So this is the twenty-first century! It doesn’t seem to be quite what we were promised. We were supposed to have unlimited atom-powered energy – not to be running out of oil. We were supposed to be cruising about in flying cars – not getting gridlocked in traffic.

Popular Mechanics, July 1957
Popular Mechanics, July 1957

And they told us that all sorts of diseases were being eliminated – nobody mentioned aids or ebola or sars or bird flu. And what about those nasty antibiotic-resistant viruses. We were the ones supposed to be getting resistant – not the bloody germs!

And why can’t I take a trip to the Moon? That movie was set in 2001, so tripping off to the Moon should be routine and our first visit to Jupiter should be history.

Then there were those who worried that Communism would spread from Russia throughout the world. Nobody said that Moscow would end up having more capitalist billionaires than any other city.

And what would the authors of that God Is Dead issue of Time make of the rise of religious fundamentalism?

And why didn’t anyone predict climate change?

The reason is that we’re at a point of discontinuity. When people try to predict the future, they usually look at what’s been happening and assume that the same sort of thing will continue to happen. But sometimes it doesn’t. The Industrial Revolution was such a time. From the middle of the eighteenth century, new mechanical technologies produced an entirely different world to the one which would have been predicted by extrapolating the trends which were occurring in the old post-feudal agricultural economy.

("Industrial Revolution" via Flickr)
(“Industrial Revolution” via Flickr)

We’ve now come to another point of discontinuity.

We’ve reached the end of the mechanical Industrial Age and are entering the “Global Age”. The new age is characterised by the fact that all of us now connected. The new Global Age will be very different from the old Industrial Age. The Industrial Age was characterised by mechanical and chemical technology; the Global Age will be characterised by nano- and bio-technology.

The first example of nanotechnology was the transistor, which has led to the computer and communications revolution. Another is the photovoltaic cell which promises to revolutionise power production. The biotechnology revolution began with the development of gene sequencing which is leading to genetic engineering and cures for genetic diseases.

The Industrial Revolution changed the nature of society. Pre-industrial society was based on small communities in farms and villages. Industrial society required larger collections of people to operate factories in cities. This led to the creation of new political structures. The old feudal system of rural nobles allied to a powerful national king no longer made any sense. The political structure which worked in the Industrial Age was national, capitalist, representative democracies. This was not achieved without struggle and failed attempts at alternatives like communism. But capitalist, nation states will not be the appropriate model for the new age.

The new technologies call for both larger and smaller structures. Improved communications means that larger grouping are possible and the global nature of problems like climate change mean that larger-scale action is necessary. At the same time, the imperative which created the nation state – the need to be able to fight international wars – has gone. In a nuclear world, international wars are simply unthinkable and having a system which is based on being able to fight them is simply stupid. We can see the new model evolving in Europe, where more and more countries are joining the European Union while smaller mini-states are asserting there unique identities.

We have seen the break-up of Yugoslavia and Czechoslavakia, independence movement within Spain, Belgium and elsewhere. And we can see the old nation state powers in futile struggles to stop mini-states forming in places like Israel and Iraq. The question is not whether the world is ungoing great changes but how these can happen with the least harm to the Earth and its inhabitants. The drivers of change are increasing population and the increasing affluence of people in the emerging economies. These are impacting our climate and the adequacy of the world’s resources . And they are resulting in inequalities, conflicts and the spread of diseases.

Our responses to these will involve new technologies, including renewable power generation, new forms transport and communication, better ways of constructing our cities, nano- and bio-technologies and new ways of conducting business and government. But such radical changes can never come from large institutions, like governments, churches and large corporations, which will always try to maintain the status quo for their own survival. For this reason, the chief agent of change must be, as it has always been in the past, small business.

This web site aims to provide a forum for small business to talk about change.