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Navigating Complexity — Where does the journey lead? part I

The following series of brief articles addresses the question: “How can we be sustainably successful in the VUCA world? It is about orien­tation in an environment that is incre­a­singly charac­te­rized by volatility, uncer­tainty, complexity and ambiguity. The article series is based on a keynote lecture given at the VDI Annual Confe­rence on Injection Molding in Baden-Baden on February 20, 2018.

By Dr. Friedhelm Böttcher and Dr. Karl-Michael Schumann

What does VUCA mean? A brief overview to begin with

We live in a “VUCA world” — a term that was coined a few years ago by strate­gists of the American military. VUCA stands for “Volatility”, “Uncer­tainty”, “Complexity” and “Ambiguity”. Digitiz­ation is the most important driving force behind this develo­pment. In order to be successful in the VUCA — World, efficiency and organic growth are no longer suffi­cient as defining success factors. Instead, companies need new strategies and procedure models, innovative navigation systems, agile struc­tures and new forms of coöpe­ration within business ecosy­stems.

A new dynamism of change

The NATURE of change processes in the VUCA world differs signi­fi­cantly from previous changes. They are faster, more dynamic, more contra­dictory and have more dramatic effects. The reasons for this are complex. Globa­liz­ation must certainly first be mentioned here. Of greater importance, however, is digitiz­ation, which drama­ti­cally increases the speed of knowledge generation and closely links infor­mation and knowledge flows. It is the driver and expression of a trans­for­mation, dynamiz­ation and poten­tiation that is changing all areas of life to a previously unknown extent [1]:

  • Total and global inter­con­nec­tedness. Nearly all objects of the real world will have merged as part of a compre­hensive infor­mation and commu­ni­cation system in a real and virtual world. The inter­action of the system’s components is no longer part of a fixed environment or appli­cation, but designed for a sponta­neous connection of networks. At the center of the commu­ni­cation between the device and its appli­cation is the ubiquitous availa­bility of the services, and not the device itself.
  • Artificial intel­li­gence. “Artificial intel­li­gence [will]…be ubiquitous, as electricity was 100 years ago. It is embedded in all things surrounding us, and it will completely change the way these things function [and how we interact with them]. There are many forms of intel­li­gence that, in their entirety, will open up totally new poten­tials and oppor­tu­nities, but it will also greatly accelerate the emergence and proli­fe­ration of disrup­tions [2]. Intel­ligent, agile machines in the form of autonomous, self-organizing humanoid robots, drones or autonomous transport systems will sustainably improve the efficiency, flexi­bility, robustness and trans­forma­bility of industrial production, and they will also very soon be used in many other areas of life and work [3,4].
  • New realities, new forms of presence and inter­ac­tions on the basis of virtual and augmented reality open up new worlds of experience, which accompany the overlapping of different realities. The question of what consti­tutes reality and how people construct their view of the world is becoming more and more important. In this context, the discussion about “fake news” must be inter­preted as the first weak signal. Already today or in the near future, the user can use among others: Microsoft’s HoloLens to virtually fade-in objects directly into the environment using glasses with a trans­parent display and thus, for example, to test the ergonomics of fittings; Google’s Tango to virtually fit furniture into a real room via an app and order ensembles online right away; Apple’s AR-Kit with a camera, as it is already available in the iPhones, to create 3D images of the surroun­dings in order to recognize free areas on the floor and on Tables, and to place digital objects there.
  • Sharing and parti­ci­pating. Many of the new, successful business ideas such as Uber and AirBnB primarily offer access to a service that involves the use of functions when needed, and not the ownership of things [5]. However, to this develo­pment, known as “sharing”, there is about more than that. Sharing enables and promotes exchange and coöpe­ration, which generates new potential. It includes things, ideas, emotions, money, time, well being, and everything else that can be shared privately and commer­cially.

While automation (in the future reinforced by artificial intel­li­gence / AI) may exclude people from many work processes, the desire for and the oppor­tu­nities of personal creativity and design of the individual’s environment through sharing and parti­ci­pation are incre­asing [6]. Thereby we can recognize various charac­te­ri­stics, such as

  • The need to overcome restric­tions in high-tech products. Users intervene in the develo­pment processes or become part of them as prosumers.
  • The emergence of digital currencies outside tradi­tional economies.
  • Indepen­dence in the production of food (Urban Gardening Movement).
  • Indepen­dence in energy supply through the use of renewable energies.

It can be assumed that those companies will be most successful in future that support, simplify and expand the processes of “sharing” in the broad sense [7].

  • Attracting attention. In a world where 8 million new songs, 2 million new books, 16,000 new films, 30 million blog posts, 182 billion tweets and 400,000 new products come into the world every year, attention is an incre­a­singly rare resource [8]. More than ever, people must make choices in the infinite world of knowledge to create their own island of personal compe­tences and skills, experi­ences, interests and inter­pre­ta­tions. This will succeed only in exchange with others, inter alia by evalua­tions and comments via the net. These provide orien­tation and create trust as a basis for one’s own judgement and actions. So the central question for companies is: how do our customers choose, how do they decide and how do we manage to draw attention to our own offerings?
  • The impos­sible and the unexpected. Digitiz­ation is shifting borders and creating new spaces of experience, with the result that the meaning of “impos­sible” is becoming more and more relative. “Moonshot Projects” today address challenges to radically break down seemingly existing limita­tions. Examples are Space X, Hyperloop, driverless cars or the construction of perma­nently inhabited settle­ments on Mars. In his book “The Inevi­table — Under­standing The 12 Techno­lo­gical Forces That Will Shape Our Future”, Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine, summa­rizes this with the sugge­stion that we should never say “impos­sible” but rather “let’s see” [9].

We are living right now in a world that is changing more than it would ever have been possible to predict. What next? What must be done? How should we act? What are the next steps? Is a “Let’s see” god enough for us? In the next brief article of this series (next week on we want to spark a (possibly even contro­versial) discussion about the potential conse­quences of our actions. We look forward to your sugge­stions. Stay tuned.

Photo credits: cybrain

List of Sources

[1] Kelly,K (2016).: „The Inevi­table: Under­standing the 12 Techno­lo­gical Forces That Will Shape Our Future“, Penguin, New York 2016

[2] Kelly (2016), p.42 – 50

[3] Frost & Sullivan (May 2015): ”Top Techno­logies in Advanced Manufac­turing and Automation (Technical Insights)”, D676-TI

[4] Frost & Sullivan (May 2015):”Top Techno­logies in Sensors & Control (Technical Insights)”, D675-TI

[5] Kelly (2016), p.146ff


[7] Kelly (2016), p.136

[8] Kelly (2016), p. 165f

[9] Kelly (2016), p. 269ff