Moving Beyond VUCA, TUNA, and BANI
One thing that is often overlooked in the numerous descriptions of what makes a good futurist is the personal worldview of those that are doing the trend hunting, pattern making, scenario writing, and speculative designing. Some of us are more pessimistic when it comes to the future; some of us lean toward a belief in positive possibilities and outcomes. Some believe in the unlimited potential of humanity, while others see people as life’s biggest problem. Of course, there are many philosophical shades in-between these extremes, but one thing rings true no matter what the “futures thinker” involved believes — foresight is highly influenced by the worldview of the practitioner.
This dilemma — practicing robust foresight while holding personal worldviews — is addressed through various foresight methodologies, as well as through the bigger idea that foresight should always be treated as a team sport. Many voices are needed for us to have a multi-faceted view of the future, and this means that we must act in a cooperative, collaborative, and co-creative manner to overcome our personal biases and assumptions about the many alternative possibilities that lay in front of us.
However, there’s a more popular and commonplace attempt to overcome the problem of personal worldviews short-circuiting our foresight efforts: the much loved (or much dreaded, depending on your worldview) “Futures Environment Acronym.” The most popular of these FEAs is VUCA — an acronym that stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Ambiguous, Complex, and Ambiguous — a term coined by the U.S. Army War College at the end of the Cold War to describe the current state of affairs and the influence this environment has on our future decisions and trajectory.
Over time, additional FEAs have appeared in an attempt to describe what seems to be an ever-increasing environment of discontinuity and disruption in the world around us, impacting the relatively uninterrupted existence enjoyed by most businesses, governments, and societies before the end of World War 2, the end of the Cold War, the 2008 global financial crisis, the Covid pandemic, or whatever line of “normal/abnormal” demarcation one deems to be the most world-shattering event in recent times. Joining its sibling VUCA is the acronym TUNA (Turbulent, Uncertain, Novel, Ambiguous), giving us a couple of different terms with which to frame our suddenly hard-to-tame world. And make no mistake; these terms are meant to serve asa way to understand and manage our organizations and institutions in a broader world that just won’t “play nice.”
In 2014, Harvard Business Review published a brief guide detailing how to effectively respond to, manage, and control a VUCA environment: restructure, bring in specialists, build up resources to address complexity, stockpile inventory or overbuy talent, design experiments to learn lessons, invest in information. (Ten years later — after a pandemic, a global supply chain disruption, a radically changing political environment, a reframing of work, and an exponentially accelerating tech landscape — do these points honestly sound like a valid answer to an VUCA world?) A 2016 article in Forbes does a bit better in stating, “As TUNA pressures warp previously steady-state industries, executives respond by trying to predict the future, grappling with early-warning signals or trying to identify market or technology trends… A key problem, arguably the key problem in successfully managing a TUNA world is “frame rigidity,” when a leader’s mental model is not wide enough or flexible enough to perceive (or to take seriously) all the alternative, plausible outcomes that matter… When a firm navigates its relationship with the outside world, particularly an apparently hostile or at least disagreeable TUNA world, the pathologies of the organization emerge… The question is how do you create a healthy “strategic conversation” that allows leaders and experts to consider ideas that are not familiar to them.” To be fair, this article largely called out the attempts to manage a turbulent, uncertain, novel, and ambiguous world by following our traditional processes and operations, but let me ask you: Did a TUNA world really warp previously steady state industries, or did those steady state industries simply cover up a world that was always VUCA or TUNA until they could no longer maintain their linear forms under the pressure of a universe that craves complexity, novelty, and transformation? Is the TUNA world “hostile or at least disagreeable” to firms and industries, or is it really the other way around?
To varying degrees, both of these articles position the VUCA and TUNA acronyms as environments that organizations, governments, and social entities need to overcome in order to regain some sense of “normality” in their operations and processes. However, various studies across biology, physics, sociology, and countless other domains strongly illustrate the constant nature of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, turbulence, novelty, and ambiguity throughout all living systems. In other words, VUCA and TUNA are normal; organizational “steady state” management is abnormal and unsustainable.
