How change creates opportunity

In a business climate that is increasingly beset by turbulence, we wish for certainty where there is none. It would seem fitting, therefore, to add a third partner to the other two certainties: Nothing is certain except death, taxes and uncertainty.

The dynamism of business is largely characterized by uncertainty and the opportunities that it unleashes. Technological innovation has always disrupted old ways of doing things at the same time that it created new opportunities to expand the economy and jobs. In most, if not all cases, a great deal of uncertainty surrounded the further development and evolution of those innovations. Who, for example, could have foreseen how many previously separate functions smartphones have subsumed?

Of course, we have done our best to devise means of managing uncertainty. Think, for example, of the statistical methods developed by the insurance industry. Think also of how we often say that, “Opportunity favors the prepared mind,” to suggest that the more we are educated or steeped in knowledge, the more likely we can seize uncertainty’s opportunities. Of course, being too close to one way of doing things can blind us from seeing how things might change.

And now, into this array come two important guideposts: The first, “The Cunning of Uncertainty,” by Helga Nowotny, the former president of the European Research Council, argues for our embracing uncertainty as a simple matter of fact — that everything is provisional and subject to revision based on the next set of facts, which will themselves be provisional. This is hard to accept, as we are wired to seek the assurance of certainty.

Although derived from the arenas of scientific research and technological innovation, Nowotny’s book is a solid addition to a tradition in the business and economics literature that began with Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction and Clayton Christensen’s idea of disruptive innovation. Nowotny’s introjection of cunning as part of uncertainty is intended to bring to the forefront the role of human choices along the path of time. In other words, no single outcome is guaranteed to have been the outcome at another time or by another set of actors and their choices. Uncertainty is cunning in its interaction with us.

And what better way to see that play out than through the second guidepost provided by Michael Milken and Igor Tulchinsky in their recent Wall Street Journal editorial, “How Technology Liberates Human Capital.” The new digital infrastructure, they suggest, is enabling three revolutions: Human capital is leveraged across time and space in ways that are rapidly creating more jobs and further innovation; technology is itself creating new business opportunities in ways that are far larger than physical transportation and in-person communication could ever create; and new forms of financial technology are reducing barriers to entry in ways that serve as a multiplier to the first two revolutions noted above.

Perhaps you, too, will now face the cunning of uncertainty and unleash its many and unforeseen opportunities.

Luis Proenza serves as a Distinguished Fellow at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness and co-chairs the Innovation Policy Forum as a member of the Science, Technology and Economic Policy Board (STEP) of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine.