Beyond grand theories

There is no one grand theory of the future. Lynda Gratton contemplates three trends from 2016’s World Economic Forum


1. The rise of the scientists

The dominant Davos talk last year was of the Greek crisis and the possible breakup of the Euro – this was a time when politicians and bankers were center stage as they were called into action to solve the crisis of the moment. This year, whilst bankers and politicians were still around, at center stage were artificial intelligence (AI) scientists, robotic experts, neuroscientists, medical researchers and authorities on the science of climate change. The questions they debated are just as challenging as the economic questions of 2015, though less likely to be resolved any time soon. Questions like: “What will be the impact of AI and machine learning on jobs? How are humans different from the robots already present at the forum? When will we understand the human brain? Will a cure for Alzheimer’s be found in our lifetime? What role can science play in mitigating climate change?” It seems to me that we should forget the rise of the robot theory – what we are watching is the rise of scientists.

2. Questioning the status quo

What caught my attention were not grand theories – more, the questions being asked, and the small experiments being described. Here are three I’m still pondering. 

  • First, a question from Tharman Shanmugaratnam the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore in a session I ran on the skills gap: “Why aren’t education institutions measured on their outputs – for example their ability to create productive skills and knowledge?” He is right, why aren’t they? 
  • Next, an experiment described by Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the Japanese Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare, in which tax breaks are being created in families where three generations are living together. That’s an interesting experiment in a country where the isolation of older people is a national challenge. 
  • Or the question posed by Thomas DeRosa the CEO of Welltower, USA: “We have ‘bring your babies to work’ initiatives – why not ‘bring your ageing mother to work’?” Hmm – why don’t we bring our ageing mothers to work?

3. The individualised future

I’ve been thinking and writing about the future for a decade now. But what is really beginning to strike me is that there are no ‘grand theories’. The forces that are shaping our future – be they the forces of technology, demography or resources – are playing out very differently across the regions of the world and are impacting areas and communities in unique ways. There is no one grand theory of the future – instead there will be multiple futures. What that means is that shaping positive futures will come from the experimentation and social change that individuals, families, communities and cities embark on as they try to navigate their own way through this highly volatile environment.

Experiments and questions like these will increasingly shape global conversations taking place in groups like the World Economic Forum – and as they keep changing, so too will our future.

Comments (3)

Ali Baba 6 years, 11 months and 24 days ago

The second point is well illustrated in Robert De Niro's latest film, the intern, where a retired widower goes back into the workforce, and why not indeed? I for one abhor the thought of idle retirement, as I get older I enjoy my work environment more and more. Younger people haven't necessarily lost respect for their seniors, it's just that most older people tend to cut themselves off from new trends. My advice is that people shouldn't write themselves off, barring ill health, from the world around them and get with the trend as they get older. I love my 87 year old mum who is a gadget freak, still drives and keeps up with the times, precisely because of that.

Ali Baba 6 years, 11 months and 24 days ago

In your second point you look at three questions. The first has something to do with the fact that most academics hate teaching and so the Ivory Tower has become a self serving publishing house of ideas without too much effort at implementation. The results of any institution should be primarly the education the students receive as they go out into the real world.

Ali Baba 6 years, 11 months and 24 days ago

The future is difficult to predict, but if you look at someone like Elon Musk you can see that the future can be created. It is often scientists who stand at the forefront of creation so that supports your first point. The problem arises when the new creation opens a pandora's box like the A bomb. Today's scientists need to be schooled in responsiblity so they can more accurately perceive the full repercussions of their work. Similarly, in today's increasingly technically driven environment policy makers need to be better at science, thus assuring more intelligent and long term decisions are made. In my opinion it all boils down to creating a future rather than a wait and see attitude that leads to knee jerk reactions and quick fixes.