This brings us to BANI — Brittle, Anxious, Non-Linear, and Incomprehensible — a more recent acronym that seeks to express our individual and collective reaction to the topsy-turvy world of VUCA and TUNA. Whereas the previous acronyms were environmentally descriptive in nature, BANI is more of a psychological assessment, probing the displaced zeitgeist of a population and its systems that were once comforted by the belief that they dictated reality. In a Forbes article entitled “What BANI Really Means (And How It Corrects Your World View),” the author notes that, “Rather than saying something about the world, it (BANI) first and foremost says something about how we perceive it. It is not the world that has become more Brittle, Anxious, Non-Linear, or Incomprehensible. It is us who finally have to let go of the illusion that it is not. As such, BANI is one great reminder for all of us. We’re living in a world that’s delicate, uncontrollable, unpredictable and impossible to comprehend. Let’s celebrate, accept and wonder.”
In contrast to most of the articles that you will read about this alternative FEA, this one aptly illuminates its psychological framing rather than treating it as another environmental descriptor. Further, the author smartly points out that our BANI response to a VUCA environment says much more about our distorted collective mindset than it does about the actual state of reality. In other words, our brittle, anxious, non-linear, and incomprehensible reaction to a world of exponential complexity is a tell-tale sign that we need to rethink our relationship to the VUCA and TUNA landscape; yes, humanity’s dominion over unfolding reality has been exposed as a fallacy, but ultimately it’s our choice as to how we reply. We can choose a BANI posture due to a fear of VUCA, leading us to into greater apprehension and retreat; or we can embrace the volatility, uncertainty, turbulence, and ambiguity as the natural order of the cosmos. The former state will weaken us; the latter can empower us. The former will cause us to wither; the latter will awaken us to a generate view of our cosmos.
Such a shift in the way that we both see the world around us and act accordingly requires a much different futures environment acronym than the seemingly scary VUCAs, TUNAs, and BANIs that drive our present outlook. Since we’ve learned that we must embrace the change, the uncertainty, and the exponential complexity as elements of unlimited creativity rather than features of torment, it only makes sense that our new acronym would reflect a life-giving dynamism while including the various qualities that cultivate these potential realities. For this reason, I propose that we acquaint ourselves with the idea of being ALIVE: Abductive, Liminal, Interconnected, Vibrant, and Emergent. Those qualities may be very different from the ones that we are used to presenting when describing the world around us, but this should be our reaction to a VUCA world if we want to move from extractive to generative futures. Let’s take a brief tour through each of the elements of ALIVE in order to better understand how they can help us to embrace new mindsets of transformation in our organizations, governments, and throughout society.
The ability to see the world through an abductive lens is vital to recognizing the bigger picture and the subsequent unfolding stories in contrast to our present linear systems that attempt to silo, fragment, modularize, and reduce reality as a means of maintaining the status quo. A straightforward definition of abduction states that a common rule concerning cause and effect, plus the presence of an effect or outcome, will thus allow us to generate a likely cause. However, this definition does not properly take into consideration the more rich and diverse insights into abductive thinking. In her paper entitled “An essay on ready-ing: Tending a prelude to change,” filmmaker, writer and educator Nora Bateson dives deep into the idea of an abductive world, noting that “Pre-scripted outcomes cloak the ability to perceive transcontextual change. This is not a comfortable position for the current epistemological understanding of change, which requires predefined outputs… what we can do is create the conditions for transcontextual mutual learning into which new abductive process can happen. From there, life makes itself.” Aiding us in understanding this transcontexual approach to change, Bateson pulls form the works of philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce and her own father Gregory Bateson, both of whom wrote extensively on the idea of an abductive reality. “For Peirce, abductive process is about the way in which experience in one context provides the information that will be, in another context, the basis of hypothesis. What is learned in one context is useful toward making sense through hypothesis of another, though the correlation need not be direct. It (abduction) is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea; for induction does nothing but determine a value and deduction merely evolves the necessary consequences of a pure hypothesis… For Gregory Bateson, abductive process is thought of in another way. Bateson sees abductive process as the way one context becomes a description of another… a reveal of the particular brew of experiences into which a new perception must attach… a constant coalescing of perceptions and experiences that are not distinguished from one another, but rather form a hum, or a resonance of meaning-making into which a new sensation or idea lands.” Ultimately, it is an abductive response to the world around us that allows us to break free from the mechanical prescribing and “pre-describing” of our reality, and which opens us to the unlimited possibilities of generative change.
