Making sense in a world full of uncertainties

Uncertainty is the only certainty there is.

John Allen Paulos, mathematician

If there is one word that describes the times we are in, it has to be ‘uncertainty’. Lots of it. We’ll all agree that what has happened in the recent past, especially the last two and half years, has injected an overdose of this ingredient into virtually all the dimensions of our increasingly uncertain times.

From the personal, to the business, to the environmental and the geopolitical dimensions. Everyone and everything is affected, one way or other. It’s a bit of a perfect storm, what the world is getting hit with right now.

The foremost issue that comes to mind is the phenomenon termed as ‘Climate Change’. The resulting global warming, with the consequential violent weather patterns, and the yet to be determined adverse impacts of these developments on the world’s inhabitants and our planet’s overall ecosystem, will all inevitably follow from this ‘Mother of All Issues’.

By way of illustration as to the gravity of the matter, just recently, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) had warned that the world has a 50 per cent chance of seeing warming of 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels in the next five years.

In the scale of things, five years is just a fraction of a moment. An increase of 1.5 degrees in a such a short span of time is unimaginable.  If true, we are in for a rude shock, a reawakening that would be violent and unpleasant, put mildly that is.

We are not ready for such drastic changes.  Almost on a daily basis we are faced with sudden, and often violent, changes in weather patterns.  Massive flooding, including flash floods have become the norm.  And even those who view the glass as half full will readily agree that efforts undertaken so far to combat the climate crisis, while significant in some respects, are just not near enough. It is truly and clearly a case of too little too late.

Shanghai Lujiazui, the financial centre of China, empty.

Next on the list, is possibly an adverse knock on effect or an inevitable consequence of global warming. To wit, what we have just recovered from – or only just to some extent – from the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the whole world, and the long term consequences of which are yet to be deciphered, let alone understood.

Other virus outbreaks have also happened in a regular pattern over the years, clearly linked to the changing weather patterns.  Mutations and new variants of the viruses that have emerged are being reported as we speak, and the true ending, if at all, of this ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, albeit presently categorised as being endemic, is simply put, uncertain at best.

The true impact of the pandemic has yet to be determined, let alone the lessons learnt and the truly effective steps to be taken to prevent a recurrence.  I saw a telling picture showing the heart of the business district in Shanghai just stark empty, with the streets bereft of cars and the usual traffic.

A few domesticated dogs were enjoying the peace and quiet on the street. What contrast, what sudden change.  A friend sent the photo to me. Timely and perfect for illustration purposes for this article and shared below.

The warnings about an impeding climate catastrophe included in the second and third segments of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) latest review of climate science, as mentioned earlier and were released on February 28 and April 4, 2022, respectively, went completely ignored amid the war in Ukraine and soaring energy costs.

In other words, our attention on the existential issue of our time has been distracted by so many other distractions and competing events and development. One massive storm being followed immediately by another massive wave of relentless fury.

As if we have not enough on our plates as yet, we are now witnessing the increasingly volatile and dangerous geopolitical conflicts on many fronts, some already ‘hot’ conflicts have been ongoing, whilst others are simmering like subterranean fires in a peat swamp forest that has been ignited at the height of a long drought.  And waiting for the right conditions to happen when the eruptions of instantaneous combustion will happen. 

Today, and still ongoing, is the Russia-Ukraine war which threatens to escalate into something even more ominous and dragging the whole world down the abyss. It’s not difficult to guess where the other potential hot spots in the making are located. We can ‘see’ the signs. No wonder, the ‘Clock to Midnight’ is ticking ever closer to the hour.

All these events, plus many more yet to be enumerated or being mentioned here, have served to amplify the earth shaking nature of the uncertainty that is besetting the whole world. It’s as if the globe is being shaken violently, and mercilessly by some hidden hands.  How did we inherit this bitter harvest and are being forced to imbibe such a horrid brew?  What is the ending of these ominous developments and fundamental shifts?

A metropolis sprouting in the desert, Doha

Uncertainty has become so all-encompassing that to fully capture the dimensions of the problem, new words and terminologies had been devised to portray the nature of the uncertainty, and we have heard of elaborate acronyms such as VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) and TUNA (turbulent, uncertain, novel, and ambiguous) which have somehow coalesced into the same time period in the very recent past.

In times of great uncertainty of a VUCA and TUNA world, like now, what, if anything, can we do?  How do we chart the way forward and what kinds of approaches can we take, or what strategies can we formulate? Obviously, it’s difficult to formulate strategies. Especially, in the new norms that we have found ourselves in, this VUCA and TUNA world.  

Our world leaders and so called experts cannot draw on experience to address these new developments, as no one has ever seen this kind of perfect storm happening before. Let alone having had the experience dealing with them. Yet, the decisions that our leaders make now will have serious ramifications for decades.

Decisions about life and death matters, actually.  How can we avoid a future that is so negatively unimaginable? And in the midst of a global perfect storm, a ‘Mother of All Perfect Storms’, answering the question has never felt more urgent. Is there any hope or light, at all on the horizon? Or at the end of the proverbial tunnel?

For example, on the phenomenon of global warming, the consequences of the anticipated temperature increase is just unimaginable, which we won’t need to describe in their gory details here. Even worst, the efforts to mitigate the effects is meagre and definitely not going to be effective. 

At both national and global levels, the urgency to do something about it has somehow picked up momentum.  So, it seems.  Focus is being made on the causes or triggers of global warming, namely the emission of greenhouse gases over the years that has reached a stage that is adversely affecting the whole world. 

In the case of Malaysia, the national aspiration towards realising net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 has been stipulated under the 12th Malaysia Plan.  It is very important that these efforts and more should continue and be actually implemented.

