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It’s a Fast, VUCA World: The Trends and Forces Shaping Innovation

Larry Schmitt

Innovation Partner

The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.  – Erich Fromm

Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty. Jacob Bronowski

Major changes and transformations are taking place in the world that will significantly affect the way innovation is done. From ‘Big Data’ to ‘AI’, from ‘Virtual Presence’ to ‘Crowdsourced creativity’, from ‘Additive Manufacturing’ to ‘Software Communities’, the technological and social forces of change are all around us. There is a minor industry in prognostications about ‘the most significant trends of the next decade’. Categorizing and naming them is an ever fascinating pastime and there are literally hundreds of these trend forecasts available. A (very) brief sampling is this one showing combinatorial forecasts, this one based on futuring methods or this one discussing consumer behavior.

All of these trends show that the world is becoming a more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA[i]) place. And it is becoming VUCA faster and faster. [callout] We need to create more complex systems, develop ever better technologies, and find ever more subtle differences in tastes, motivations and experiences in order to create new artifacts that will be adopted. [/callout] This term, first coined by the military in the 1990’s, perfectly captures the situation we all find ourselves in as innovators. We need to create more complex systems, develop ever better technologies, and find ever more subtle differences in tastes, motivations and experiences in order to create new artifacts that will be adopted. We need, as innovators, to create better and better theories, frameworks, processes, methods and tools to come up with the next big thing. In other words, we need to innovate innovation, at least at the same pace as technology and our artifacts are evolving.

To accomplish this, we need to look at the forces and trends that are shaping the world from a somewhat different perspective than those who are trying to predict future products and services or future lifestyles and communities. We need to identify forces and trends that will affect how people and organizations will create these artifacts of the future rather than what artifacts they will create. The issue for the innovator is that, not only must all the published trends be noted, understood, and vetted, they need to be assessed along different dimensions to answer the question, how will innovation happen in these possible future worlds?

Forces & trends

The following lists some of the forces and trends that are relevant to the practice of innovation. This list was constructed specifically to identify forces and trends that affect the way we innovate not the innovations that will result although, because the process of creation is so intertwined with what is being created, there is overlap.

    1. Acceleration of technological change – This force affects everything and everyone, the inventor, the innovator and the entrepreneur. It is a result of the nature of technology [ii] that builds on itself in an accelerating cycle. Technological change affects the innovator both in imagining the artifacts that become possible and in the tools the innovator develops to assist the innovation process.
    2. Complexity and intelligence of artifacts – We have moved from a world where an offering is a unitary ‘thing’ to one in which offerings are complex systems of atoms, bits and rules where the components and/or the system itself can have levels of intelligence and connectedness. This changes how we  conceive of new artifacts and the tools innovators must create and use.
    3. Speed of concept to first contact – The lag-time between coming up with an idea for a new artifact and getting the first prototype of the idea into an adopter’s hands is getting shorter and shorter. The increasing speed with which this occurs requires the innovator to develop new processes, methods and tools that match the shorter timeframes and the ability to iterate.
    4. Diffusion and dispersion of talent – No longer is all the talent necessary to create new artifacts centralized within one organization. Global distribution and mobility of talent requires new skills of the innovator to find and marshal the necessary talent wherever it may be.
    5. Organizational ambiguity – The nature of the company, or more generally the organization, is changing. The boundaries between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are becoming blurred and more porous. The structures within organizations are becoming more fluid. Individuals are more independent and self-actualized. Influence is trumping command and control. The innovator must learn to navigate the new organization, their own and others.
    6. Societal networks of networks – The connectedness of everyone, and the influence that results from this connectedness, is rapidly transforming behavior. It’s not just which networks people participate in, it’s the interaction among the networks of various networks that must be understood and navigated. The innovator must be able to tap into these networks of networks during the creation process and understand the influences from the adopter’s perspective.
    7. Evolving generational motivations – The Baby Boomers, Gen X, the Millennials or Gen Y, Gen Z – there is a reason these names are given to ‘generations’ and that is because, in aggregate, they have different behaviors and motivations. This affects their work life, their play life and their leisure life in both their creative and consumptive behaviors. Innovators must tease apart these motivations and move beyond ‘unmet needs’.
    8. Automation of physical and mental capacities – Robotics, automation and artificial intelligence will continue to develop and become an increasing part of our man-made world. How will the innovator use machine intelligence to do our job better? What tasks that we now do will become automated? What new tools can we develop that take advantage of increasing machine intelligence? This needs to be ‘front-of-mind’ for innovators of innovation.
    9. Resource volatility (minds, muscles, materials) – Increasing volatility in the natural world, in the human exploitation of resources, in intellectual capital, in political and economic institutions, indeed in virtually every aspect of the man-made and natural environment, is affecting how we innovate and what we have available to create our artifacts.

These driving forces behind the evolution of innovation result in simultaneous virtuous and vicious cycles of ever increasing VUCA-ness and the means to deal with it to create value. Applying a future mindset to this new world, and predicting where the future of innovation will be, gives us a way to be prepared for the future VUCA world.

What these forces foretell about the future of innovation will be explored in  future state scenarios on artifacts, organizations and people.

[i]  A term coined by the military in the late 1990s to represent the environment they were increasingly experiencing (and expected to increase in the future) in which they needed to make decisions and solve problems.

[ii] Arthur, W. Brian; The Nature of Technology; Free Press; Reprint edition (January 11, 2011)