When we embrace volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity as being vital to life-giving futures, we begin to truly appreciate the richness of residing in liminal spaces. This quality is closely related to the organic process of transformation — an experience that underpins the growth of all living systems. Author Timothy Carson describes liminality as “the threshold passageway between two separate places. The liminal state is therefore a transitional one, the result of crossing a threshold between location, status, position, mental state, social condition, war and peace, or illness and death.” However, defining liminality as simply being a transitional state fails to capture the true essence and importance of embracing liminality as a essential experience for fostering transformation. As Carson further states, “Whereas much liminality is related to predictable passages of developmental and maturation, other forms are more directly tied to reoccurring seasons, while an entirely different class of liminality is the result of involuntary crisis. Some rites of passage involve the individual over and against the structure of society while other liminality is social and includes entire groups, even nations… Life within community is to be understood as a dialectical process moving between structure and anti-structure with individuals transitioning between those poles. The attributes of the liminal person stand in binary opposition to the established structure. The liminal person takes up symbolic and transitional status that includes a kind of stripping away of the self, gender neutrality, anonymity, and submission to the process itself… Within the liminal passage there were multiple thresholds of consciousness to traverse, truths to face, and sublime beauty to receive… liminality is often expressed in a form of social anti-structure; it positions itself over-and-against social norms and prevailing culture, often removing itself from the mainstream into a separate location and lifestyle… Great transformations also occur inside the house of consciousness, often quite independent of outer circumstance. That is confirmed by all manner of spiritual, emotional, and perceptual transitions fostered by unfolding religious life, psychotherapeutic shifts, and social reorientation. In all of these transformations, whether deeply personal or socially shared, rites of passage and liminal sojourns are ubiquitous… We may travel voluntarily or have that nether-nether world thrust upon us. The passage may be solitary or taken up in the company of a great number of souls. We may experience passage to the next stage of life, another place, or a new status among our own, but the crossing of that threshold always holds a great challenge and opportunity for transformation, one built into the fabric of existence itself.” (Emphasis mine) Carson’s focus on the ubiquity and centrality of liminality to living systems — in opposition to the idea of liminality being a rare experience that is to be tolerated for a brief period of time rather than embraced as a way of life — is a much needed paradigm shift in the face of our brittle systems of determinism and perpetualism. Being liminal is not something we endure; rather, it’s a natural state of transformation that we must constantly seek in our unfolding journey’s of higher order purposes.
In a 2021 article entitled “We Must Embrace Our Interconnectedness”, Project Hope President and CEO Rabih Torbay — one of the world’s most prominent humanitarian affairs specialists and crisis response leaders — stated that, “COVID-19 has reminded us that no one can live in a bubble — that what happens anywhere affects all of us, everywhere. If we want to rebuild from this pandemic and move forward into a stronger, more equitable world, we cannot forget that lesson. That interconnectedness — and the empathy it creates — will be essential to our ability to move forward.” Though Torbay explained our deep interconnectedness through the use of a negative example, he clearly illustrated how that same event highlights the need to grasp our intertwined nature for a world of symbiotic thriving. One way to better conceptualize the interconnectedness of our world — and our need to fully embrace an interconnected mindset in everything we do — is to think in terms of ecosystems. Technically, an ecosystem is defined as a complex network, an interconnected system, or a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment. While such a definition gives us insights into the interdependent relationships in specific environments between plants, animals, organisms, soil, water, air, and other elements, it doesn’t quite drive home the sweeping symbiosis that encompasses the entire cosmos. There’s not a single thing that happens in any realm, be it economically, technologically, environmentally, or socially, that doesn’t have short, medium, and long-range ripples that change the course of history — past, present, and future. In her book Eco-Mind: Changing the Way We Think, To Create the World We Want, author Frances Moore Lappé expounded on the importance of interconnectedness through ecosystem thinking as a means to escape the tyranny of linearity, noting that, “The good news is that we face this historic challenge just as our understanding of life’s rich complexity, and human nature itself, is expanding exponentially… Now we are realizing that ecology is not merely a particular field of science; it is a new way of understanding life that frees us from the failing mechanical worldview’s assumptions of separateness and scarcity… Since ecology is all about interconnection and unending change, creating patterns of causation that shape every organism and phenomenon, “thinking like an ecosystem” for me means living in the perpetual “why.” It’s keeping alive the two-year-old mind that accepts nothing simply as “the way it is” but craves to know how something came to be… An eco-mind is also able to see that our own species’ thriving, through our consciously creating the essential context for that thriving, determines the well-being, even the continuation, of other species and whether key dimensions of our wider ecology remain conducive to life… Shifting from the mechanical assumption of separateness and seeing our societies as ecosystems, we get curious about how aspects interact… Using our eco-minds, we soon realize that in our complex human ecology, many of the most important causal interactions may not immediately meet the eye — just as they don’t in the wider ecosystem: When you or I look at a forest, for example, we see distinct trees. We don’t see that beneath the forest floor trees intermingle for mutual support, sometimes through their roots, sometimes through “mats of cooperating fungi,” explains the late sustainability genius Donella H. Meadows. Mycelia, the underground part of fungi, can spread ‘cellular mats across thousands of acres.’ The implication? Cutting one tree is never about just cutting one tree. Every act has multiple effects.” In other words, the interconnected mind thinks and acts in ways that transcend the limitations of organizational development, governmental security, or social cohesion, and directs us to imagine holistic models and metrics that elevate our purpose beyond the silos of any VUCA, TUNA, or BANI framing.
