Joel Barker: An interview by Bob Morris

Joel Barker

Barker was the first person to popularize the concept of paradigm shifts for the corporate world. He began his work in 1975 after spending a year on fellowship meeting and working with visionary thinkers in both North America and Europe. He discovered that the concept of paradigms, which at that time was sequestered within the scientific discussion, could explain revolutionary change in all areas of human endeavor. By 1985, he had built the case and corporations and nations were seeking his advice. His published works include Future Edge (1992), Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future (1993), and Five Regions of the Future: Preparing Your Business for Tomorrow’s Technology Revolution (2005).

Although the following interview was conducted almost three years ago, everything that Barker shares remains relevant.

Morris: Before we discuss your own works, please share your thoughts about Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a book that I admire very much. What in this book has been most valuable to the development of your own thoughts about paradigms?

Barker: Kuhn’s book is, of course, the seminal text on paradigms. It was while reading his book that I had the flash of insight about why all the futurists I had visited disagreed with one another.  As soon as I understood the concept of paradigms’ rules and regulations that define boundaries and direct you on how to solve problems within the boundaries, I drew up the different paradigms each futurist was proposing. No wonder they disagreed! And that led me to understand how brilliant people can look at the same set of data and draw dramatically different conclusions. Without Kuhn, I don’t think I could have come to those insights.

Morris: Years ago, Peter Drucker suggested that one of the greatest challenges for any organization is to manage the consequences and implications of a future which has already occurred. Presumably you agree.

Barker: I think it’s more than that now.  What Drucker was saying was that once the “unintended consequences” occur, the great companies handle them.  I say, the great companies of the 21st century will anticipate the long term consequences well in advance of them happening! And, by being ahead of those consequences, they can minimize or avoid them.  But it isn’t only the bad consequences that need to be anticipated. Think of the “low-likelihood, positive consequences” that could be actualized if we knew about their possibility. This ability to anticipate the future is where almost all of my research and focus is aimed now.  I already have two tools in software that dramatically improve the ability to anticipate the future!

Morris: Now let’s discuss Paradigms. For those who have not as yet read it, what exactly is a  “paradigm shift”

Barker: A paradigm shift is a change of a system’s boundaries and the rules and regulations used for making the system operate. Let me illustrate with a simple example: We sent letters written on typewriters and printed on paper through a physical system called the post office. The boundaries of the system were federal in structure with the post office delivering to anything with an address anywhere in the world.  The rules of operation required paper, envelopes, stamps, proper labeling and packaging.  If you violated those rules, the system wouldn’t do what it was supposed to do which was deliver your package.

E-mail was a new paradigm that replaced much of that old system.  New boundaries are electronic; “letters” move at nearly the speed of light and exist as electron packets moving through an electronic network of the Internet system. So paradigm shift equals: new boundaries + new rules for operating the system to solve problems defined by systems users as important.

Morris: Please explain what you mean by “paradigm pliancy.”

Barker: Paradigm pliancy is the capacity to be flexible about the systems you use to solve problems. You are open to new rules, new approaches, new boundaries.  The result of paradigm pliancy is a happier life with many more opportunities for success.

Morris: I’ll bet you are constantly asked this next question. Especially during the last 10-15 years, there have been several paradigm shifts. Which do you consider to be the most significant? Why?

Barker: Every time I play this game, I get 100s of letters telling me I picked the wrong things.  So, here is my latest list [as of 2008]:

• The World Wide Web + Google: global communications; global answers

• Stem cells: new organs, new tissue; no rejection

• 3D lithography creates products in real time.

• Hybrid cars provide new way to save energy while traveling in a car.

• The thermal deploymerization process (now known as thermal conversion): Since most people don’t know about this I’ll summarize its importance. TDP takes organic wastes and turns it into biofuel at a 75% efficiency. Enough said.

• Nanotubes superstrong material

• The response to global warming (we are finally getting it)

• Microloans for the poor give them a chance at improvement

• Alternative sustainable energy sources: it is time to stop producing CO2 as part of energy production

I leave out personal computers and cell phones because they are older than 15 years, but they still dominate the paradigm shift landscape because they have become the great enablers of other kinds of change.

Morris: You suggest that there are five components to “strategic exploration”: Understanding influences which shape our perceptions, divergent thinking which enables us to consider more than “one right answer”, convergent thinking which enables us to integrate data while prioritizing choices, mapping which reveals pathways from the present to the future, and finally, imaging which (with words or drawings or models) documents what is learned during the process of exploration. Here’s my question. Is _strategic exploration something that almost any organization can and should do, regardless of its size or nature?

