How to design a positive future in the Never Normal

For the past months, and even years, it keeps striking me how an increasing number of people suffers from what the brilliant American futurist Alvin Toffler used to call “future shock”.

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For those of you who don’t know the concept, it is the “physical and psychological distress suffered by one who is unable to cope with the rapidity of social and technological changes”. That’s actually just a complicated way of saying that a lot of us feel completely overwhelmed by all the constant change, uncertainty and technological, social, geopolitical and other challenges surrounding us. And that this often culminates in a very gloomy perspective about what’s still to come.

The result is some kind of weird dichotomy: between those of us who are really excited about the potential of this Never Normal and then the others who are uncomfortable, anxious and would love to return to the Old Pre-pandemic Normal. Russian-born American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov rightfully claimed that "at odd and unpredictable times, we cling in fright to the past", and that is exactly what the second group is doing.


Personally, I don't think we can ever go back. That’s why I’m really fascinated by the economic concept of hysteresis: an event that persists into the future, even after the factors that led to that event have been removed. Just like that, the pandemic may be (mostly) over, but we have also moved across a line that has now become an uncrossable barrier.

I also believe that the challenges of our current situation go far beyond the consequences of the pandemic. The latter was just a blip, really, and I love the framing of ecological futurist Alex Steffen, with his term transapocalyptic. What he means by that is that we are currently not experiencing the end of the world but that it is the end of the world as we know it. And that ending is not a moment but a cycle, repeating itself over and over again. Our new reality is a constantly changing world. A Never Normal.

So how do we make sense of that? How can we learn to deal with such an unpredictable future?

War and peace and war again

Well, complexity scientist Peter Turchin would probably say that the current turmoil and uncertainty is just part of the process.

Turchin works in the field of historical social science that he calls Cliodynamics, an area of research that lies at the intersection of mathematical modeling, sociology, economics and history. Basically, what he does is using statistical modeling to predict long term futures of large groups. And his conclusion from studying and analyzing every large movement of humans in history is pretty depressing, if you ask me: empires are bound to rise and fall and rise and fall in some sort of elegant and unending but pretty predictable dance. He wrote the book “War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires” about this idea and I have to admit that I find that premise truly horrible.

Now don’t get me wrong: as an engineer and a full-time nerd, I love mathematics. I love how we can use this pure, abstract and universal language to make sense of the world around us and to construct meaning or even predict. But surely, there must be more to life than just interpreting the future along the lines of “what goes up must come down”.

As a born and bred optimist, I refuse to believe that. I want to understand what we can expect from the future and then nurture a positive outcome. How can we take all the data and all the signals that we have and turn those into positive foresight without being burdened and blocked by uncertainty gloom bias or depressing Turchin-like theories?

Optimistic realism

Optimism does not mean that we shouldn’t be realistic, though. In fact, I have to admit that I have been grossly underwhelmed by this current 21st century. We’ve been at it for about 20 years, and so far only 4 significant things have happened:

  • Digital became Normal
  • China woke up again
  • Greed temporarily collapsed in 2008
  • And finally we had a virus stop the world in 2020 

It is definitely not what I expected growing up, thinking that we'd have lunar colonies by now. Actually, all we have is a flag and maybe the hope of going back one day. I was really expecting that we would control the weather by now. But the weather just seems out of control. I thought we would have underwater cities. But we just have underwater dumps. I really believed we would have an energy revolution, but all I have is a charging nightmare. So yes, I am a little disappointed to say the least.

But I also keep wondering about what’s to come next. If the social revolution gave us the concept of “the state” and the industrial revolution gave us “the firm”, what will be the outcome of the current technological revolution? What will be the impact on a generation that has never known tech not to exist? How will this transform the lives of everyone and not just a happy few?

Rethinking how we think

To answer these questions, it’s crucial that we learn how to think about the future in an intelligent but also more hopeful and positive way. In a way that surpasses our current gloom, analysis paralysis and learned helplessness. But the art and science of problem solving is changing as we are evolving as a society and as humankind. The complexity of options and schemes is exploding exponentially. So we also have to rethink the way we think.

And that's probably the biggest learning that we can have today: learning how to learn differently, how to listen differently, how to see differently and how to connect the dots differently.

A negative force

The really sad part about some of these fundamental mechanisms to unlock our Day After Tomorrow is this: when mankind makes giant leaps, these are almost always preceded by massive, violent and negative forces like natural catastrophes, wars or other human calamities which act as a fundamental breakthrough.

Much of the technological swag that we now enjoy and take as the New Normal, for instance, has its roots in the intense global polarization of the second half of last century. I grew up in a Europe that was deeply divided between two completely different operating systems and where space was the ultimate intellectual battling ground. The Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957 was the ultimate wake up call for the rest of the world and the US in particular. The latter vowed never to be humiliated like that again technologically. It introduced the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which in many ways is still the beating heart of Silicon valley. DARPA gave us the internet. It gave us the GPS and the driverless car. It took a massive trauma, but it triggered some of the most interesting and world changing technologies we have today.

My main hope is that we can break that vicious “war and peace and war again” cycle and that gloomy fear of the future. That, together, we will strive to make fundamental change happen without automatically jumping to the dark side of innovation, where technology is used as a means of control instead of empowerment.

Positive cycles

But how? How do we abandon war and peace and war cycles? How do we go beyond leveraging technology for more control? And how do we reinforce a cycle where technology changes society and economy for the better which then again changes technology for the better in the next cycle? And so on and on. I really want to abandon the idea that we can't do anything about our current challenges. There is so much learned helplessness around, nurturing the belief that we can't make a difference. But I believe we can.

We can make a dent in our universe.

But for that, we need to get everyone on board, with the belief that we can build a better future. Because we won’ be able do this alone. We need to act together, collectively. And turn our default “Me” operation mode into one that reflects the “We”. But it’s also about trust. We have to trust in our abilities to build a better future, without these violent forces - war and other disasters - that have traditionally enabled the most amazing of leaps and bounds.

I love how Rachel Botsman defines trust as “a confident relationship with the unknown”. It means that it is encoded in our DNA to try things out, to take risks, to make mistakes and to learn from unexpected outcomes. So let’s redefine our “relationship with the unknown” together and with trust, hope and the belief that we will finally be able to build that positive feedback loop for humanity as a whole.