Beyond the dictionary definition of “pulsating with life, vigor, or activity,” the idea of a vibrant world can only be fully understood when considered from the deep intertwining of biological, psychological, and sacred perspectives. Though every element in the ALIVE acronym is essential to gaining a comprehensive understanding of a transformational view of futuring, it is this specific element that adds the “spiritually scientific” dynamic that we often overlook, disparage, or ridicule in our attempt to make sense of the world. In doing so, we pigeonhole ourselves into creating mental frameworks such as VUCA and others that largely reflect our fear of change or lack of dominion over our surroundings, but do very little to actually provide us with the mindsets needed to thrive in an uncertain, unpredictable, and unbounded universe. Leaning into vibrancy is intentionally practicing the skill of sense making, and embracing that the wavelength of life exists as a larger source for us to cooperatively tap into rather being a function that we produce through pure machine-like rationality. Such a perspective allows us to more fully comprehend the living internal and external experience of imaginative novelties and alternative possibilities — or the vibrancy of the cosmos around us — in order to co-create transformational realities. As psychologist and author Steve Taylor has noted, “Many eminent philosophers such as David Chalmers and Thomas Nagel, and scientists like Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi have rejected the idea that consciousness is directly produced by brain processes. They have turned to the alternative view that it is actually a fundamental quality of the universe… The brain does not produce consciousness, but acts as a kind of receiver which ‘picks up’ the fundamental consciousness that is all around us, and ‘transmits’ it into our own being.” Rather than assuming that we are solely responsible for the “sounds we hear” (i.e. the concepts, ideas, and realities we produce and inhabit), vibrancy directs us to “tune into’ what the universe is trying to teach us for growth and generativity. In other word, we are the universe becoming increasingly aware of itself, or as philosopher and writer Alan Watts has stated, “Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.” This idea — that vibrancy is critical to the transformational journeys surrounding our conceptualizations of governance, organizationally, and social construction — is beautifully expressed by author Camila Mozzini-Alister’s research around the human desire for omnipresence. In her book entitled Does Social Media Have Limits: Bodies of Light & the Desire for Omnipresence, Mozzini-Alister expounds on the relationship between mind and waves, observing that, “…everything that exists, whether being visible or invisible, is nothing more than vibrations of different wave frequencies. With this vibrating body, we inhabit the molecular level and, with it, we constitute the outlines of palpable, visible, and delimited form. A body through which we love, get angry, sad, and tired, we agonize, we move, we stop, we feel, we touch: we are affected. Nevertheless, this body covered by a skin that protects organs, tissues, and liquids through which we confidently feel to be ours cannot sum up what we are: there is something else, beyond vision, beyond touch, smell, taste, and hearing. Beyond the senses. Beyond the skin. Beyond that which one can manipulate with gestures. Beyond the usual perception of reality. Beyond books, treaties, writings, and documents. Beyond the physical existence of matter. Beyond the body. Beyond: something accessible only through the radical experience of empirically unfolding the five senses in order to penetrate the depths of the mind’s realms.” Vibrancy and its vibrations are a condition of the living universe that thrust us far beyond the hyper-unimaginative limitations of our present-day systematic and methodical landscape, and liberates us from the illusory perceptions of turbulence, ambiguity, volatility, uncertainty, anxiousness, brittleness, and overall incredulity.
