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Hager Forum: Interview with philosopher and physicist Marc Halévy about the transformation of the world and future challenges.

Obernai, 07.02.2019

Interview with Marc Halevy: adapt or disappear.

The world is changing and we need to understand why. What is happening to us and our planet, our societies, our businesses? 

Hager Group's human resources team has offered its employees the chance to discuss these matters with physicist and philosopher Marc Halévy on February 7th, 2019 during a conference-debate.

How is our world changing? 

Our socioeconomic logic is branching off in a far-reaching way, as happens on average every 550 years (the last time was the Renaissance and the transition from feudalism to modernity). One world is dying (that of modernity and its values and ways to interpret the world) and a new world is emerging along five major axes.

From the environmental point of view, we have left behind the old paradigm of abundance and are now in a world in which all the essential resources (energy, arable land, fresh water, non-ferrous metals, etc.) are scarce. We therefore need to develop an economy based on frugality.

From a genealogical point of view, we have come from a financial-industrial model based on the mass economy (producing and selling a lot) and low prices. This model is dying: all cost prices will rise and markets are turning towards a logic of utility value and niches; therefore we must develop a virtuous economy.

From the technological point of view, digital has supplanted mechanics: immaterial intelligence produces value, not material processes. Everything that can be robotised will be robotised; everything that can be algorithmised will be algorithmised. The centre of gravity of human activities is moving full speed towards new trades.

From a logistical point of view, the classic hierarchical model has reached its inefficiency zone. It is far too poor in relationships and interactions, therefore too slow and too heavy, to respond to the complexification and acceleration of the real world. We must therefore move to rich organisations, in other words collaborative network operations of small autonomous entities.

Finally, from an ethical point of view, the nihilism of the 20th century has left behind a world that is cruelly lacking meaning and values. The big question we must therefore ask is: what benefits are people, humanity, enterprise, economy, community and society aimed at producing?

 

What principally impacts our companies from the economic, technological and ecological points of view? 

Five radical changes are needed to avoid companies from disappearing.

  1. Companies will have to apply the motto ‘Do (much) less, but (much) better’ in everything they do. This means permanently chasing after everything wasted (including time and stress), everything we do or have done that is useless, time wasted on the phone, in meetings or sending pointless e-mails.
  2. Companies have to understand that their immaterial assets (real virtuosities) are infinitely more valuable (but much more volatile) than their material assets. They must therefore invest a lot of time and energy (but little money) in developing their real talents, their real know-how and their real excellences.
  3. Faced with the explosion of digital technologies, more than just keeping a cool head, we must develop a true digital intelligence. Most ‘innovations’ from California have absolutely no economic value and no value in use. They are gadgets. Moreover, most of the companies that produce them earn money only through stock trading, not because of their work (Amazon, Uber, Facebook, Google, SpaceX, Instagram, Tesla, etc. all lost around 20% of their value in 2018). They will disappear in the next five to ten years. The real digital revolution lies far from this nonsense.
  4. Companies must radically transform their working methods. Collaborative networking and small self-contained units will be the norm. The hierarchical principle is outdated and must be replaced by a charismatic principle. Furthermore, the concept of wage-earner will disappear and be replaced by concepts like associate, freelancer, partner, etc.
  5. Companies - in particular with regard to generations Y and Z who are demanding this - must answer the question ‘why’ before they answer the ‘how’. We can no longer ‘give orders to do things’ but instead should ‘give a good reason to do them and do them well’. And wages are no longer the only good reason - far from it.

 

SMART: Internet of Things (IoT), embedded services: how do you think this trend will evolve? What is your philosopher's point of view?

As always with these kinds of things, 80% of gadgets are useless. Can ‘connected objects’ and ‘embedded software’ sometimes be genuinely useful? But most of the time, they are not much use and weaken the reliability of operations. And of course they copiously feed big data and the uses to which malicious third parties can put such data for espionage, control, denunciation, fake news, etc.

I come back to the central ideas of ‘digital intelligence’ and ‘digital minimalism’. Basically this amounts to applying three principles:

  1. Only using technology if it provides real value in use; just because a gadget is new or fashionable it doesn't mean that it is useful.
  2. Always make sure that technology remains the slave of mankind and that mankind is never the slave of technology (just look at the addiction to mobile phones, a gadget that is more than often useless).
  3. Apply this minimalist principle: the less we depend on technologies, the freer - and happier - we are.

 

What will be the next energy challenges?

The first challenge is to make people understand that 'renewable energy' does not exist. A wind turbine turns and produces electricity thanks to wind, which is a free fuel. And there will be wind as long as the sun is hot and the Earth is surrounded by a gaseous atmosphere. That's all very well. But to build, operate, maintain and dismantle that wind turbine will consume enormous amounts of resources which are absolutely non-renewable, non-recoverable and non-recyclable. The yield of the operation is negative and it only works today by pumping a lot of taxpayer's money into it.

Like wind power or any alternative or “energy transition” technology, electric cars displace resource problems, but do not solve them. It lies at the heart of an issue that is more political and ideological than genuinely environmental. It shifts pollution from cities to the countryside (where the necessary additional power plants - nuclear or otherwise - will be installed) and accelerates the depletion of already scarce resources (such as lithium).

The second challenge: our petroleum supplies will soon run out. It is therefore essential to continue to build the nuclear sector (taking care to avoid accidents and radioactive waste); that is the one and only transition energy.

The third challenge: the only truly clean and renewable source of electricity involves hydroelectric power plants (which, I remind you, is a ‘solar’ sector). The concern is that almost every site in the world where a real dam can be located is already in operation or under construction. This covers about 20% of the current needs of humanity.

The conclusion is plain and simple and constitutes the major challenge: we must not try to produce in some other way, we must attempt to consume much less!

 

Marc Halévy, you mention frugality a lot. Can you define it for our readers? In your opinion, is this an urgent matter for businesses? Why?

Let me share some figures to help us understand: in 1800, there were one billion humans on Earth, then 1.7 billion in 1900, 6 billion in 2000, 7.5 billion today and more than ten billion (all other things being equal) in 2050. Furthermore, the appetite to consume all of this beautiful world is a growing exponential that multiplies the first one. Faced with this, the global stock of natural resources continues to decline (in 150 years, humans have consumed 80% of all non-renewable reserves). The two curves of demographic demand (increasing at a startling rate) and the capacity of the Earth's supply (rapidly decreasing) will cross to take us from a logic of abundance to one of shortage. In fact, it's been that way since the early 2000s.

Shortage is not on the horizon. It is already here. The most glaring shortages today are in freshwater, arable land, fossil fuels, non-ferrous metals and so on, not to mention the cultural and intellectual shortage caused by the failings of our education systems. In twenty years, the illiteracy rate has increased from 10% to 21% of the adult population in France. And it's almost the same elsewhere.

There is a great deal of waste. But this waste is not the root cause of the shortages. Even without wasting, humans are far too numerous to consume these increasingly rare vital resources.

We are experiencing a profound crucial change, comparable to the Neolithic Revolution, whose economic component says: we must move very quickly from quantity to quality, from value in exchange to value in use, from growth to development. We must understand that economic development in terms of value in use can be achieved only through a decline in GDP and turnover, a decline in company size and a decline in population. It is no longer a matter of mass producing prices, but of soberly generating value. There is no correlation between financial wealth and joie de vivre. Quite the opposite. This is the great choice that our generation must begin to take.

From the technological point of view, digital has supplanted mechanics: immaterial intelligence produces value, not material processes.

Marc Halevy

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