves to being constantly surprised.
Cities are the future of civilization
And cities will be the deciding factor in our evolution, according to Ben. “Cities are the future of civilization, and the open and flexible nature of cities will help to lead us in the direction of developing the cognitive and cultural structures needed to use our technology wisely.”
So the good news is that while we can’t avoid the megatrends engulfing us, we already have all of the solutions that we need for a bright and sustainable future. The megatrend of digitalization will continue to provide us with the ever-better tools we will need. And the megatrend of massive urbanization will provide us with the ideal workshop for developing unexpected new visions together, and using the power of the megatrends to make magic.
Ben Hammersley is in high demand worldwide. Around the same time he was talking with URBAN HUB, he was also in Hyderabad, India, giving a keynote addressing some additional subjects, including AI (artificial intelligence) and cybercrime, and how they interrelate. Watch here.
What is serendipity?
Coined by Horace Walpole in 1754, the term “serendipity” is today often thought to simply mean a coincidence, good luck, or a happy ending. But the deeper meaning is a bit richer and more complex: the idea of discovering valuable things by accident.
There are three parts to this. One is the idea of actively seeking something: a solution, a place, an answer, or whatever. Serendipity is not a passive or lazy term – being actively in quest of something is a necessary component to the experience of serendipity.
The second part is the permanent potential presence of accident, in the sense that things happen all the time, all around us, that we neither plan, control nor foresee. That seems obvious, of course, yet who hasn’t been caught in the rain without an umbrella?
However, it is the third component that gives this word its power and magic. Simply put, you have to be open to the accidental or unexpected that inevitably occurs while on your quest. That also sounds simple, but given how easily distracted we humans can be, we often encounter something as we progress through our days, and completely fail to see what it is.
Ben Hammersley finds the term so useful because much of his work revolves around enticing and encouraging people to understand the future by more seriously considering what is already happening, right in front of their eyes. People can fill their heads with planning for the future to the extent that they miss out on what is already going on.