Guest Article: Adventures in an accelerated world

14 Dec,2012

By Shaleen Sharma


“The tragedy of the modern spirit consists in that it has solved the enigma of the universe only to replace it with the enigma of itself”. – Alexander Koyre, Newtonian Studies


In a recent piece in Newsweek, Lawrence Summers points to an interesting analogy. During the Industrial Revolution, the average living standards of a European rose by 50 percent in his lifetime (40 years was the average then).


In Asia, particularly China, as per Summers the average person’s standard of living has risen by 10,000 percent in his lifetime. They say that China is the “shop floor of the world” with a manufacturing base of close to 40 percent. In fact, in the Industrial heartland of China, there are places that have witnessed the same level of urbanization, social transformation and industrialization that Europe witnessed in two centuries.


Ray Kurzweil wrote in 1999, in the Age of Spiritual Machines how technological evolution will outpace and impact biological evolution. The thrust in his argument was more on artificial intelligence and technological leaps and how these would go on to spawn a technological singularity. Kurzweil posits that we are living in an accelerated continuum where the rate of change is galloping.


I believe the time has come for us to gain some depth and perspective on this. We need to understand and appreciate how human civilization is accelerating with all the wheels interconnected – Technology, Markets and of course Culture.


When Michael Lewis says that “Everything is co-related” in The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, it drives the point perfectly. And precisely so because the world is accelerating across all the dimensions of our lives, especially so in areas that were hitherto static or slow moving.


According to reports, boys and girls are maturing faster not just in terms of cognitive development but also in terms of their physiological markers (like the beginning of menstrual cycles and onset of puberty, etc).


The internet is abuzz with a report titled The Rise of Post-Familialism: Humanity’s Future?” written by Joel Kotkin, Anuradha Shroff, Ali Modarres and Wendell Cox.


Consider this, even a young country like Singapore is witnessing stunningly quick demographic and cultural shifts. Like most Asian societies, family used to be the basic unit. As we move towards 2013, the rate of marriage has plummeted. The country has some of the lowest fertility rates in the world.


In SEC A families all around the world, people are postponing marriages and having children. The irony is that there are more number of dogs than children in such families.


The practice of marketing and product planning has hardly been unaffected.


I was reminiscing with one of the product managers on how those days of product design when everything was thought upon for days on end before even the first prototype was built are well over.


Nowadays, the time-to-market counts as a competitive advantage in itself. In Chess, there is a particular style-of-play, what they refer to as “move first think later”. Modern marketers seem to have given it a new spin – “First do, then learn”.


Consider a company that has used “acceleration” to its advantage – Apple, a company that was just 90 days away from Chapter 11, has become one of the most valued stocks in the last two years.


They understood the direction and momentum of personal technology better than most. For all practical purposes, they are a phone company now with the i-phone contributing close to 50% of their revenues and are trying to do a similar thing with their tablets now.


Nokia, on the other hand is becoming a case study. Nokia had such a head start in their business controlling more than 50 percent of the market in their business.


A couple of strategic missteps and the situation got compounded with the fierce rate of change in their category. According to the latest results in the growing Smartphone segment (read the future of mobility) Nokia has sunk from third place to the seventh, in just one quarter.


Where are the trend-casters and crystal-ball gazers going wrong? May be, they are watching trends closely enough but not in the way those trends interact with each other. Or maybe we just need to watch how technology, societies and cultures interact to spin new directions, new dimensions.


Shaleen Sharma is Partner, National Planning & Strategic Initiatives, RK Swamy Hansa Group, New Delhi


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