We want to talk about 2016 because it was a memorable year.
Looking back the passing of David Bowie in January was not the greatest of omens. We could regale you with a list of all the brighter news that broke this year. We could list the exciting new technologies, good TV, blockbuster books or sporting achievements. Someone else has done a good job of listing 52 things you should know.
We will remember it as a good year for our business. We moved into a new studio in London Bridge. We added exciting new clients. New team members joined us to help deliver ever more interesting and challenging projects.
But let’s face it: we won’t be alone in remembering 2016 for other things.
As we travelled around the UK and to Poland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, Brazil, Mexico and the United States did we see signs of the bubble bursting? In the two countries that delivered the big shocks of the year the signs were there. In the States, we observed fewer bumper stickers of support for presidential candidates. Locals suggested the divisiveness of the contest was driving supporters underground.
Harbingers were there for those who took the time to look, listen and explore.
The year of the Great Explanation
2016 was the year when elite-expert-metropolitan-consensus-multicultural-globalist [delete as appropriate] bubbles burst. It was the year when we learned that explanations won’t emerge from theoretical introspection. Or from idle speculation.
2016 has often felt like the year of the Great Explanation. Theories abound about why the public in the USA and the UK did what they did. There are ideas aplenty: to give a bloody nose to elites? Exasperation with experts? An act of self-harm? Despair at immigration? Or people feeling punished by globalisation? Exhausted by the disrupting march of technology.
If 2016 was a long search for explanations it was a bad year to be a scape goat. Pollsters and big data specialists will look forward to a better 2017.
Understanding life outside the bubble
It was a better year for people who have long agitated for deeper understandings of other people’s worlds. The sort of understanding that comes from sustained engagement in their worlds and on their terms.
This year the penny dropped that two decades of globalisation and economic liberalisation don’t feel the same to everyone. The take out? Time see the world from the perspective of others.
A key lesson of 2016 is the need to get ‘dirty shoes’. The phrase was one used by a British ambassador to Iran. He would check his staff’s footwear for signs they’d been out in the streets of Tehran not hiding behind their desks.
2016 was the year when US coastal residents realized they should stopover in ‘flyover country’. James Fallows did this for The Atlantic. John Harris travelled beyond London to report on Brexit Britain. Both showed the value of getting beyond the bubble.
This year simple slogans, not-quite-true statements and blatant lies became the norm. How politicians and businesses respond to this will matter. The world is not a simple place but simple messages cut through well. The case for textured accounts and nuanced argument needs to be re-stated. We need to redouble our efforts to communicate well even when what we have to say is not straightforward.
More than ever businesses and politicians need to shift from abstract accounts of the world built on big data. They need to move on from elegant but mechanistic models of how things work. People are not machines.
We need instead to grapple with the task of knowing how the world looks and feels to others. This means individuals putting themselves out of their comfort zones. It requires entering other people’s worlds.
In the world of investment they say that the past is not a guide to the future performance. We say that a deep understanding of the present, combined with good knowledge of past events and their dynamics, is the best guide in an uncertain world.
The roots of 2016 run deep. 2017 will be all about tracing the routes of those roots, both backwards and forwards. To do that you need to say goodbye to your desk and hello to other people’s worlds and experiences.