What do we do when our main problem is an overabundance of solar energy, of great ideas and possibilities, and of choices? For much of history and for many people today life is about survival, and survival is primarily focused on overcoming scarcity. Our main focus should be on getting more of what we need, not worrying about what we will do when we have plenty. And yet technological progress, economic growth and creativity are creating a world of abundance for many in the developed world. We are also realizing that the strategies that worked in a world of scarcity are no longer effective in a world of abundance. How do we make the paradigm shift from scarcity to abundance, and what does it mean for the way our organizations work?
Scarcity to abundance
Finding plenty everywhere
The most obvious form of scarcity appears to be a lack of natural resources. The main argument is that humans will outstrip growth of the generative capacity of the Earth. We are running out of resources, whether it’s oil, forests, or fish in the sea. But there are good reasons to think that when resources become scarce they also become valuable, so new technologies will be developed and alternatives will be found. Many resources have been indeed been replaced by others. Furthermore, we can design cradle-to-cradle products and closed-loop approaches for material goods.
There is also an unlimited, overabundant and relatively easy to capture energy resource: solar energy. The limits to the current expansion of solar energy are not technological but linked to the complexity of shifting from one massive energy infrastructure to another. The other reason is economic: the price point at which it becomes valuable to shift to electric varies with the oil price. The shift from fossil fuels, problematic because of pollution and global warming, to a world of endlessly renewable resources is inevitable – the question is how long it will take and how much damage we will suffer by waiting.
An enormous shift towards abundance also touches on with virtual or intellectual resources, such as ideas, education, culture or information. As the Internet keeps growing, so is the amount of available information, shared resources, and access to data. The democratization of access to education is happening at a rapid rate. Today it is possible to get a full, free university education simply with Internet access and a little bit of guidance.
Moore’s Law projects that computing power will continue to double in performance every 18 months. This is expected to lead to breakthroughs in digital and computer-dependent technologies like biotech, neuroscience, genetics, solar energy and batteries, and electric cars. Ubiquitous Internet and widespread access to mobile communications is also leading to an explosion of new ideas and sharing of knowledge.
Scarcity-thinking is also based around the feeling that there’s not enough for everybody. The only way to get what you want is by fighting against nature, in order to extract its resources by force, and fighting against other people, using your elbows because there is only limited space at the top. Life is an endless struggle against nature and against others. Ultimately, you will always remain unsatisfied because whatever level of wealth you attain, you could always imagine being happier if you had more. Scarcity is thus also a psychological state. In a world in which people are poor, this feeling is understandable as well as productive. It is strange in a world of material wealth, in which we have too much food rather than too little, and are surrounded with more consumer products than we know what to do with.
Abundance thinking is the realization that you have plenty and that you can easily meet whatever need you might have. There are more books than you can ever read, more information than you can ever process, more opportunities for fulfilling experiences in the limited time you have available. If the pie of goods is flexible, then the main point is to try and increase the pie, so that everybody has more. The fact that one person has more doesn’t mean that someone else will have less. This way of thinking allows for cooperation that is more productive than competition.
The shift from scarcity to abundance
The shift from abundance to scarcity can happen in three respects: material, virtual, and psychological. There are great opportunities in all three of these shifts.
In this rapidly changing world, there are plenty of opportunities to look at natural material resources and renewable resources from the point of view of abundance. We need to look at resources as a great opportunity to profit by designing and creating production systems that make use of natural abundance.
Regarding virtual objects, abundance is already upon us. What we need are tools to bring to use the abundance of information. Where we experienced a lack of information and a need for more ideas, cultural products and data, the availability of these virtual objects now outstrips our capacity to process them.
The questions we ask ourselves have already shifted: How do I find the information I want from all the information that is out there? How do I take all the ideas that are out there and select the one that I need at the moment? How do I choose music to listen to from the millions of available songs? How do I choose from this overabundance of choice? We can’t use the same selection strategies as we did in the limited past.
The problem is very clear in the field of data. Our instruments produce so much data that the real question is how to filter this data. As THNK forum guest Rachel Kalmar points out, the issue with all health-data collecting devices, from smartphones to fit-bits, is how to aggregate all this data in a meaningful way.
For virtual objects – ideas, cultural products, data – everything that is no longer tied to a material substratum, the question is how to develop filtering and sense-making mechanisms. We have seen the rise of a new class of “curators”, who select the best news items from a vast number of news outlets. Music, ideas, job openings and holiday destinations are being curated, by professionals or by the crowd. A lot of the employment opportunities in the future will lie in filtering, curating, and making sense of this overabundance of data and information.
We are only at the beginning of this shift, from a lack of information to too much information. The exponential rise in the amount of data makes the problem of filtering and sense-making more acute. The sophisticated mechanisms, heuristics, and algorithms that we will need to design to cope with exponentially growing amounts of data represent vast opportunities for new occupations and business.
The psychological shift from scarcity to abundance happens in the relations you can have with your team, customers, and competitors. How could you see business relationships from a perspective of abundance, moving from a winner-takes-all mentality to everyone coming out a winner? The concept of win-win really lies at the heart of the shift. How can you see the relations with your customers, with your team, and with your competitors as collaborations in which everybody benefits? The kinds of corporations and organizations that people are going to want to buy from, work for and invest in are going to be those corporations which create abundance in the world, whether in finance, energy, agriculture or production. Our psychological shift from scarcity to abundance will finally match the dramatic shift in our access to material and virtual goods, and general well-being – the great rise in wealth we have experienced in developed countries in the last seventy years.
It's your move
If your organization is involved in the production of material goods, are you focused on the use of dwindling resources, or using scarcity as an integral part of your business model? What would it be like to focus on endlessly renewable and abundant materials, instead? Is your ultimate goal to keep your current business indefinitely, because there will always be a need, or is your ultimate aim to put yourself out of business, because you will have made the good so cheap and available that your business model will have shifted to higher-level activities?
In terms of virtual ideas, where is your organization in terms of the shift from a scarcity of virtual ideas to dealing with the overabundance of virtual goods in terms of filters, curation and sense-making processes? To what extent is your attitude to business based on scarcity thinking and to what extent is it based on abundance thinking?
To learn how your business can navigate the shift from scarcity to abundance, join the THNK Executive Leadership Program.