Assumptions could lose validity without serving advance notice
Columnists have opined all possible permutations and combinations of assumptions on the Ukraine war. The operative word is ‘assumptions’; these may or may not be borne out by reality. This would therefore be a good time to question many of the assumptions we hold. Our knowledge-to-assumption ratio is terribly low. Human beings are usually very poor at handling assumptions. Just look around and you’ll spot evidence: We either have short memories or turn assumptions into ‘facts’ in our minds.
It is time to re-assess our assumptions and start thinking what we will do if they no longer hold. Here are a few to get you started:
Energy costs would remain fairly stable. In 2020, many experts predicted fairly stable and lower energy prices. Now, oil prices have shot up, are predicted to stay high or go up further, depending on who you ask. Though India got some discount prices for Russian oil, the country’s oil import bill in 2022-23 will not pan out as assumed in February. Higher fuel prices often have political ramifications, but no firm assumptions can be made.
Demonetization would eliminate black money. November 2016 saw India cancelling high-denomination currency notes overnight in a shocking move. The reason given then was that it would eliminate black money, but then almost 99% of all printed notes returned to the central bank. So the move was a failure. Five years later (bit.ly/3LqEJLc), corruption and black money were still around. Whether the cash-dependent unorganized sector was wrecked in the process is the question now.
BRICS would be exciting sources of global growth. Goldman Sachs in 2011 predicted that Brazil, Russia, India and China would offer rich rewards to adventurous investors (cnb.cx/3uA5aqS). It was right, at least for a while. The assumption that the economies of these four countries would emerge rapidly seemed to work for a decade. South Africa was added to the list, making it ‘BRICS’, but the end of the group’s dominance is clearer now, with a cold war between India and China and the hot war that Russia has waged against Ukraine.
Cyber-attacks happen to other people. Just as we believe road accidents happen to others, this is another troublesome assumption. But we can safely anticipate that the capacity to create havoc that was already well developed in Russia is going to get exacerbated as it reacts to global sanctions.
Liberal democracy is here to stay. For many of us, living in relatively liberal societies, warts and all, is like being fish in water; “What water?” we might ask. We forget that a liberal order is not necessarily a given. Stanford historian Francis Fukuyama observes (wapo.st/3tMFvfm) that people like being in liberal societies after they’ve gone through either horrible nationalist conflicts (as in the two world wars) or had to live under authoritarian dictatorships (Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union). “This generational cycle has turned, and you’ve got this whole generation of people who don’t appreciate liberal democracy because they haven’t really experienced the alternative,” in Fukuyama’s view. Connect this with the ‘new India’ where a huge majority are under 30, having grown up in a liberal democracy. Another prognostication is offered by historian Peter Turchin, who suggests that war (or any such other major disruption) is often the catalyst that sets forth the conditions under which societies can be peaceful and unified. Remember the Pulwama effect on India’s 2019 general election?
Infrastructure and connectivity will keep getting better. It is one of the big negatives of the digital revolution: Once you’ve created digital systems, you are increasingly dependent on them. Digital systems also lead to complexity, with the consequence that they behave in far more unpredictable ways. So what is your contingency plan if some vital piece of infrastructure (water, energy, transport) gets disrupted or hijacked? How will you communicate if cellular towers go down? What if power goes out for an extended period?
Highly optimized supply chains will behave as planned. Even as Reliance and Zomato pilot under- 10-minute deliveries, we must be cognizant of inter-dependencies. Any little glitch anywhere along a complex set of interactions that deliver food or groceries to our doorsteps can throw the whole system into disarray. We’re all vulnerable.
Politics is politics and commerce is commerce. Business leaders have always tried to tread carefully when cultural and political issues arise. Most take the position that conflicts over issues such as human rights, equality, the rule of law and other fraught matters belong more to the public than the business sphere. But this is fast changing and it may now be just a matter of time before Indian business leaders have to change their assumption of a domain separation.
Countries that trade together don’t go to war. This is an assumption that has been with us for a long time and has been used to justify the creation of commercial connections, often following conflicts. India didn’t get into a war with China over the latter’s Ladakh and Arunachal intrusions. But Russian President Vladimir Putin has dramatically exposed the limits of this maxim.
The idea of “capitalist peace” emerged after scholars observed that few democratically-run countries go to war with one another. Much of the value exchanged by these countries, at least in modern times, comprises intellectual property, knowledge and data, and that is not easily ‘conquered’. Yet, wars happen.
While no one knows how the pandemic and Ukraine war will reshape up the world, a worthy exercise would be to examine each assumption we hold and ask what alternative plans we have should these vanish from our taken-for-granted reality.
An economist, Carlota Perez, who has developed a long-wave explanation of technological progress, believes that thoughtful leadership can create the potential for a completely rewired economy and a new ‘golden age’. But nobody can be sure.
Rita McGrath & M. Muneer are, respectively, an innovation expert and professor at Columbia University, New York; and co-founder and chief evangelist of the non-profit Medici Institute. M.Muneer tweets at @MuneerMuh