We live in an uncertain world

Laurent Corneille looks at the history of uncertainty for TJ.

Reading time: 6 minutes.

‘We live in an uncertain world’; a cliché that is the opening gambit of many a leadership conference the world over. It is a remark that is as true as it is unhelpful. Indeed, fear sells, and there is nothing more dreadful to leaders who must navigate these choppy waters, than uncertainty.

But the world has always been an uncertain place. Every generation has had to face shifting social and geopolitical tectonics. Take the 60s in the US, Europe and the Soviet Union, with their anti-war movements, civil unrest and threat of a nuclear holocaust.

In Africa, many nations were still grappling with post-colonial rule. China was in the middle of its Cultural Revolution which would ultimately cause the death of millions through starvation, execution and persecution.

Further back, an untold number died during the two World Wars which also destroyed empires and laid the vectoral foundations for the spread of the Spanish Flu, killing an estimated 50m more. Indeed, one could stretch back to our history as foragers and still point to existential uncertainty.

Yet, ‘We live in an uncertain world’ should not be left to waft over a sagely nodding audience at a leadership conference.

The world has always been an uncertain place. Every generation has had to face shifting social and geopolitical tectonics.

It is only by adding a conjunction to the sentence that it becomes relevant: we live in an uncertain world because of the speed of change that is occurring to all of us on the planet, at the same time, and it is within this relentless dynamic environment that leaders must decide whether to jump into the accelerating jetstream or snorkel in the shallow waters of irrelevance. 

In their book No Ordinary Disruption R. Dobbs, J. Manyika and J. Woetzel postulate that humanity is at the confluence of four colossal tributaries of change, each crashing into the other in complex and chaotic ways while mankind sits atop guided by Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. These amplifying ‘disruptive forces’ are: urbanisation; technology; an ageing global population and connections.

At first blush, it would be easy to dismiss such work as the latest in a long line of books about globalisation, not dissimilar to Thomas Friedman’s excellent The World is Flat, so allow me to spare you the price of the book, for here is the spoiler: the world is changing quickly. Very quickly indeed. Much more quickly than ever before and understanding this will make you a better leader.

Let us focus on technology for the sake of this article. The Eisenhowerian fireside image of the leader who can barely use a USB stick is fast losing its appeal. Warren Buffet may get away with it, but few others do.

Harry Redknapp, the ridiculed ex-Premier League football manager told police who were investigating allegations of fraud in 2012, that he didn’t know how to work a computer or send text messages from a mobile phone, and stared vacantly into the bottom of a cup of tea when asked what an email was.

One could argue that this trinity of ignorance contributed to the death of his career and the rise of his brand as an anachronistic leader, weighed down by outmoded ideas in a world of advancing sports science and continually evolving tactics.


Observe Hillary Clinton and her election team who cited a lack of understanding of how emails were classified for an imbroglio which arguably ruined her shot at the presidency of the United States. Trust is eroded if mistakes appear deliberate. Pleading technological ignorance in a world that requires technology to function is no longer an excuse.

But why is the world changing so quickly and why can we not just carry on as we did before? To answer this question, let us call the author, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil onto the scene; a man who famously coined the phrase ‘Law of Accelerating Returns’ in his 2001 essay of the same title.

In it, he postulates that technological change is exponential, and to further boggle the mind, “there’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth”.

To fully appreciate what this means, imagine walking down a road where each step is measured as one metre. By taking two steps down this road, you travel two metres; the third step takes you three meters along; the fourth four meters along, and so on… this is an obvious statement and follows what is termed a linear process.

Now let us imagine a non-linear (or exponential process), in which each step carries you twice as far as the previous one. In this universe, the first step takes you one metre down the road from where you started, the second step moves you two metres from the starting point, but the third step takes you four metres along and the fourth, eight metres. By the twelvth step, you would reach over two kilometres.

This somewhat convoluted example illustrates how non-linear processes induce a rapid divergence from their initial conditions and is one of the cornerstones of the study of emergence and complexity. Replacing the above example of steps along a road with say, the miniaturisation of technology, explains why change is occurring so quickly.

Indeed, Moore’s Law, an observation made in 1965 by Gordon Moore of Intel, asserted just that: the number of transistors on an integrated circuit should double every two years – or in other words – computer processing power becomes twice as powerful as the previous generation, every 750 days or so.

To further put this into perspective, The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC), that helped guide man to the moon in 1969 (yes, man really did land on the moon), had less computing power than today’s modern toaster.

And herein lies the main issue. Humans are not very good at predicting what exponential change looks like because it is by its very nature, unpredictable.

This notion is particularly poignant to those of us old enough to remember the Y2K Bug, unwittingly introduced by early computer programmers. Back then, memory was extremely expensive – so expensive in fact, that dates were encoded as six digits (MM/DD/YY) to save space on the tape/disc.

What hadn’t occurred to those programmers was that once we reached the end of the millennium, the counter on the YY portion of the date format would reset to 00 (2000). As the world of computer programming evolved exponentially, few people predicted that the same code written in the 60s and 70s would still underpin many of the operating systems in use decades later.

A handful of specialists sounded the alarm during the intervening years, but little notice was taken and only after a desperate push by various global governments in 1999, was a catastrophic series of events averted, events that could have affected the systems that operate nuclear power stations, hospitals and lifts – to name but three.

Some outlying incidents did occur, however. In a particularly harrowing story from a Sheffield Hospital in 2001, the Y2K Bug was blamed for sending incorrect Down Syndrome results to 154 pregnant women. Two terminations were mistakenly administered and four babies with Down Syndrome were born to women who had been categorised as low risk. 

Which programmer in the 60s could have predicted that a space saving trick would lead to global hysteria and life changing events at the turn of the millennium?

This piece concludes in two weeks’ time.


About the author

Laurent Corneille is head of innovation at IDG.


Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *