The pattern is in the change

The landscape of market opportunity is a thing in motion, a confluence of systems that weave into and out of one another. Vast, overlapping networks of people, communities and organizations expand and contract, pushing against culture as they stretch to meet diverse needs.

While the term ‘instability’ is often linked to this shifting, unpredictable space, systems thinker Brandon Barnett says it is a completely natural ecosystem.  Assuming that stability is the norm in any realm — biological, economic, digital or otherwise — limits our thinking and makes it hard to move along with the landscape under our feet.

The problem is that we don’t have a good intuition for instability, Barnett says. We don’t quite know what to do with it.

As director of corporate strategy at Intel Corporation, Barnett builds analytic tools to help businesses anticipate how a host of futures might emerge in this movable space. “Companies need some way to figure out how to grow, not only in their markets, but in new markets that become available,” he says.

It is old news that the Internet has upended all forms of exchange, but many businesses still remain tethered to market strategies that take stability as their starting point. 

Companies come and go more rapidly than ever before, Barnett points out, and products and services must keep pace. The traditional theory is that long-term stability suggests a market, which is punctuated by periods of instability. But, he says, “We’re starting to think about it as periods of long-term instability with punctuated stability.”

Using science, math, and a healthy splash of anthropology, Barnett and his colleagues seek a better view of systems in what they have labeled the Digocene, this present era that is thoroughly infused with digital technologies.  In the Digocene, the potential for connectivity is boundless.  Not only tools, but relationships and social expectations are reshaping themselves around the bits that flow past us and through us. 

“The industry is evolving rapidly in terms of what is valued and how value is captured,” Barnett says. “How do we gather information and develop perspectives that match the market dynamics and pace?”

Barnett has been looking outside Intel to understand communities of people that shape the markets. “No company, no matter how large, has the ability to explore all the complexity,” he says. In 2013, he organized a national civic hackathon that attracted more than 11 thousand tech-savvy entrepreneurs.  They were not trying to create new businesses or find the next big thing, but to study actual problems and assess the possibility of solving them.

Central to their mission was finding ways to put open datasets to work for people, to use the power of personal data responsibly, not just to feed advertising. “Our data was useless 10 years ago, and today it’s driving billions of dollars of business,” Barnett says. “We want a system where the value of data is flowing back to the people, and there are forces against that system. We want to explore the possibility of the people having control over it.”

With data comes the rise of the platform provider, Barnett says, and the most successful companies are allowing the ecosystem of users and providers to adapt to what is happening. “I’m not going to talk about the product in a stable market, I’m going to talk about my robustness as an entity within a stable ecosystem. One way for businesses to optimize themselves is to think less about what they’re delivering and more about how they’re connecting people.”

Today, anybody can be a taxi driver or an hotelier. Like an invasive species, a seemingly insignificant player introduced in the far corner of a market ecosystem could cause substantial change as the system reorients itself. “This thing may destabilize what is valued or how value is captured,” he says.

That is why finding patterns in the market may be inefficient, Barnett suggests, because as soon as we discern some arrangement of behaviors, they will likely morph into something else.  It is the morphing that we must watch, he says, not to react to it, but to flow with it.

“Patterns go against the premise of things changing rapidly. The pattern is in the change.”