29 May 2022

We have to provide answers to questions that have never been asked before

by Dr. Evert Smit, President of Afera, The European Adhesive Tape Association for ISGATEC

Let me begin by boldly asserting that the older members of our society must make room for the young – and sooner rather than later.

Why? Quite simply: When it comes to addressing our global problems, we elders too often find ourselves at an impasse. It gets even worse when enormous efforts are made to maintain a status quo a little longer – buoyed by the hope that we will buy ourselves time until the solution magically appears. Too often I see discussions that are stuck within the idea that technology will solve our problems. In the search for “the right answers and solutions” to the problems of today and tomorrow, I often see elders biased in this process – in the sense that we (I am one of the elders) look for evidence to support our answers and solutions when answering complex questions. We use known and proven tools to describe and understand the "new world".

Some today think we just need to take a leap to become "agile" – I shiver at the thought. Assuming the right questions were asked in the first place, we protect "our" solution as intellectual property or with non-disclosure agreements. Most answers and solutions that emerge in proven models and processes are control- and security-based and aim to minimise risk. But for whom? Moreover, they are often still based on linear models with few factors. But what if the risks are unknown and cannot be described within the framework of the chosen models?

All we know is that tomorrow is not an extension of today. Thus, the old approach of looking at tomorrow's problems slows us down and blocks the necessary profound change. We have stopped describing the world we see and only see the world we describe. The world is seen from the past, from what is known, from existing models and approaches. But what is happening today has never existed, so one of those models can only begin to do something with it. We know, however, that yesterday's answers are not tenable—we have learned that much. We have refused to evolve on key issues and now wonder why we have difficulty understanding what is happening and why our models and methods no longer work.

I know it is a daunting task ahead. One where, to be honest, people my age are less likely to take the lead. Many, if not most, people born before the first Apple Macintosh simply lack the tools. For example, they see the internet and computers as just tools, like a modern hammer, a pen, machines. Artificial intelligence is just an intelligent computer. When we try to guide the digital natives, we find it hard to imagine their mindset. We don't see the possibilities they see, and we don't know their "inner drivers". For example, they want to inherit a world they can live in. They no longer want an absolute focus on growth, profit and efficiency in all facets. They do not want "anorexia strategies" (Arjan van Witteloostuijn, 1999), but they are looking for—besides strategies for survival—meaning, their contribution, and joint action.

This fundamentally questions, for example, "older" concepts such as "lean", "just-in-time" and "outsourcing". If we look at nature as it is and not as we want to see it, we do not find an answer to the question: Which species lives in majority so little in harmony with nature? “Nature" knows that there will be hard times and makes sure that it will have some "fat on its bones". "Nature" knows that it cannot rely on limited but easily obtainable sources, or the species will one day die out. The competition for survival consists of much more than just the order of predators.

And lo and behold, it proves true even in our increasingly technological world: chip manufacturers cannot deliver, and the car industry suffers even though it does not make computers. A container ship stuck in a waterway and the changing political environment of recent years upset trade and procurement structures. A virus is on its way to change our societies fundamentally, forcing us to see developments we did not want to see for a long time. Energy security at acceptable prices has been something of a "basic right" in Europe for the past decades and a central fuel for growth – but in the future?

It turns out that the world simply does not behave and develop in a linear way, which is why I consider, for example, stage-gate to be a useless R&D tool. It's rather like the famous butterfly effect: everything influences everything. And we are currently suffering from even more misconceptions: Collecting more data only slows us down, because no amount of data is useful without analysis and intense, even heated, discussion. Holistic views of the big issues are needed; too many details only confuse. And trying to break problems and processes down into independent sub-processes leads, in my opinion, to ineffective analyses and solutions.

So, enough of the negative navel-gazing of our industrial society. The power for development lies in a positive approach. And it is high time for a future-oriented approach at that. What that might be, I will put up for discussion in future columns. There will inevitably be bold statements about intellectual property, co-creation and "my generation". It will also be about the role of "ambidextrous" organisations (but then real ones). And with answers and solutions from adhesive (tape) technology, we can do a lot to fight pandemics. Let's not kid ourselves: The climate crisis is a pandemic, but in slow motion (The Correspondent, 7 May 2020). And we should provide better answers than we have in the current virus pandemic.

Even though my first column [for ISGATEC] is more about the world in general—as I see it—and not yet about adhesive tapes, this technology will play an important role in the future we are shaping. Whether it is for better or worse is up to us.

Read the article in the original German at isgatec.com here.

2nd ISGATEC Industrial Adhesive Tapes Forum
29 September 2022 (plus preceding evening)
Heidelberg Marriott Hotel
Heidelberg, Germany

Learn more information about this German-language event here.