How to build a super-resilient society
It’s not just businesses that face disruption as we leave the synthetic certainty of the industrial era. Societies too are having to adapt to the effects brought about by increased connectivity, mobility and global supply chains.
In this post, I will explore what adaptations a society must make if it is to attract and retain the best citizens. The term ‘best citizens’ might raise concerns that I am advocating a model that has eugenic undertones.
Unlike a business, a society cannot simply sack its worst economic performers. Any societal model must take this into account.
By best citizens, I mean those that deliver the most economic value. Such people will in turn attract the best employers, which in turn generates an infrastructure and citizen-experience uplift. An enhanced citizen-experience is likely in turn to attract tourists. The associated brand boost that goes with this positive cycle will further catalyse and lubricate this value cycle leading to that society becoming a talent super hub drawing the the most prestigious organisations. This is the foundation on which a super-resilient society is built. A quick test of whether your society has achieved this standard is whether Apple or Google have a large presence on your soil.
To understand what citizens want from a society, we need to understand how our brains have evolved and consequently are structured. Rick Hanson in his book, Resilient: 12 Tools for transforming everyday experiences into lasting happiness (Rider, 2018) distils our behaviours down to three fundamental needs, safety, satisfaction and connection.
In short, we have evolved from lizards and so part of our brain is optimised to focus on safety. As we evolved into mammals, our brains became more nuanced and satisfaction became a new goal. Satisfaction can be distilled down to things that give us a sense of pleasure, progress and purpose. Satisfaction comes from having our expectations met.
Over time some species found that their survival chances increased if they cooperated with each other. This led to an adaptation that we can see in many species including primates, which of course includes humans.
So for social animals like humans there is a deep desire for connection. Connection in part gives us a sense of safety, but more importantly it allows us to enjoy the benefits of operating as a team.
- Polar bears (asocial) – Have a 2% success rate when hunting for food
- Chimpanzee (social) – Can organise themselves as a group to raid a crop field under cover of darkness
- Human (social) – Build and operate the International Space Station.
We have developed smartphone technology that gives us access to all the world’s knowledge in just a few key-prods. That we use this incredible device to share what we had for lunch with complete strangers possibly suggests that we have hit peak social!
Looking at these three fundamental needs in turn:
Citizens will be more economically productive if they are not consuming cognitive bandwidth worrying about their safety. Threats to safety range from access to housing and food supply through to border control and defence. There is a strong correlation between a citizen’s sense of safety and the extent to which the citizens perceive their government to be managing those risks prudently. Unfortunately new risks are evolving and in unrecognisable forms.
In reality, governments are increasingly unable to shield their citizens from forces beyond their control, eg. natural disasters, natural resource shortages, collapsing global supply chains and trade wars.
Education will go a long way to helping citizens realise that they must take ownership of their lives. As and when required, citizens will need to adapt to the realities brought about by the forces bearing down on their society. Striking and civil unrest is not the solution. However in the absence of education, these are the only levers desperate people can pull.
AI-fuelled surveillance technologies will eventually be able to pre-empt and deter crime. But this will have a privacy invasion price tag. The extent to which citizens will relinquish their privacy will likely be roughly correlated to the extent to which they trust their societal leaders.
Ultimately, if the citizens do not trust their government, they will underperform cognitively and thus economically. Keep in mind that being social is a high bandwidth consuming cognitive activity. Insecure citizens spending their limited cognitive capacity fretting about their future will have little remaining to maintain some level of civility. Stressed citizens result in an asocial society. An asocial society will not attract the best talent and the best employers. Consequently, this breaks the virtuous value cycle on which a super-resilient society is built, and the decay sets in.
Assuming that our safety needs are met, we can then focus on quality of life. Again, satisfaction comes from having our expectations met. Capitalism in part works because the sellers have established how to raise our expectations in respect of what we should own and the experiences we should have. Such expectations raise the bar in respect of what satisfies us. These expectations require funding. So we have created a model that makes that possible. This mode is called a career. A career also provides satisfaction beyond the acquisition of goods and experiences. It gives us a sense of purpose, a path to mastery and possibly even upward social mobility.
The concept of a career requires the synthetic certainty of the industrial era to work in practice.
In many respects, we are entering a post-career society. This emerging gig economy is precarious in nature. In many respects, it threatens our financial security, but at the same time it offers us great potential freedom, particularly if we opt out of consumerism and keep our outgoings low. If you manage your professional life smartly, you may discover that the absence of a formal career structure could even boost your economic wellbeing, because you will be more attuned to what skills are valued. One might even say that career management is becoming a real-time pursuit.
Societies that can provide a gig economy infrastructure that closes the economic gap between rich and poor will become cognitive hotspots. It’s not that poor people have less cognitive capacity, it’s that their capacity is tied up in safety, rather than on work-related matters. Economic hopelessness ensures dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction is unhealthy for the individual and the society in which they are based.
Smart organisations will recognise this unsustainable consumption trend. Where they have made their money on luxury / unnecessary consumption, they will venture into areas that will appeal to a more frugal market. They can still do well financially if they use technology platforms to create the necessary scale to substitute their previously high margins with high volumes of lower margin offerings.
In any case, the industrial era model of high consumption is unsustainable, so smart organisations will adapt accordingly. A pro-environment stance will do their brand no harm as people become more aware of the folly of the industrial era model.
So having created a safe society, where people feel generally satisfied with their lives, the next factor to build into the societal fabric is connection. Building cities optimised for people, rather than cars would appear to be the way forward. The problem is that a lot of cities were built with the horse and cart / car in mind. More specifically, cities were built around the needs of commerce. Transportation infrastructure was designed to move raw materials, goods and people to and from the commercial centres. People needed somewhere to live so accommodation was built around the transportation channels.
Building social spaces into residential and commercial estates will help. As will reclaiming parks as places where people can engage safely. Providing technology infrastructure that enables citizens to actively engage in societal matters would give them a sense of control. This is surely preferable to the traditional ‘vote and regret’ model.
A more engaged community is likely to take a more tribal approach.
We are in fact wired to be tribal. Engaged tribe members are less likely to ignore corrupt behaviour. If you are a net consumer of the tribe’s resources, then you will be drummed out of the tribe. Back on the savanna, that would have been a death sentence. We are still wired to fear such expulsion, sociopaths and psychopaths excluded.
Reengineer your society to be genuinely social and you will likely find that it becomes self-policing. Also ensuring that there is a social safety net for those who are unable to work is important. However these people need to be integrated into the mainstream because it is likely that whilst they are unable to work, they still have some capability in respect to contributing to the wellbeing of society. Such integration would hopefully solve the emergence of ghettos and other forms of urban decay.
No societal leader knows what lies ahead. Therefore we must build super-resilient societies that will continue to thrive despite serious setbacks, eg. war, natural disasters or the exodus of one or more major employers.
This super-resilience, the ability to bounce back stronger, is already woven into the DNA of the citizens.
Anyone alive today has inherited the genes of people smart enough to stay alive long enough to reproduce, despite the uncertainty of their environments.
However these genes were deactivated by the synthetic certainty and clockwork society cultivated by the industrial era.
This post-industrial era might well be called the cognitive age because if we are to thrive in what is an increasingly uncertain and volatile environment, we need to keep our wits about us and adapt in accordance with the evolving conditions we find ourselves in.
Unsurprisingly, this requires a new style of leadership. What might be a little unsettling is that it also requires a new kind of citizen.