If anyone still doubted that our current world is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), at the latest the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic provided us with indisputable confirmation that it is. The concept of VUCA – introduced in the 1990s at the United States Army War College (USAWC) to describe the loss of predictability as a result of the end of the Cold War – appears to be even more valid than ever before. This raises the question of how the world community can deal with the challenges afflicting a crisis-ridden globe, whose societies still want to develop despite all else. Will the challenges lead us to take a common path? Can we even find a shared path towards progress? Can we, together, find a way to overcome the world’s volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity? Not least, efforts to fight the pandemic and distribute vaccines have shown that the solutions to the world’s problems can only be tackled multilaterally and together. Nevertheless, how can progress and improvement be made in an increasingly fragile world?
The quest for progress and improvement is as old as human history. Disruptive technologies, creative ideas and even consistency shape the changes transforming business and society. Disruptive technologies are innovations that supersede the successes enjoyed by an existing technology, product or service. They create new markets and value networks, eventually disrupting existing markets and value networks and displacing established market-leading firms, products and alliances.
Progress and improvement are characterized by more than disruption. Some progress that seems apparent at first glance may be a step sideways or backward for the world, a nation or society – especially in a fragile world. In other words: Not all progress implies improvement. However, how can progress and, in particular, improvement be achieved (together) in an increasingly fragile world? Progress and improvement encompass the fundamental development of existing conditions or processes in human societies. This emerged as one of modernity’s guiding ideas during the Enlightenment in the 18th century, and it became firmly established within the scientific worldview of industrial societies, which presupposed an ongoing, higher development of humanity, both socially and culturally. Today, progress and development are regarded as the decisive driving force behind sociocultural change.
While, in nature, any change must inevitably lead to the overarching ecosystems interacting in a highly functional manner, so as not to endanger their preservation, any development of human culture is subject to the limited, incomplete and fallible judgments made by women and men. In theory, however, progress and improvement are often meant to achieve certain desired states. But can progress and improvement be decoupled from each other?
This year’s Trilogue Salzburg is therefore dedicated to the issue of how the opportunity can be seized to overcome the world’s fragmentation. Thus, the following questions are up for debate:
- Can we define the progress we must seek to overcome current challenges and build a better future?
- How can the world overcome the fragmentation that exists in many places?
- Can progress and development succeed better together in the future?
- In a VUCA world, is it foolhardy to aspire to long-term planning and progress, even though some challenges will unfold over decades (e. g. climate change)?
These questions will be addressed from various perspectives in a series of background papers. Additionally, an overarching paper will distill the main issues and findings from the background papers in order to promote a lively discussion at the Trilogue Salzburg.