In A Turbulent World, Adaptation Is King

Published in Online Spin, September 14th, 2018

We live in turbulent times -- and I’m not just talking about political polarization. The speed of technological change we’re experiencing is unlike anything we’ve faced before. And while advances in technology have delivered incredible advances for society, they are also forcing us to question all the assumptions on which our societal structures have been built.

Take prisons. Prisons were designed for a time when you could secure a facility with high walls and barbed wire -- not for a time when you could simply send drugs and cell phones to friends on the inside via drone.

It’s all well and good to say that the old rules need to be changed. But this would be simplistic. We don’t just need rules to deal with drones. We need rules that deal with every new technology that comes out. What are the liability implications of autonomous vehicles? How does the blockchain impact taxation? What does democracy look like in the age of social media? How should precision gene editing be regulated?

These questions have no simple answer. More importantly, they have no static answer.

As soon as we think we’ve got an answer for regulating gene editing, new technologies will come out to make that answer obsolete. As soon as we think we understand how to tax transactions on the blockchain, a new service will be built that makes a mockery of our idea.

We don’t need new rules. We need our rules -- and everything else about the way we structure society – to be able to continuously adapt and evolve. There is simply no other way to navigate a world that is changing as fast as ours is.

I had a conversation recently with Pia Andrews, who was recently named one of the world’s 100 most influential people in digital government. Pia suggested that we should be implementing legislation the way we implement code, and I completely agree.

Take the IRS. In 2014, there were 579 changes to U.S. tax law, which I know from watching this John Oliver story.

Let’s be clear: it is not only impossible for you, the taxpayer, to keep up with these changes. It is impossible for every tax advisor to keep up with them. It is even impossible for the IRS to do so.

But if the legislation were written as code, then the updates would be pushed out automatically; any changes would be calculated automatically; no one would have to copy and paste the relevant sections from the code or wonder whether the advice they’re giving their customers is outdated.

But legislation as code is just one way to think about this. My friend and colleague Dave Moskovitz co-developed a new way to think about government procurement that embeds into the process an awareness that we often have no idea what the outcome should be -- and a system for uncovering that outcome.

And this is also not just about government. It’s about everything: business, education, health care… everything about the way we live and work.

The underpinning principle here is simple: We must develop the culture, skill set, and systems to continuously adapt to our changing context -- not just once, to replace the old rules with the new, but always, to seek ever more relevant and effective ways to lead in an era that is so different from the past.

Developing this culture, skill set and systems will be hard. We evolved to optimize for stability. It isn’t easy to shift the gears of evolution. But we need to. Any organization that doesn’t will rapidly become obsolete.

Kaila Colbin