Beyond The Industrial Era. What Comes Next?

Nancy Giordano
15 min readMar 23

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Throughout our industrialized past there have been several big shifts in the way we have leveraged resources and organized societies. As we find ourselves here, on the cusp of another, it’s important to acknowledge that we are not simply heading into a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. We’re rapidly advancing into an entirely new age; let’s think of it as the “Exponential Productivity Transformation” (XPT)… and it requires we think very differently now.

Beyond the industrial era and onto the Exponential Productivity Transformation.

Many leaders now recognize that for years they spent too much time looking backward which left them unprepared to embrace what is rapidly emerging as an extraordinarily transformative, highly ambiguous future. A Fast Company article summed up this moment in time in 2020 with a headline that declared: “We are approaching the fastest, deepest, most consequential technological disruption in history”. And here we are.

“ChatGPT’s Explosive Popularity Makes It The Fastest-growing App In History.”

“FDA Approves Lab Grown Meat”

“The Era of Fast, Cheap Genome Sequencing Is Here”

“Positive Nuclear FUSION Achieved!”

We can see from these kinds of headlines that disruption can erupt from anywhere, jump across markets, and very suddenly challenge the status quo; from the stability of markets and business models to the entire ways in which we live, learn, work and play.

There’s no question that the future will look very different from the way things have operated until now, but in order to understand how much is really up for redesign, let’s take a quick look at how we got here.

How the Industrial Era Reshaped Our Lives.

In the First Industrial Revolution, the technologies of mechanization, steam power, and waterpower suddenly enabled us to use machines to replace much of the demand for human “muscle” labor and to travel much further, faster and more safely.

During the Second Industrial Revolution, we gained the capabilities for mass production using assembly lines and electricity. The ability to more efficiently produce and distribute resources not only made many products more accessible, it impacted where people could now work and live, and as well as the kinds of jobs they could do. The shift from an agricultural focus to an industrial one also required whole new structures in the form of labor laws, education systems, environmental and safety regulations, and urban planning. It also led to the rise of corporations, benefit-systems and redefined our relationship with other global powers.

The Third Industrial Revolution was spurred by computers, automation, and digitization, and as far back as 1959, Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” to describe people who could work and produce value entirely in data and digital formats. Many jobs were replaced and new industries took prominence. People turned to entrepreneurship in greater numbers as technology democratized the playing field, and in the last ten years alone we have seen many start-ups develop into billion-dollar businesses. Take TikTok for example, who in just under six years was tracking toward 1 billion active users per month in the first quarter of 2022 and is now the third biggest social media platform, Airbnb is now worth around $75 billion and Snapchat close to $18 billion. The list goes on.

However, as much progress as we’ve made, we are on the crest of another big shift. Are we prepared for a future in which the speed of change is exponential and the stakes ever higher?

The Exponential Productivity Transformation (XPT).

Though it is currently being spoken about as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we are actually moving into an age of cyber-physical systems and exponential productivity tools where products all around us are imbued with mechanisms to capture, control or monitor behaviors that are able to enhance and improve our experiences and our lives. The use of spatial computing is giving us a detailed and multilayered understanding of our environments which is transforming learning, training and decision making. Advances in biotechnology are predicted to eliminate around 16,000 diseases and make healthier, more affordable food vastly more available thereby increasing longevity and (presumably) quality of life. Robots and drones will become a part of our daily routines. And it is clear now that every industry will be impacted in some way, shape or form by various forms of AI.

Executive chairman of the World Economic Forum Klaus Schwab describes this new era we are entering, as “characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” And as the amount of data we create continues to mount — in just two years, estimated to be 200 “Zettabytes”, which according to a Microsoft executive is equal to the size of 181 Pacific Oceans filled with grains of rice[!!] — it is not surprising that another World Economic Forum article noted:

“We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors, to academia and civil society”.

Importantly, however, this transition is also being shaped by the urgent need to redress environmental and ecological fragility, unweave centuries of systemic bias, and work to reverse a growing wealth and wellbeing chasm. As such, I propose that using the word “industrial” to describe an exponential, digital and more human-centric future is outdated and no longer applicable.