There is no perfect order to the elements in the ALIVE acronym — each element is dependent on the others to manifest the fullness of a mindset that aligns with ever-evolving, ever-transitioning, and ever-transforming nature of the our planet, our universe, and our very being. However, it is apropos that an acronym that directs our attention and intention toward living systems ends with the concept of emergence. This element acts as a capstone due to its revelation of our “big pictures” taking shape only after the convergence of a multitude of ideas, events, and factors. That emergence is concealed prior to those complex interactions or “weavings” is of great importance to the practice of foresight, especially since the linear identification of trends and forecasts is largely an attempt to domesticate the “wilds” of co-creative transformational futuring. (Or, as anthropologists Erin Manning shares in her book Out of the Clear, “What operations are at work when land is cleared, or thought is cleared, of all that grows wild? Clearing, the settler-colonial act of defining a territory and producing a border, clears the world of the thickets of all that is already at work. Get rid of the muddle. Privilege productivity. This devaluing operation is taken for granted as the necessary operation for all beginnings. Clear the movement-tendencies before you start dancing. Clear the thought-wanderings before you start writing. Clearing’s best accomplice is method. A clear site is one that can be overseen, that can be managed.) When emergence demonstrates to us that we can no longer simplify that which desires to surprisingly materialize, we begin screaming “VUCA, TUNA, BANI!” It’s not that such a reaction isn’t understandable, nor that such a reaction isn’t real. Rather, those screams are a confirmation that we need a collective paradigm shift in order to harmonize with what desires to be embodied. As Nora Bateson expressed in her article An essay on ready-ing: Tending the prelude to change, “Before the change there is a coalescence of factors and experiences that produce a undeterminable ready-ing instead of action. What if, instead thinking of a theory of change being produced from an identified preferred goal or outcome, the focus instead was placed on the way in which a system becomes ready for undetermined change? Can unforeseen ready-ness be nourished? While linear managing or controlling of the direction of change may appear desirable, tending to how the system becomes ready allows for pathways of possibility previously unimagined.” (Emphasis mine) Writer, activist, and facilitator Adrienne Maree Brown expounded on the alignment with emergence, stating that, “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. it emphasizes critical connections, authentic relationships, listening with the body and the mind. In emergence, the whole is a mirror of the parts. fractal — the health of the cell is the health of the species and the planet… emergence is beyond what the sum of its parts could even imagine. Octavia Butler says… ‘everything you touch you change, everything you change, changes you.” we are constantly impacting and changing our civilization — each other, ourselves, intimates, strangers. and in that reality, we are working to recreate a world that is by it’s very nature in a constant state of change.’… many of us have been socialized that constant growth, and critical mass, are the ways to create change. but emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical connections. dare i say love. the quality of connection between the nodes in the patterns.” Emergence suggests to us that foresight is about much more than the future changing — it’s about the changing nature of the future. If we truly hope to hone our foresight and futuring capabilities in service to a generative world, we will need to accept that the future holds more than trends and events that can empower our present-day practices; it is an experience of new models, new metrics, and new materialities that supersedes our present assumed constants.
Using Futures Environment Acronyms such as VUCA, TUNA, or BANI can help those who are new to the concept of futuring to understand the reaction of our linear and mechanical systems to the impact of exponential change, but leaving the masses in those responses does little good in creating a world of adaptation, resilience, and transformation. Once the stage has been set around our collective trauma, it’s time to aid in the transition to a practice of expanding consciousness, regenerative design, and human potentiality. Let’s help one another to embrace what it means to be ALIVE.
Speaking of being ALIVE…
TFSX is excited to announce our next Transformations of Natural Foresight® Retreat taking place September 16–19, 2024 at the beautiful Tops’l Farm in Waldoboro, Maine, USA.
This retreat is unlike any other foresight & futures thinking event you will attend! At Transformations, we promote an internal, personal transformation in each of us and an evolution of the field of foresight.
During these 3 days, participants will engage in collective and collaborative dialogues, spaces, and experiences that are meant to promote the cooperative evolutionary perception of emerging novelty that fosters the co-creation of transformational realities across cultures and society.
At Transformations, we are unlocking healthy individuated and collective “inner futures” — the future entering into us in order to transform itself in us long before it happens — as a means to address our global metacrisis through regenerative, broad-based, prosperous, liberatory, and consciousness elevating foresight.
To learn more, please visit the Transformations of Natural Foresight information and registration page at https://tfsx.com/learning-events/transformations-of-natural-foresight-2024/