A retrospective of the 21st Century

Jan 05 2011 by Bill Fischer Print This Article

When I was a young boy growing-up in New York City in the middle of the 20th century, we knew as a matter of faith that all problems would be solved by the 21st century. All of our science fiction stories were about the 21st century; it was very much a utopian future that we had ahead of us.

Alas, so far, a decade into the "promised land," things have not turned out the way we expected. In fact, as the French poet and philosopher Paul Valéry so wisely opined: "the trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be."

The accelerating rise of fundamentalism of all sorts; terrorism; seemingly ubiquitous military engagements around the planet; increasing gaps between rich and poor and little amelioration of poverty and injustice; a reckless disregard for the planet's well-being and the continued mass-migration of the desperate - all these suggest that we have learned little and have moved backwards as a species, despite the proliferation of new technologies and knowledge. In fact, it is hard to dismiss the notion that we as human beings should be ashamed of how little we have accomplished in the past decade.

Nonetheless, in the areas of innovation and entrepreneurship, I would argue that there have been some significant accomplishments that we should recognize and be proud of.

Take technology innovation. It is abundantly clear that we live in a world characterized by continuous change. And technology is not only one of the major forces creating such change, it is also a principle expression of this change.

This is true whether we're speaking of social networking, or e-readers, or iPods/iPads, or new aircraft, faster trains, 3D television, new pharmaceutical products or digital imaging. Much of what we see as the increasing pace of change in our lives is actually a result of advances in technology.

However, I think that if we are thoughtful and sober in our reflection, none of these are truly revolutionary. It is has been evolution, not revolution, that has characterized the march of technology over the past decade while really ground-breaking, 'out-of-our-imagination' innovation has been conspicuous by its absence. Black swans, it seems, are truly rare when it comes to technological innovation!

But just because change over the past decade has been largely evolutionary doesn't mean that there weren't some important movements emerging along the way. Four themes, in particular, spring to mind.

1. The ubiquity of information

Having almost instantaneous access to abundant sources of information is something we take for granted in almost every aspect of our lives. New devices to access this information are not only helping us make better informed choices, but they are also changing the way in which we arrive at those choices, or go beyond traditional choice-making. Today, we have the ability to be smarter or better-informed in every aspect of our lives.

2. The community-building nature of web 2.0

Facebook, RenRen, Twitter and legions of other on-line communities are allowing us to stay connected, express ourselves differently, access wider communities and so – once again - to learn more from others.

'Inclusiveness' is a term that can be applied to an entire generation of mostly young people who spend a considerable part of their productive time working with others via on-line communities. The Open Innovation movement is one of the most profound expressions of how on-line communities can harness the collective intellect of many bright people to yield real advances in a variety of innovation opportunities.

3. Green

The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit was a vivid exception to the more globally pervasive recognition of the cataclysmic possibilities associated with climate change and the need to address this issue in many different ways.

Ironically, we will most likely have to rely upon entrepreneurs to drive such change in the future because governments cannot bring themselves to put politics aside in the face of such a broad challenge to our species. But we do see signs of innovation across a wide spectrum of endeavors that offer us some hope of altering the present course towards widespread disasters.


So-called emerging markets are no longer the "future" but have become "the present." There has been a pronounced migration of traditional industries (and attendant current account difficulties) from Europe and North America to these emerging markets; there has also been the emergence of new emerging market contenders, although not as many as might have been expected.

At the same time, we have witnessed the growing reliance on dispersed work-teams, many of which are located in the emerging markets. And since the global workday has now become a 24-hour one, there is a definite quickening of the cadence of work-life in general.

It is not as clear, however, that the world has flattened to any great extent. Invention, particularly, and innovation, continue to be disproportionately located in the traditional centers for such activity (eg Silicon Valley). The multinationals, with their brands, talent, market presence, and distribution channels continue to lead in value-capture, despite some slight erosion in their leadership in value-creation.

So far, the 21st century has not turned out to be the century that we had so long fantasized about, but it contains elements that will shape all of our lives for the foreseeable future. And with these will emerge new types of organizations to take advantage of new technologies and the quickening pace of work.

Entrepreneurs, with their imagination, energy, and absence of legacy constraints, should prove to be even more important to national economic growth agendas than they were in the 20th century - and don't forget that they were absolutely central to that century's growth.

Having said that, though, what we also need is a different way of thinking about our collective future, on that is not driven by the 20th century's guiding principles of wealth-accumulation. My sense is that all entrepreneurial activity in the future should be inspired by the question: "Are we building the type of world that we wish to leave for our grandchildren?"

This is the critical question! What else could be as important? Because if our commercial activities continue to be undertaken in the pursuit of greed, then the legacy we leave behind will rightfully be trivial and short-lived.

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About The Author

Bill Fischer
Bill Fischer

Bill Fischer is Professor of Technology Management at IMD, the leading global business school based in Lausanne, Switzerland.