As we move from a society of manufacturing and consumption to one of innovation and regenerative value exchange, I propose we think of this as the “Exponential Productivity Transformation” (XPT) in which the confluence of all these advances and the expansion of our collective awareness allow us now to more intentionally do and produce more, use less, and share much more effectively. That future sounds wonderful to me!

The tricky part is that while new technologies and the breadth of data we will now have access to gives us an extraordinary ability to solve complex problems and build more resilient structures, these developments also raise more questions than we are able to answer — for the most part because our thinking hasn’t kept up with the exponential pace at which new technologies are shaping and disrupting the world as we know it. This also means that the XPT must be centered in our ability to meet the needs of humanity and applied in service of accelerating positive changes, rather than existing outside of them and blindly creating a very dark, divided world.

We’re at the Tipping Point.

As the global population tips over the 8B mark, it is stunning how quickly advancements are happening. Compare the shockingly fast adoption of chatGPT, the revolutionary generative text AI that is transforming everything from creativity to education, with how quickly we’ve embraced other technologies and social models: Netflix took 3.5 years to reach one million users, Airbnb 2.5 years, Meta 10 months, Spotify 5 months, Instagram 2.5 months, iPhone 74 days and chatGPT… just 5 days. And they aren’t the only ones in the race to use large language models (LLMs) to shape what we know and how quickly we can get to it; Google has rushed to launch Bard and a sister company just launched Claude, Microsoft has amped up both search engine Bing and Teams using OpenAI powered chatGPT, and Chinese tech giant Baidu plans to introduce its English-speaking “Ernie Bot” in this month.

It’s equally stunning how quickly a breakthrough such as Alphabet’s DeepMind can advance science. In 2016, scientists shattered what had been a 50 year-old grand challenge in biology: to identify the sequence and structure of a protein down to atomic scale. In 2020 they had identified around 350,000 and after open sourcing their progress in 2022, nearly all estimated 200 million known proteins had been identified. Today, new proteins we haven’t ever seen before are also being discovered. This monumental accomplishment is fast-tracking our ability to tackle disease, develop new treatments and unlock the code for the building blocks of life.

Gene therapy is another ‘big thing’ we’ve been waiting for decades to live up to its promise, and now a rapid sequence of discoveries beginning in 2012 have led to yet another critically important advancement: CRISPR technology — making it possible to selectively modify the DNA of living organisms. In just the past few years, we’ve already ushered in a new era of gene editing that is allowing us to eradicate and correct genetic abnormalities such as blindness, cancer, and cerebral palsy, to name a few. Meanwhile, within the next 2–5 years it’s expected we will each be able sequence our entire genome for just $99!

Similarly, cellular agriculture will allow mass-production of meat such as chicken, beef and even fish, anywhere, on demand, with a dramatic reduction in environmental impacts and without the slaughter of livestock. In 2000, the cost of producing a cell-based beef burger was about a million dollars per kilogram. But by 2020, the cost dropped 10,000-fold to around $100/kg in 2020, and costs are now expected to fall below $10/kg by 2025.

Looking ahead, can we imagine what happens when energy creation becomes abundant and regenerative, as we are on track to achieve with nuclear fusion? Even now, Heliogen has cracked the code on an infinitely renewable energy source by harnessing concentrated sunlight + AI to unlock high-temperature, carbon-free thermal energy. The baseline system will provide industrial-grade heat capable of replacing fossil fuels in industrial processes including the production of cement and steel.

Boldly, a well known tech pioneer and pundit is going so far as to suggest that two of the biggest drivers of the next decade [in his words] will be:

  1. The marginal cost of energy will go down to zero, through a proliferation of zero-carbon solutions like solar and wind, along with moderately intensive solutions like natural gas, all working to create energy that quickly approaches $0/kwh.
  2. Complementing this new energy model is a shift away from Moore’s Law and CPUs to the proliferation of GPUs. This would support scaling Moore’s Law through parallelism, which favors applications of machine learning and AI. As a result, the marginal cost of computing will go to zero.

While it’s easy to get seduced by the dramatic tech advances propelling us into this new age, the massive shifts taking place are not just technological. They are also cultural, with a significant demographic tailwind accelerating the transformation.