Barker: Strategic exploration is so important that those nations and organizations that do NOT learn how to do it will fall by the wayside.  For a very simple reason:  If I scout the future and you don’t, I understand the consequences that await me depending upon my decisions. I am far better off because I understand what is over the horizon. Those organizations that don’t take the time to scout the future, are destined to be continually and tragically surprised by the cascade of consequences that occur when anything changes.

Morris: Now let’s discuss your more recently published book, Five Regions of the Future, which you co-authored with Scott Erickson. For those who have not as yet read it, what are the five “regions” and what is the dominant characteristic of each?

Barker: We have a short hand for describing each region that works pretty well with most people.  First, remember that each region is a technological ecosystem, so technology defines the essence of each region. I’ll give each region a slogan and then describe its relationship to Nature.

Region 1: Super Tech. “Superabundance is beautiful.” is the slogan. And human beings are now smart enough to develop technology that is better than Mother Nature can do it.

Two examples:  fusion power for more energy than we will ever need; robotic arms to replace a lost arm with the robot arms stronger and more flexible than the real one was

Region 2: Limits Tech. “Efficiency is beautiful.”  Mother Nature has been working on her design for more than a billion years, so we don’t mess with Mother Nature.

Two technology examples:  LED light bulbs that are energy efficient (they use only 20% the energy of an incandescent light to produce the same lumens. They last 35 years of normal use.)  Very efficient. Toyota Prius: comfortable quiet long lasting car that gets 40-60 mpg.

Region 3: Local Tech. “Small and local is beautiful.”  We are the shepherds of Nature. We take care of the flock even as we harvest what we need.

Two technology examples:  Wind power where the wind blows; wave power where the waves crash; solar power where the sun shines (Local sources for local needs). Straw bale houses where straw bales are common (local sources again).

Region 4: Nature Tech. “Nature is beautiful.”  Nature has already solved all of our problems. Our job is to find her solutions and adapt them to our needs.

Two technology examples:  Bacteria that excrete hydrogen as they eat pollution. Pretty good energy source.  Vaccines that kill cancers.

Region 5: Human Tech. “We are beautiful.” Humans have been endowed by Nature with extraordinary gifts. We are only now learning what they are.

Two examples:  stem cells that can turn into any organ or tissue in the body.  Our eyes that can detect a single photon.

Morris: In this context, what is a “conceptual map”?

Barker: Each of these regions is a conceptual space where an entire ecosystem is evolving.  By cataloging the technologies and following their development, we can map the evolutionary development of each region. So the conceptual map shows us how these various technologies interrelate.

Morris: Some readers of Five Regions of the Future may be reminded of Lewis and Clark’s explorations more than 200 years ago. (I was.) They encountered so many obstacles. What comparable barriers await those who “explore” the business world? Who “scout the future,” during the next few years?

Barker: The biggest obstacle for each of the regions, except Super Tech, is that most people don’t get enough information about these alternatives in the mass media. More coverage would help us see how many wonderful solutions we have to the problems facing us.

Morris: Near the conclusion of your brilliant book, you and Erickson include a passage from a poem that William Blake wrote 200 years ago. His metaphor for technology was the tiger “burning bright/In the forests of the night.” I agree that another quite different “tiger” burns even brighter today. In your opinion, how can we frame its  “fearful symmetry”?

Barker: In the 21st century, we have the gift of almost free global communication and dialogue via the Worldwide Web.  The long-term implications of emerging technology need to become as important in the public consciousness as American Idol. If we, as citizens of democracies don’t frame and manage our technology, someone else will. But they won’t have to be responsible for making sure we are happy about it.  I am optimistic that this conversation is beginning even as we speak.

Morris: One final question. What’s next for Joel Barker? Which new adventures await you in the vineyards of free enterprise?

Barker: I believe that it is time to add a new dimension to free enterprise.  Too many people take the “free” part and assume that no responsibilities come with it.  I am now focusing on developing software tools for exploring the long-term consequences of change. We must become much more mature in our understanding of the second and third order consequences of our actions.  Without developing the skill of “cascade thinking,” we will continue to make stupid decisions.  As a species, we are now so powerful that a stupid decision can destroy thousands of species and hurt millions of people. It is time for us to grow up.

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