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Global 2015: THOUGHT LEADERSHIP | DISRUPTION

It threatens stability but also drives innovation 


Will 2015 be the year when the economic disruption caused by the crash of 2008 finally begins to subside? Can we hope for a “new normal” of sustained growth and stability? After all, seven years of famine is supposed to be followed by another seven of relative feast!

The short answer to that is, forget it. Whatever you thought was “normal” doesn’t exist anymore. In its place is a world of constant disruption, at both the macro and micro levels.

From a macro perspective, the global banking crisis has shattered the traditional slow economic cycle from expansion to contraction and back again – probably forever. We have to get used to a world where the next convulsion may be just around the corner.

Accompanying this underlying financial instability is the economic rollercoaster caused by the slump in global oil prices. Predictions in this game are not hard to find. You can find experts to give you almost any opinion you like. Some believe that oil at $50 or so a barrel is here to stay, underpinning a new era of long-term global growth.

Others will tell you that oil has fallen way too fast and will soon be heading back up to $70 or even $80 a barrel. There is only one truth: nobody, but nobody, can predict how this massive game of chicken being played with the price of our most vital commodity will finally turn out. 

Disruption at the macro level

Also at the macro level, remember the famous BRIC countries? This was the collective name for the turbo-charged emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, and China, which would catapult the world economy onto a higher plane of economic growth.

In 2015, prospects for the BRIC nations are far more difficult to figure out. Consider these three impossible questions:

  1. Has China’s current slowdown bottomed out? Will the world’s second largest economy start to gather economic steam again, as it did in the boom years  of the noughties? Or will deep structural weaknesses in the Chinese financial system bring its economy crashing down, with all of the political instability that would bring?
  2.  Where is Brazil headed?

    The tidal wave of terrible economic and political news is threatening to swamp what was once the beautiful B in BRIC. Is there any hope that it can be stabilized? 

  3. Possibly the most difficult question of all: whither Russia? If the optimists on oil are correct, and the price per barrel stays around the $50 mark, Russia’s economy won’t be able to bear it. And what will that mean for the continuing deadly standoff over Ukraine? 

Disruption at the micro level

At the micro economic level, there is a whole other kind of disruption taking place, mostly of a more positive nature. In almost every sector, technology is disrupting traditional business models, overturning and creating new economic paradigms.

This phenomenon can be summed up in one word: Uber. The taxi-hailing service has disrupted not just its own moribund industry, but also everything in its path. As FT Associate Editor Andrew Hill noted recently in the FT: “To be ‘Ubered’ has become a catchphrase well beyond the domain of transportation.”

Uber appeared to come out of nowhere to dominate its industry. The disruption was super-fast and brutal. We can be certain this pattern will be repeated in other industries by bold entrepreneurs who are willing to take on vested interests and create new paradigms.

Disruption will follow disruption. The ascent of Netflix changed the broadcasting industry forever. But who would bet against yet another challenger appearing to reinvent the model again?

The next wave

If I had to place my bets for the next wave of disruption, I would pick out two possibilities.

First, the car industry stands on the verge of true technological and economic disruption that has the potential to make life better for people and the environment. After years of false starts, BMW and others have already made enormous strides in the development of electric vehicles. And now Google is going head-to-head with (guess who?) Uber, in the race to be the first company to produce a driverless car.

Second, mobile technology promises to bring a much better future for the banking industry after the post-2008 disasters. There now exists the opportunity for a banking brand that is bold enough to reinvent the category using next-generation smartphone devices and 4G networks.

The two kinds of disruptions described here – the inherent instability of the world’s financial and economic systems at the macro level, and the furious, positive dynamism of entrepreneurs at the micro - stand in stark opposition to one another. The former threatens the very future of the world economy, the latter offers economic opportunity and growth through radical change. The big question for us in 2015 is, which one will dominate the other?