In his famous 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Thomas Kuhn outlined how changes in orthodoxies occur. Popularizing the term “paradigm shift,” Kuhn examined how dominant doctrines – broadly shared and agreed upon – are overthrown by new ideas first thought to be from the lunatic fringe but that, in turn, become the new orthodoxy.
Though he died in 1996, Kuhn’s ghost seems to be walking the streets of Davos this week. Orthodoxies that have been dominant for the lifetime of anyone reading this piece are being discussed, challenged and, in some cases, overthrown in the meeting rooms and restaurants of this famous Swiss village that becomes the capital of capital every year at this time.
Questioning the Unquestionable
The biggest orthodoxy under the spotlight is the very nature of capitalism itself. Questions are being asked by captains of industry as to the future of the economic system that runs the world – questions that this author has never seen these captains ask before. In public. On the record.
Questions such as:
- How do we create inclusive growth?
- How do we spread wealth more widely?
- How do we use technology as a force for good?
- How do we prevent the negative unintended consequences of good intentions from spiraling out of control?
These questions go to the very heart of the World Economic Forum’s commitment to “improving the state of the world.”
In a breakfast event hosted by The Wall Street Journal, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talked about the need for educational systems reform, which is paramount to helping young people develop the skills required to succeed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
At a dinner organized by Techonomy, executives from Ericsson, Accenture and Amazon (amongst others) extolled the benefits of 5G technologies but grew pensive when tough questions were asked about data privacy, surveillance and the growing digital divide that 5G could arguably accentuate.
At a lunch event that we sponsored with Reuters, optimism about the growth of artificial intelligence was muted by question after question about job destruction, human subservience (to machines) and the fate of those left behind by the march of technological progress.
Changing of the Guard
The paradigm, as Kuhn would put it, appears to be shifting – a paradigm that for 40 years has promulgated the primacy of shareholders, of capital, of globalization, of disruption, of technology, of “me,” of the new, of the young, of data, of openness, of moving fast and breaking things.
It is a brave person at Davos this year who simply argues – with blinkers on – the case for more of the above.
To some, this change in the weather is alarming. Those with a vested interest – or perhaps more appropriately for Davos, key performance indicators – in the continuation of business-as-usual see disruption as, well, disruptive. If they see it at all.
But to others, the changing paradigm is a moment of, and for, optimism.
Human Adaptability: A Major Differentiator
As I have written repeatedly, the most fundamental of human attributes is adaptability. Our ability to adapt – to changing environmental conditions, psychological conditions, tools, threats, opportunities – is what separates us from the lower animals and will continue to distinguish us ad infinitum from potentially higher “intelligences” (of the artificial variety).
The changing of the paradigm at the heart of Davos is another moment in which our human adaptability is coming to the fore by:
- Recognizing that “winner-take-all” markets don’t end well.
- Appreciating the value of privacy.
- Remembering that good fences make good neighbors.
- Reinvesting in the commons.
- Identifying pricing externalities.
- Understanding that efficiency is a means to a goal, not the goal.
While it would be easy to be pessimistic about the current state of the world, and even easier to be cynical about the people who attend Davos trying to fix it, the pragmatic optimists among us recognize that the most important work ahead is making the future work. This work needs to focus on creating the new rules of the new road – to put in place the metaphorical speed limits, stop signs, roundabouts, cat’s eyes, traffic lights – that will allow us to whizz along on the information superhighway, safely. These rules should encompass privacy, security, the ethical use of AI, distribution of wealth, economic access to health and education, governance. This will entail taking our incredible technological inventions of the recent past, and the ones of the near future, and harness them for utilitarian good.
Davos has become the world’s most important salon for those at the intersection of business, technology and politics through championing the positive, transformative power of innovation. The changing paradigm at this year’s event signals that sustaining this core mission requires a different perspective from ever before, a perspective that acknowledges that much has to change – that the paradigm is shifting for good reason.
Mission for the Future
Of course, as Kuhn repeatedly pointed out, paradigms often shift slowly. Copernicus’s views on heliocentrism were ridiculed for close to 200 years. Modern, Western, late-stage capitalism (the pejorative term many of its critics use) is still the dominant orthodoxy of our age. But paradigms do shift (your humble correspondent has lived through the 25-year emergence of cloud computing), and refusing to acknowledge as such is the tragic flaw at the heart of all stories of decline.
Davos 2019 is an event mirroring and catalyzing the incredible changes happening in our world today. A working future is the great challenge under discussion – the new paradigm we all must take a part in building.