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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 cooperation 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 cooperation, 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