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What makes the digital future obscure?





by Ashwin Rajan

"The future ain't what it used to be." - Yogi Berra

One of the cornerstone principles I repeat when facilitating my Behaviour Design Workshops is: 'Get Away from Linearity'. It is because I am convinced that linear thinking is simply outclassed by the new ways of operating available in our emerging digitally connected world.

Although a lot of social change in the digital era is driven by exponential digital technology acceleration, it is not technology itself that makes such change happen. Changing social attitudes, motivations and deep seated human desires and needs leverage new technological means to find expression and use. This results in what are called Discontinuities.

Behavioural Discontinuity

Discontinuities are technosocial phenomena that disrupt the flow of business and life as usual. And while the development of a technological innovation (self-driving cars) may be relatively rapid, it is the underlying behavioural shift (from owned to shared transportation) that actually brings the revolution self-driving car home.

Every technological disruption must be accompanied by a behavioural one for there to be a fundamental shift in society.

The future is not just an emerging world of objects and technologies; it is a world in which people behave in new and unfamiliar ways.

The fallacy of linear thinking is in seeing the future as a continuation of the present.

Much of such linear thinking is grounded in our popular technological ideology: as computing power and capacity increases, we'll do more and faster of the same things.

While this is obviously likely, it doesn't imply that there might be significant shifts in what new human behaviours may emerge by leveraging those technological advances. Further, it doesn't account for what people may reduce or stop doing altogether.

Bruce Sterling speaks of the three forces at play in such shifts: he calls them the means, the motives and the opportunities. I find this a very usable conceptual triad. Discontinuities are shaped by the interaction of technology (the means) with human responses to it (motives) and express themselves as markets when windows (of opportunities) open up.

Malcolm Gladwell has written about the two kinds of transformative social change, and this is a useful lens here too. The first are generational changes that happen slowly over the course of a generation. For example, a marked shift in the number of 30-somethings who don't have kids today, or don't yet own a single car as compared to their parents. Many of these 30-somethings have also possibly visited more countries than their previous three generations combined. Such generational changes are driven by shifting attitudes and ideas, as well as environmental and social conditions. Developmental changes on the other hand occur as people age. Young people tend to have more time and less money, and it significantly impacts what they value as a resource base when compared to adults, who have the opposite (more money, less time) and therefore different resources at their disposal.

At Fabric, we are studying and developing a number of Behavioural Discontinuities which emerge from increasing global connectedness. Some of these are:

  • Feminity: (read related essay) 
  • Embodiment: the shift towards a new connection with the body and the unprecedented value given to physical experiences in the hyperconnected age.
  • Pooling: the increase in trust towards sharing resources driving brands, products and services to become facilitators.  
  • Unconventionality: the desire to distinguish oneself from others and to be unique.
  • Slack: the impulse toward optimal productivity, downshifting and an outlook of work-life balance. 

Piggybacking Effects

Most technosocial shifts, when they happen, seems to happen rapidly .. but they actually have been coming for a long time. Behavioural Discontinuities take time to develop. And so, while early product variants establishing a new category might have first-mover advantages, they actually clear the road for more compelling later entrants to come in and take advantage by cementing on emergent human behaviours. For example, Apple is by now clearly famous for being a wait-and-watch later entrant, as seen by its move into watches, or, into cars. Airbnb actually cemented really well on the behaviour of new host-guest interaction that Couchsurfing initially shaped. Couchsurfing cleared the way for AirBnb in that it made young and global millennials (a great entrant digital market, by the way) much more accepting of the idea of letting strangers sleep in their homes. As you see below, the value propositions of the two brands are still very similar although they have captured very, very different value from the market as a businesses!

Companies operating in a discontinuous digital world need to rethink their sources of competitive advantage while anticipating competition from unlikely places. Uber is moving into food, Apple into cars, Amazon into infrastructure and so on. I've written about how food delivery companies are actually in the business of delivering timeand how they might take advantage of this to explore new business.

Adjacent opportunities open up to companies that are able to harness Behavioural Discontinuities, rather than be caught off guard by them.

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