It is heartening to note Sarawak’s timely focus on pursuit of a green and sustainable economy agenda post the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest initiative is the recent passing by the State Legislative Assembly, on May 19 2022, of the Forest (Amendment) Bill 2022 that will enable the state to mitigate all emissions from various sectors of the economy and to gain competitive advantage afforded by its natural capital, enhancing its forests and promoting biodiversity.

Hydrogen – in search of cleaner fuel.

Another major initiative is focus on green hydrogen and turning the State into a regional hub for hydrogen.

It has been realised that we cannot continue the same way we have been doing all these years.  We need to re-engineer our economies, adopt new technology, dump polluting energy sources and replace them with cleaner renewable energy.

We need to protect and rehabilitate our environment. There has to be a concerted and determined transitioning towards a sustainable and green energy future. That’s the new mantra.

The obvious question is: How do we do this? It has to come from the truly infinite renewable resource that we have, namely knowledge. Yes, knowledge and human ingenuity will be the infinite renewable resource that we draw upon. Plus, a huge dose of deep and abiding faith, and a holistic mindset change.  And cooperation and teamwork like we have never seen before. There is no other way but to join hands to fight the existential threats that face humankind.

A green lung in Rotterdam.

We need to reimagine a future that is based on values and principles that are obviously not the same ones which have brought us to where we are today. 

We have to dig deep, and deeper into our core being. And to seek divine inspiration, and to surrender to divine guidance – which is the only true source of knowledge and wisdom. To do this, we need to have sincerity and humility. And the right leadership at all levels.

With the right foundation as mentioned above, we can employ various thinking techniques and develop the capability to have strategic insights into the future. The practice of strategic foresight is one possible way of doing this, as a means to imagine the possible solutions and approaches to a plausible set of futures or scenarios. 

This technique of getting strategic foresight is not to predict the future but to help organisations, societies and nations envision multiple futures in ways that would enable them to sense and adapt to change.  Of multiple and plausible futures or scenarios are a necessary perspective to be taken.

The terminology used for this technique is called scenario planning. To use it well, organisations must imagine a variety of plausible futures, identify strategies that are needed across them, and begin implementing those strategies now.

Most leading organisations have employed this as part of their core tools and capabilities for developing their own specific strategies and action plans; and take serious efforts to teach their people on how to apply scenario planning capabilities.

 It is a structured process and not a one-off exercise. Just doing it once is not enough. Instead, scenario planning must be an institutionalised process, building a dynamic link between thinking about the future and taking action in the present.

If we are perceptive enough, we would have realised that even before the COVID-19 crisis, certain underlying dynamics have been in play, namely rapid technological change, growing economic interdependence, and mounting political instability, increasing complexity in almost all areas, all have had conspired to make the future increasingly murky for us. 

The uncertainty has become so all-encompassing that to fully capture the dimensions of the problem, experts and researchers had devised elaborate acronyms such as VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) and TUNA (turbulent, uncertain, novel, and ambiguous) to portray what they have tried to communicate.  These words have become accepted terminology in management and strategy discussions.

In response, many business leaders sought refuge in the more predictable short term approaches – an approach which did not create more earnings but instead left millions of people needlessly unemployed.  By the start of 2020, the sense of uncertainty was so pervasive that many executives were doubling down on the efficiency strategy at the expense of innovation, favouring the present at the expense of the future. 

Others, the minority, sought to reengineer their processes and reinvent their businesses leading to innovative solutions and thereby not only protecting their businesses but laying the foundation for future, and innovative growth prospects.

A lot of organisations have had no choice but to focus on surviving immediate threats. Or so they thought.  Unbeknown to them, they were the foxes hiding in their foxholes, bidding their time and not thinking ahead. They forget that virtually every business and political discussions demand farsightedness, not switching off and going into hibernation. Or hiding your heads in the sand like the ostrich.

Sizes of trees in the early 1980s in Sabah were bigger than the trucks. Source: Sejarah North Borneo Facebook

So the trick to business survival and renewal is to take management and organisational cues from scientific concepts that have already reshaped the world, concepts that have fed technology and given rise to new businesses that were not even around or imagined just a generation ago.

Such value added ideas come from the knowledge and insight that emanates from the deep reflection and are unlocked through structured and discipline thinking. Hard and deep thinking are a prerequisite. These are matters of survival and sustainability.

In conclusion, the future need not be viewed with trepidation and uncertainty if we apply the right thinking discipline and approaches.  The key is having the capability of ‘strategic insight’ or what we colloquially would call as ‘good judgment’. Leaders and people with good judgment can successfully chart a course through the uncertainty despite a lack of reference points. 

We must also have a robust strategy which is relevant to the future – no matter what that future may hold. How we get good judgment has been alluded to in this article. Remember that knowledge is the infinitely renewable resource that we need to draw upon to help navigate the VUCA and TUNA worlds that has overtaken us like incessant tornadoes in a world of tornado alleys.

Note: This article touches on the importance of structured thinking and scenario planning, also referred to in previous writings, as a way to make good judgement calls about the plausible futures in business and/or life in general. Thereby, avoiding possible knee jerk reactions to unexpected developments or turn of events.  By developing the capacity for strategic insights, we can ensure that our business model is attuned to or even ahead of the times. To my knowledge, not many Malaysian organisations have perfected this capability other the Petronas and, possibly, Sime Darby.

Maya_Green, short poems

We kill the forests

You’ll wish the trees are still around,

You’ll curse those who have cut them down;

When the rain comes, you’ll drown

And the drought – it will astound!

Food security is an issue.
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