Future Operating Environment

Digital Adaptation / Human Transformation

By Anders Sorman-Nilsson June 22, 2021

Anders Sorman-Nilsson is a futurist and the keynote speaker at The Cove's Future Technologies of War Conference on 23 June which can be viewed on Cove Talk and Facebook Live.

Change doesn’t care whether we like it or not. It will always happen without our permission. And sadly, if the rate of external change trumps the rate of internal curiosity, agility and innovation, we will eventually find ourselves lagging behind the competition - both old and new. Accelerated by the pandemic, the rate of technological change in our era - the 4th Industrial Revolution - has never been this fast and will never be this slow again, yet the question is whether our strategic mindsets are keeping pace. 

Back in 2013, the then secretary of US defence, Leon Panetta suggested that the battle lines of warfare had changed from linear to exponentially digital, and proposed a new medal for ‘Distinguished Warfare’ which was meant as a measure of respect for, “extraordinary achievements that directly impact on combat operations, but that do not involve acts of valor or physical risk that combat entails”. This was meant to recognise that drone pilots and cyber operators play an increasingly critical role in our novel threat environment - one that bridges the analogue and digital worlds. Two months later, the idea was discarded as veteran groups - steeped in the tradition of analogue, physical battle - struggled with the concept and the precedence the proposed medal would receive.

In more recent 4th Industrial Revolution history, where cyber-physical systems have enabled seamless interconnectivity, we have witnessed the first war won by drones (Nagorno-Karabakh), cyber-enabled ransomware attacks on critical infrastructure, digital wolf warrior propaganda, the ability of AI-driven deep fakes to deepen information wars, and arguably the emergence of a Cyber Cold War - between both state and non-state players wielding disproportionate digital power. In a world of the 'Internet of Things' - everything that can be connected will become connected - which means that everything can potentially be hacked or manipulated. The future is certainly not what it used to be. Alvin Toffler, author of the seminal futurist work Future Shock once said that, "the illiterate of the 21st century are not those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. Never before has it been more important to think differently, to scan the external environment, to challenge our assumptions, and continuously adapt to - or even better - lead innovative developments. The futurist STEEP Trend Analysis framework (Socio-Cultural, Technological, Economic, Environmental, Political) is a strategic awareness tool for identifying drivers of change which are likely to have a big impact on our futures, and for catalysing thinking about the actions we may need to take to counter future shock - before it arrives. 

The role of futurists is not to predict one particular future scenario, but to help prepare for multiple future scenarios - both utopias and dystopias. Scenario Planning and simulating disruptions on the horizon has its roots in the stoic philosophers. As one of the stoic forefathers, Seneca put it, "To reduce your worry, you must assume that what you fear may happen is certainly going to happen." The stoics proposed that we take time out to practice worst-case scenarios, and a good stoic ideally should engage in the daily rhythm of praemeditatio - imagining all the horrible things that could go wrong. These types of thought experiments engage our imagination and our creative minds - not dissimilar to how white hat hackers deploy their skills and creativity to highlight defensive flaws in computer systems by breaking into them. It is always better to do a pre-mortem than a post-mortem, because the former affords us a chance to influence a better outcome, than to lament a project that went awry. 

While we sometimes criticise failed consumer products like the Google Glass - in retrospect - for being ‘science fiction’, the science fiction is now informing science fact in the emergence of cyborg-like exoskeletons and augmenting ‘the human in the loop’ to make smarter decisions in real time. Digital data is impacting analogue outcomes in the physical world as biological, physical and digital systems converge - enabling humans in civil society to become cyborgs courtesy of consumer product implantables like the EarPods. This means that both our human brawn and brains will be impacted. Just like robots and machines are doing more of the heavy lifting, artificial intelligence also means that humans no longer have a monopoly on intelligence. While this development comes with fears of the weaponisation of AI, it also means that the future of leading Human Resources is also about the future of managing 'Artificial Resources'. Both have the potential to augment and help diversify our teams’ cognitive portfolios and innovation outputs. Research shows that organisations who are more diverse have greater economic output from new innovations than teams who are homogenous. Culturally and managerially this means we have to upgrade the way we think about the leaders of the future. People (or AI) who are cognitively different and divergent from you - the Devil’s Advocate if you wish - through the process of creative abrasion - are more likely to help you catalyse new innovations, hack the game and win against the competition - both in the digital and analogue worlds. We can augment our troops by investing in both technology, but also importantly, in different, divergent human intelligence. Tools like the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument can help you map the cognitive diversity of your talent to ensure you optimise your return on thinking.

Every business model is now getting digitally hacked by creative, proactive, digitally-enabled hackers. Some of these are black hat hackers who work for our adversaries. Others are stoically hacked by talented digital warriors who live up to the Greek taxonomy of virtue, which divided virtue into four main types: wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Interestingly, wisdom is subdivided into good sense, good calculation, quick-wittedness, discretion, and resourcefulness - something which is increasingly enabled by digital data and visualisation - but is fundamentally human at its core. The battle lines have moved from analogue, physical linear battle space to an interconnected, entangled Digilogue field of endeavour, and our leaders and heroes of the future will certainly be those who have been able to continuously ‘learn, unlearn, and relearn’. Change after all is all about learning and applying lessons - sometimes from futuristic thought experiments - inspired by ancient Greek wisdoms.  



Anders Sorman-Nilsson

Anders Sörman-Nilsson (Global EMBA / LLB) is a futurist and the founder of the think tank and trend analysis firm - Thinque, which provides data-based research, foresight and thought leadership assets for global brands across four continents. The company's vision is to disseminate and decode ‘avant-garde ideas which expand minds and inspire a change of heart’, and clients like Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, McKinsey, Jaguar Land Rover, Adobe, MINI, Rugby New Zealand and Lego trust his future guidance. He has published three books on digital transformation and innovation including ‘Aftershock’ (2020), ‘Seamless’ (2017) and ‘Digilogue’ (2013), is a member of TEDGlobal and the Entrepreneurs Organisation, and was nominated to the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders in 2019. He is the author of the 2020 Microsoft & Thinque whitepaper "How Artificial Intelligence is powering Australian Retail in 2020 and beyond", the co-creator of the Adobe Creative (CQ) Intelligence test, and is the host of the 2nd Renaissance Podcast. His futurist thinking has been shared by the Wall Street Journal, Financial Review, Monocle, BBC, Esquire and ABC TV.

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