By Gautam Chikermane
Power and its wielders will face new challenges in the 2020s. Challenges that the process of disruption in every sphere brought in the 2010s were merely practice sessions. Powered by technologies, the incoming decade will bring in greater complexities. These complexities will show up in every aspect of the State, the corporation and the idea. Some may collide to seek space, others will merge to create value. Many will be their faces, but in essence it will the contestations that are as ancient as they are futuristic – the individual versus the collective.
On the material front, the most powerful people are those who head countries, corporations and religious institutions. In the top 10 list of Forbes most powerful people, while seven are global leaders, there are two corporate leaders and one religious head. In India, the list is more diversified: The Indian Express lists five from politics, and one each from the judiciary, corporations, social organisations and the bureaucracy.
All leaders need or have followers. This following is voluntary for politicians, ideologies and support for some ideas. But when that popularity gets embedded into Constitutional and institutional structures the same following seeks its own expression or if not delivered a vote out of the leader. A tightrope walk for ages, the timespans for this will contract in the 2020s even further.
In the 2010s, we saw four kinds of war – of ideologies (the Arab Spring); of politics (the consolidation of the China model that is legitimising authoritarianism the world over); social (unrest in Hong Kong); and technological (regulatory for corporations, 5G for security). The other group-conflict was around ideas such as climate change. All were enabled by technology in the hands of individuals and cobbled up collectives.
The 2020s will see these tensions rise, both in expanse as well as in degrees. While these will throw up new leaders, even if transitory, as new anchors of global conversations, they will influence citizenries across the world. They will feed on ideologies, glamour, retweets. They will be powered by technology and will attack the same technology. And they will find the finances to drive them.
As a result, those wielding power will face micro-complexities of the sort that neither have they been trained for, nor have the institutional mechanisms within which to confine them. How do governments deal with these complexities – a young woman seeking a better planet, an activist exposing State secrets in public interest, a small group attempting to preserve the advent of a surveillance State against the State seeking to deliver security – without stepping down from the limitations of the State? The weaponisation of virtue-signalling against governments and corporations will need new skills of power engagement.
In the 2010s we debated how the power of technology-driven social cohesion on platforms of transnational corporations had turned national boundaries insignificant. The replies from States attempting to assert their presence were in the form of regulatory strictures of the 20th century – a ban here, a fine there, a security-disclosure directive in between. In the 2020s, we will see a maturing of regulation. Powered by the voices of user-citizens, democracies will have to rethink these engagements to serve new aspirations of consumers, corporations and countries.
In the 2000s, there were six billion humans. In the 2010s this size increased to seven billion. Social media gave a voice to a third of them, and 2.5 billion voices expressed their sense of citizenship, pop culture and political expectations through their mobile phones and computer terminals. From the comfort of premises protected by the same institutions that they raised their voices against, they cheered the protestors facing water cannons and bullets from several screens across the world, with no skin in the game.
In the 2020s, there will be 8.5 billion such voices, and a much larger proportion, about half of whom will be tech-enabled. These structures have allowed individuals to create universes comprising realities, values, cultures and finances, around themselves. The challenge to leaderships in the 2020s, therefore, will be from 4 billion intermingling ecosystems. We believe, extant institutional structures are incapable of dealing with this force. Worse, we believe, extant leadership is ducking a future that’s flying in their face.
Unless the leadership is authoritarian, we have compassion for those who will drive power in the 2020s in democracies. While authoritarian regimes will continue to get away with internment camps for their minorities or subjugation of political dissent, leaders in democracies will bear a disproportionate burden of this changing future. How democracies impact nation-to-nation discourses even as they deliver security, law and order and prosperity within their geographical boundaries remains to be seen. We will be watching carefully.
One step below sovereigns in terms of power, corporate leaders will need to rethink their corner office cultures. The age of the aggrandised powerful executive may still linger, but in essence a team of 21st century knowledge workers will not accept 20th or even 19th century pomposity. Powered by individual tributaries of knowledge, each of which is a crucial component in the bigger ocean of knowledge driving corporations, the idea of corporate authority will undergo change in the 2020s.
Like bureaucratic structures in the government, bureaucracies in corporations will have even lesser room for manoeuvre in the 2020s. Identifying and rewarding knowledge will be the biggest challenge. This challenge will stand before products and services as abstractions and star performers as living entities. The CEO may not be the most highly-paid designation, the largest team not the most impactful, the biggest project not the most profitable. The challenge of attracting and retaining super-experts and morphing that expertise into the bigger whole without suppressing individual aspirations under general HR policies will haunt the corner offices.
In terms of growth, again, the 20th century model of size will give way to the 21st century metric of innovation and relevance. As nimble-footed, technologically-sharper start-ups create value at unprecedented speeds, ideas like economies of scale will increasingly be restricted to the manufacturing sector, leaving the field of services and tech-enabled ideas of the future to those with the ability to deal with and negotiate this knowledge. A group of 50 engineers is all a start-up needs to serve a billion users. At a time when every day brings a new and evolving disruption, companies trapped in the past will have a harrowing time competing with these islands of knowledge surpluses.
But even the start-up leaderships will need to stay alert. The 2010s showed us that not every high-profile and well-funded start-up will become a unicorn. As a result, the 2020s will see a greater thrust on leadership – it will need to be supple, adapt to changes, and if needed, step out of the way. Within unicorns, not every billion-dollar idea will be led by the same leader it started out with. Between the jump from idea to revenues and revenues to market capitalisation lies a vacuum, a capacity constraint, a leadership blackhole. Will the 2020s see a scale-up in leadership along with the business? Or, will we revert to the 2010s, and allow large corporations to seek a win-win through buyouts? The answer, for the moment, is open ended.
In the area of ideas, power will lie in the ability to deliver long-term influence. We have seen several influencers emerge with images that seem to be the next big idea. Only to disappear. To survive in a knowledge society, power will reside in the hands of idea harvesters at the institutional level. How they harness ideapreneurs and turn them into a steady stream, thereby institutionalising them into a go-to conversations of impact will decide how relevant they remain through the 2020s.
On their part, sector-specific experts and big picture compactors alike will have no time to rest on their laurels. In a decade when disruption of the 2010s is the starting point, the idea of expertise itself will be a constantly-evolving metric. The 2020s will need both, deep expertise and interdisciplinary proficiency. Working with diverse teams is the inheritance of the 2010s, unleashing those teams on diverse ideas the signature of the 2020s.
As in the case of technological innovations, the world of ideas is really a world of meaning-makers. Balancing the aspirations of these meaning-makers, turning them into long-term assets within the constraints and the opportunities of the gig economy will decide where power and influence resides. Again, this might be a battle between ideapreneurs and their harvesters, the person and the team, the individual and the collective. Leadership in the 2020s will demand bridging these conflicting pillars knowledge and converting them into power. Those who ignore them will perish in the tsunami of ideas that are going to enter and change all parts of our society – hundreds of States, thousands of corporations, and billions of individual universes.
Nobody will need to engage with this world of ideas as much as governments and corporations. Like it or not, a revolving door between governments, corporations and ideapreneurs will be the currency of national and global discourse. There will be no designation too big, no thought too irrelevant, no idea too small to walk through this door. Above all, there will be no field will be exempt. Governments and companies that allow silo- or turf-drivers to run them will fall by the wayside.
The 2020s will belongs to those who can convert individual’s universes into expanding collectives, bring knowledge carriers on platforms of scale, serve empowered citizens with a series of constantly-changing short-term expectations with the steadiness and power of long-term nationhood.