Now is the time to design our 'new normal'
In periods of major uncertainty, do you really want to wait around for an unpredictable reality to emerge?
Imagine a homogeneous world, characterised by predictability in all spheres of life; by the sound knowledge that just like yesterday, night follows day.
Alas, such a world does not exist – at least, not forever. New information and technologies upset long-term predictability because they change the context. Emerging resources will always replace an existing one (like oil for coal) just as technologies evolve, like film giving way to digital photography.
In those instances, "business as usual" is replaced by a new normal.
Between these two ends lies the transitional phase of turmoil, uncertainty and change. Like it or not, we are constantly grappling with change.
Why is this relevant now?
The virus has created a sense of urgency – a need to make sense of the present and to think about the future. Nearly six months into this pandemic, it is hard to overstate how the context has changed. Our concept of business as usual has changed significantly since the end of 2019. The future has become far less certain.
Bill Sharpe, a futurist, developed a simple but insightful model to help identify and deal with change. Called the Three Horizons Model, it encourages us to act intentionally to bring about a specific future when there is major uncertainty.
Think of this model as three sequential peaks, each giving way to the next.
Like it or not, this is the situation: January 2020 was the peak of the first horizon. As the epidemic has progressed, it has become gradually clearer that much of the world is heading towards a transition phase and the first horizon is on life support, eventually coming to an end.
Transition is the second horizon, characterised by a surge in entrepreneurship to realise a more visionary future, known as the third horizon. Unexpectedly, this approach offers real opportunity.
"Transition" is a mild word for the current stage; "radical change", "evolution" or even "upheaval" may be more to the point. For some individuals and countries, this stage is the prelude to a forced return towards the previous business as usual – back to 2019. Yet it might be dangerous to hope for the best and continue on a slightly amended business as usual for 2020 or 2021.
As global economies have suffered due to the spread for the coronavirus, hope has emerged of greener, fairer and more sustainable economies. These ideas were the first signals of a visionary third horizon as a potential replacement of the collapsing first horizon. Entrepreneurial risk-taking and thinking-and-acting will become increasingly commonplace during this second horizon. This should be encouraged and supported because returning to the first horizon means, at best, returning to a declining future.
The future of the third horizon is uncertain, but it can be shaped. We can make that future what we want it to be and it should be visionary, like it was back when environmental benefits were observed during the lockdowns.
This is an area where Dubai excels and can lead the world. "Vision" is Dubai and the UAE’s bread and butter. Over the decades, Dubai and the UAE have reinvented themselves into an oil-producing powerhouse and a global destination of luxury travel.
This is the stuff of life: change is inevitable and we do not live in a homogeneous world
They achieved this in the space of 50 years. So, what will the third horizon entail for Dubai? The specifics are hard to predict, but the outlines, which the Dubai Future Foundation has explored with over 250 experts, are clear: a greener economy, based on digital technologies and added value will likely be at the core. Some of the existing big infrastructures will be adapted to new requirements, ports will likely become increasingly automated and investments in e-commerce businesses will grow.
As the world has become interconnected and competition is global, Dubai will need to find ways to become first choice for second-horizon entrepreneurs. Embracing the second horizon and defining the third horizon will be Dubai’s next chapter and will once again set the city on a trajectory toward the future.
This is the stuff of life: change is inevitable and we do not live in a homogeneous world. Being, as we are right now, in the early stages of the second horizon, we can either look back in the hope to resuscitate the old, or look forward and empower the new.
In theory, it really is that simple. In practice, as agents of the second horizon, there is much work ahead.
Dr Patrick Noack is the executive director of future, foresight and imagination at the Dubai Future Foundation
Updated: September 7, 2020 02:46 PM