The New Mutuality

2/14/20 note: This post was written a few weeks ago when China was in the early days of battling COVID-19. It was not yet clear that it would mushroom into a global pandemic. 

What is clear is that we live in an age of what Kay and King called Radical Uncertainly “for which historical data provide no useful guidance to future outcomes. Radical uncertainty concerns events whose determinants are insufficiently understood for probabilities to be known or forecasting possible.”

When I wrote this post I was thinking primarily about the intersection of the two biggest change forces impacting life on earth—the rise of AI and global warming. This pandemic suggests a third vector of complexification—in short, we have no idea how natural and manmade system will collide and interact. 

The five implications listed below are just the beginning for this new era of human existence. A sixth implication is that leadership matters. I hope this post provokes deep thought about the nature of public leadership required in this challenging time. 


Decisions taken in this decade will, to a great extent, set the course for life on Earth for this century and several to come.

One virus, economic or biologic, now infects the globe in weeks. The climate crisis and the threats of nuclear war and bioterrorism are exacerbated by the widespread use of and access to smart tools.

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) will produce unprecedented wealth, broader access to clean energy and mitigation of disease and drudgery. But with the benefits of AI come numerous threats—some directly existential and some socially cancerous like spreading inequity.

AI and related exponential technologies are rapidly aggregating wealth and economic control—and the concentration is likely to accelerate as capabilities approach human-surpassing artificial general intelligence (over the next 20-30 years).

It is increasingly one climate system, one economy, and one media market. In a growing number of ways, small and large, we are all connected, we are all in this together.

This new level of interdependence requires a new level of mutuality—acting in concert for the common good. There are five important implications of this new mutuality:

1. Stronger safety net: Cities and states need stronger social safety nets to support more frequent transitions through climate shocks (i.e., fire, storms, floods), economic dislocations and combinations of the two (add terrorism and warfare in many regions).

2. Solutionaries: #DifferenceMaking is the superpower in the innovation economy. Schools and colleges should engage learners in community-connected projects that help them discover and develop their strengths and begin to make their unique contribution. It’s time to cultivate ‘solutionaries.’

Everyone needs affordable lifelong access to learning that is linked to contribution opportunities. That doesn’t mean free college for all (a big giveaway to the rich) but it does mean free and debt-free learning sprints to good jobs.

3. Sustainability: As the world’s largest investor said in his annual letter to CEOs: “Every government, company, and shareholder must confront climate change.” Every region and organization needs a sustainability agenda.

4. Social economy: Imagine if the gig economy expanded to include broader forms of service and contribution. Imagine private markets that unlocked value creation for the caring economy, with measured efficacy that promoted real contribution—not just clock-punching.

An activated service economy might be an alternative or supplement to a universal basic income with real incentives for community contributions.

5. Sharing: Surviving the innovation economy and the age of superintelligence after that will require new ways to share. We will need to construct new ways to share the abundance being aggregated by a handful of tech giants.

A new report by the Future of Humanity Institute discusses innovative strategies for distributing the benefits of AI. It will require a portfolio of public-benefit agreements, limiting regulations (like recent EU proposals), and taxation that will help share the benefits and wealth created by AI-powered tech giants.

The world’s great religions have always preached mutuality. The predicted oscillations of complex natural and man-made systems suggest that it’s never been more important to recognize that we’re all in this together. This new chapter of human existence requires new rules of mutual support, access to learning and opportunity, and a focus on sustainability.

Senator Bernie Sanders might call this a socialist agenda. But this new opportunity platform is closer to European Flexicurity, with a big dose of solution-focused public and private investment that rewards entrepreneurship (i.e., spotting an opportunity and delivering value). We’ll need to invent our way out of this interesting mixture of opportunity and challenge, abundance and existential threat.

More than ever, the climate crisis and the rise of AI mean we’re all in this together. It’s time for community conversations about the implications of this new age of mutuality.

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This post was originally published on Forbes.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Pamela Dodd

I've been in the "leadership matters" camp for almost 50 years, traveling through both the corporate and academic worlds in my quest to find out how to get a group of people to work together effectively. I got hooked on post WWII management theories in the 1970's. In my doctoral studies in the mid to late 1980's, I focused on individual differences among work team members. My professors thought it was a novel idea, which turned soon thereafter into the notion of diversity. In the 1990's, working in leadership development for a large corporation, I jumped into culture change and organizational learning theory.

Since then leadership books and articles continue to proliferate. All have something to add to the conversation, and all, going back to the advent of scientific management in the late 1800's, miss a fundamental factor that is now playing out in significant global change. I'm talking about defensive reasoning, a topic former Harvard professor Chris Argyris studied and wrote about extensively in the latter 1900's. In a nutshell, we've gotten into the climate mess because of our defensive reasoning. We're seeing the downsides of AI because of it. And our slow response to COVID-19 is due largely to it.

We now find ourselves fearfully unmoored because for decades we've unwittingly built all our societal systems on top of an assumed, unquestioned bedrock of certainty. For humanity to survive, we do need a new level of interdependence and an understanding of and commitment to a new level of mutuality. But to do that, we need to unlearn as well as learn, overturning the certainty we've taken for granted to confront the underlying defensiveness that keeps us from making the kinds of decisions that will support quality of life on Earth for everyone.

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