As we shared in a recent article titled, The Youthquake Is Rumbling, 42% of the world’s population is under 25 (compared to only 8% age 65+), and eager to reshape the world they are inheriting. They are also disproportionately located in the Global South, which will result in significant innovation from this region. By the end of the century, the UN projects that Africa, which had less than one-tenth of the world’s population in 1950, will be home to 3.9 billion people, or 40% of humanity, and by 2050 about 40% of all the people under 18 in the world will be African. Meanwhile, India is expected to provide more than a sixth of the increase of the world’s population of working age (15–64) between now and 2050, and will take over as the world’s most populous country within the next year.

The UN also predicts that in just five years, 90% of the entire global population will have access to the internet (up from about 60–65% currently), so imagine the intellectual and collaborative horsepower that will enable to solve some of the worlds biggest challenges around food distribution, clean water access, safe and accessible housing, energy generation, safe governance, carbon containment, and reskilling the workforce. The hope is that we will collectively become much better distributing productivity and ensuring we all have access to abundant resources — which will radically reshape our concept of “work” altogether. Literally every system and industry is up for redesign in ways that are better for all of us, if we steer them in that direction.

What the Future Needs and Expects of Us.

To get there, we are all being called to build our individual and collective capacity to cross the liminal gap between what we know and what we are just beginning to learn (and unlearn) as we transform our organizations and critical infrastructures to meet shifting expectations and unlock entirely new possibilities for business growth and societal innovation.

So as we rev up our resources and responses, what does the future need and expect from us now? Imagine the world ahead if we can actively design new solutions that put humanity at the center and not only race ahead to deploy potent technologies, but to do so in service of:

  • Advancing technologies we trust to work for us vs against us
  • Stabilizing our environment and cleaning polluted ecosystems
  • Ensuring we all have access to these many exponential advances and eliminate current hurdles to resources and economic dividends
  • Consciously architecting new systems focused on fostering well-being all the way around
  • Making sure our decisions today shape a world that generations to come will be grateful to inherit.

Radical solutions are increasingly within our grasp. The work of enterprise leaders is to see them. Though embracing this level of change — even if it comes with many positive dividends — is a pretty daunting task when you start to take inventory of what needs to be accomplished on a daily basis. Navigating all of today’s demanding, often volatile realities AND looking ahead is possible. But it requires a big shift in how we approach our work and — importantly — how we think.

And just as critically, we need to take a closer look at the practices and beliefs that we do not want to exponentially grow because these same powerful forces can as easily work against us as for us unless we change our approach.

Preparing for the Beyond Economy.

It is now time we change the way we design, monetize, train, educate, distribute and govern (locally and internationally), in alignment with these new and rapid advancements. As journalist Ezra Klein expressed on his podcast, “Is AI The Problem. Or Are We?”, we must make sure we don’t “create something to help us that will instead harm us, in part because we didn’t understand how it really worked or what we had actually asked it to do”.

To do this, we have to change our mindsets, yardsticks and timeframes. We have to think beyond GDP. Beyond GPA. Beyond the next quarter and beyond even our current understanding of “Leadership”. And we need to look closely at the patterns and frameworks we are building this new future with.

Social systems scientist and author, Riane Eisler, has created a Technology Partnership Toolkit to help us examine the very human assumptions often embedded unconsciously into the solutions we are designing. Do we want to perpetuate tug-of-war models of economic domination? Or, as we enter the XPT, can we imagine a different outcome by patterning the future for caring and partnership?

However you look at it, the industrial era playbook is dead and there is no new version waiting for us. Conditions are changing too quickly for that to happen. But this doesn’t mean we are lost. It’s exactly the opposite.

So many new opportunities become visible when we are able to shift from relying on outdated (and increasingly dangerous) industrial era protocols, to developing an evolving set of dynamic practices that inform new behaviors through new understandings. Cultivating the ability to sense and respond with greater speed and relevance is the key to thriving in the XPT.

There are many examples of organizations of all sizes and tenures, in a wide range of industries and geographies, that are showing us what it looks like to transition away from the historical approaches that are choking progress and already creating vulnerabilities and breakdowns.

Using them as inspiring guides, we see that becoming more agile, adaptive and responsive in an environment of constant change means integrating all we know and feel into a committed set of practices built around curiosity and imagination, empathy and compassion, and meaningful connection. It means becoming purpose led vs transaction focused and having the vision to place some truly audacious bets. Rather than striving for relentless (often highly extractive) growth, these organizations are not trying to exhaustively win at all costs but are here to create sustained, regenerative value fueled by a deep caring for all stakeholders.

As many know, I describe this more fluid, systemic way of approaching our work as “Leadering”. While Leadership (the noun) built the industrial era (both for better and for worse), the more fluid, inclusive practices of Leadering (the verb) will allow us to thrive in the much faster, much more expansive and disruptive XPT.

The Way Forward.

Why does all this matter? I can not stress enough the dangers of dragging an extractive, industrial era way of doing and thinking into this exponentially transformative future. The success of the XPT lies in our ability to use this potent moment to really rethink and reimagine what can be done to address (vs exacerbate) the problems we are already trying to deal with; to lean into the forces shaping our lives vs continuing to ignore them. Consider for a minute what — as technology improves productivity — will we consider a basic human right: safe housing? nutritious food? quality childcare? continuous education? reliable healthcare? sustainable transportation? personal safety and digital privacy? gender partity? Hopefully, all of the above and more.

We are being granted a huge opportunity to redesign and rebuild structures that serve people better. For that to be possible, we must cultivate both the mindset and the capacities that empower much faster and more humane decision-making.

Caring for others, both short-term and long-term, is not a philanthropic action. It is the driver of 21st-Century success.

When we put people at the center, and are able to focus our vision on the contribution we can make and the value we can uniquely create, the next steps become clearer. When we put our collective human cloud at the center of the swirling digital one, we are able to design the systems, products and algorithms that will meet the challenges to come and ensure both business and society thrive. It sounds so trite to say “this is the tip of the iceberg” — we need new metaphors to help us imagine what is about to transpire — but we are truly in a moment of transformative inflection. One we need to all take seriously.

The founders of OpenAI are saying that chatGPT is just an appetizer and by April they promise to have something even more transformative to unveil. A metaverse of many forms — industrial, commercial and enterprise — continues to take shape. A distributed web will radically reconfigure the internet and cloud computing. And we’ll be hearing a whole lot more about advances and breakthroughs in quantum computing.

This means, it is time for us to:

> Think much harder about the business models shaping these advances and ask who benefits from them and who loses?

> Level-up our ethical competency and become much more discerning about digital safety (e.g. understanding the components of responsible AI development) and environmental impact (e.g. how much energy does a blockchain action or protein advance really take?).

> Step back to look more systemically at the incentives underpinning our actions and consider both our unconscious patterning and the unintended consequences; short term and long term.

> Become more comfortable raising and thoughtfully considering questions we don’t have all the answers to (yet).

Successfully and safely navigating this XPT actually requires a significant amount of self-awareness. This means you must take time to understand what matters to you and how you want to create value. You need to learn to trust yourself as you commit to what you want to create. As a human, as an organization, and as an industry.

For decades we have relied on collecting proven best practices as the path to success, but measuring the wrong things sets us up for colossal failure. And similarly, just because it’s new, it isn’t necessarily better unless we design it that way.

Today’s leaders are currently inhabiting the undefined liminal space between here and there. Between the old and the new. Between what exists now and what will be created for the first time ever. For some who really like security, that news is unsettling. They are waiting nervously for someone to tell them what to do and how to do it because the old ways aren’t working anymore. But for the rest of us, this is such an exciting moment. Starting right now — today — we can transition to an approach that allows us to make the most of this shift into the Exponential Productivity Transformation.

We get to create what has never existed before and find new solutions to old, hard problems. We finally get to put our spirit of caring to work. And as the world becomes more technologically advanced and enhanced, we actually get to become more human.

There is no end to our imagination as we envision the shape our lives will take when all these technologies emerge and converge, but realizing all of this extraordinary potential requires us to ask: What future do I want to be responsible for? How can we play bigger? What can I do differently today to create the outcome I long to see tomorrow? What can I imagine now that seemed impossible just a few years (or even months!) ago?

This is your moment. Play big. xo

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Nancy Giordano

future of leadership, strategic futurist, global keynote speaker, & author of LeaderING: The Way Visionary Leaders Play Bigger → find out more at leadering.us