A framework for understanding a turbulent world.


Human Responses to a BANI World

This is fine.

(This is the text of the talk I gave on 19 October, 2022, for the Prestigio Leadership Forum, held in Colombia. Originally published on Medium on 22 October, 2022.)

Buenos Dias. I’m Jamais Cascio. If you’ve seen or heard my name recently, it’s probably because I created the BANI framework — Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear, Incomprehensible — as a way of better dealing with a chaotic world. I’ll talk more on BANI itself in a moment.

I’ve noticed something curious in many of the articles I’ve seen other people write about BANI. In most, I’m referred to as being a futurist — and yep, that’s me — and a writer — okay, got that, too — and an anthropologist. That one was a surprise. I do have a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology, true, but I also did my graduate work in Political Science. Importantly, my bachelor’s degree is also in History.

You may think it’s a bit amusing that a futurist studied history. But being a futurist is actually quite a bit like being a historian. Modern academic history isn’t just a description of events, it’s a discipline that seeks to figure out why something happened, what led people in that direction, and what choices we had along the way.

It’s the same for foresight work — when I write scenarios or do forecasts for organizations, my goal isn’t to provide a checklist of future events, it’s to uncover a better understanding of why we’re getting various outcomes, and how the choices we face along the way can lead us in very different directions. I think of futurism as Anticipatory History.

Doing this well depends upon the ability to spot patterns; as American writer Mark Twain supposedly said, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” But what happens when the story stops rhyming? In other words, what happens when our expectations about patterns fail?
I’ve been working as a futurist for close to 30 years, so combine that with my undergraduate degree in Anthropology and History and my graduate degree in Political Science, you’ll see that I’ve spent quite a bit of time observing global patterns.

About five years ago, I started to get a sense that patterns weren’t repeating (or rhyming) as often as they’d used to. Big global systems that had once been fairly consistent had become much less so. Like with so many of the changes in our world, this was probably all driven by growing damage to the global climate, but it was playing out in unexpected ways.

Big economic, political, environmental, technological, even social systems seemed like they were starting to fail, or at least become much less reliable. I wasn’t alone in these observations.

While I do a good amount of writing and public speaking, most of my day to day work consists of doing foresight projects with the California-based Institute for the Future. IFTF has been around for over fifty years, and with them I’ve done foresight and scenario work for everyone from major global automakers to the United Nations. This has given me the opportunity to speak with business and political leaders around the world about their concerns about the future.

Many of the people I’ve spoken with have expressed great surprise and confusion about what was going on around the world; it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t just the standard “the future is an unknown” that we all live with, it was an increasingly desperate sense that things we thought we understood were spinning wildly out of control.

We couldn’t as reliably make reasonable judgments about what was to come in the weeks and months ahead. Systems that appeared strong were suddenly on the verge of collapse; processes that were becoming increasingly critical to our daily lives were becoming less and less understandable. So in 2018, I started building a framework for getting a grip on the scale of what we’re facing as once seemingly-reliable global systems started to break down.
That was — and is — BANI.

Let me underscore that timing. I first developed BANI in mid 2018. Before the pandemic. Before the attempted insurrection in the United States, and just before the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil. Well before the invasion of Ukraine. Before you could make deepfake videos on your phone. Before world leaders finally admitted that massive wildfires and heatwaves and floods and storms that had become commonplace were driven by global warming. Before all of that, yet we could still see chaos everywhere.

Therefore, BANI. Creating a framework like this wasn’t just a random idea; I was trying to bring a conceptual tool that foresight analysts and consultants already used into the 21st century. The world of strategic consulting had long relied on a basic conceptual model to offer language and definition to a changing world.

It was the “VUCA” model, invented in the late 1980s at the US Army War College and spreading quickly throughout the world of consulting. VUCA is an acronym comprising four descriptive terms: Volatility; Uncertainty; Complexity; and Ambiguity. For a world moving out of the Cold War era and into the Internet era, these terms felt right. They perfectly captured the kinds of disruptions that were starting to happen more often.

But the world has rocketed past merely being “uncertain” or “volatile.” At this point, VUCA no longer captures disruptions to the norm, it is the norm. I’ve said — only half-jokingly — that we eat VUCA for breakfast. But if a VUCA world is all around us all the time, the term just isn’t that useful as a way of getting insight to discontinuities in how our world functions. We needed something new.

In late 2018, I presented the “BANI” framework for the first time, as part of a larger talk about global chaos for a big Institute for the Future meeting. BANI parallels VUCA, in that it’s a basic acronym for a set of descriptive terms. In this case, however, the terms are as subtle as a brick. As I mentioned, BANI comes from: Brittle; Anxious; Nonlinear; and Incomprehensible. In my view, these four concepts give us better language for the ways in which the world today seems to be falling apart. It’s a taxonomy of chaos.

For those of you who haven’t seen this before, here’s the quick summary:

The B in BANI is for Brittle. Systems that are brittle can appear strong, even work well, until they suddenly collapse. A quick note here: I often see the English word “brittle” translated as “fragile.” These two words are very close, but in English they’re not exactly the same. A fragile thing is delicate, and can break apart easily. A brittle thing seems solid and strong, but when it hits a certain level of stress it shatters. Brittle does not bend, it breaks. Very often the breaking point isn’t visible, at least to most people, and comes as a surprise.

Sometimes this is because the weaknesses are hidden or camouflaged; sometimes this is because the stress that causes the break is external and unexpected. The way this looks in practice is that systems that people rely upon stop working right, whether for political reasons, changes to the global financial system, or attacks on critical institutions.

Or if a part of a complicated system goes away. When demand for microprocessors dropped dramatically in the early part of the pandemic, lots of the companies that made them shifted their factories to make something else, or just shut them down. This meant that when a short time later demand for those same microprocessors grew rapidly, nobody could get their hands on enough of them. The manufacturing of everything from video game consoles to automobiles to home appliances stalled. The “supply chain crisis” was brittle chaos.

Brittle chaos is sudden, surprising, and hard to ignore.

The A in BANI is for Anxious (or Anxiety-creating). Systems that trigger anxiety are those that pose dilemmas or problems without useful solutions, or include irreversible choices that have unexpectedly bad outcomes. Anxious systems make trust difficult, sometimes even impossible. Things that had been well-understood suddenly seem alien or false. Decisions that felt right are no longer quite so certain. And in a world of chaos and rapid change, one mistaken decision can lead to overwhelming problems.

My usual example of an anxiety-creating system is misinformation, which can be political, but can also be economic or even personal. The last half-decade has been full of this, and we’ve seen some especially powerful uses in recent months. Misinformation often relies on technological tools, but the importance doesn’t come from the technology, it comes from the human response.

How can you make good decisions for your organization if you can’t be sure that the numbers haven’t been cleaned up? Can you trust that picture on a dating app, or were filters and photoshop used to make that person look unreal? And in many cases, misinformation isn’t even used to make you believe something that is false, it’s to make you doubt the validity of something that’s true.

Anxious chaos is confusing, deceptive, and emotionally painful.

The N in BANI is for Nonlinear. Nonlinear systems are those where, most simply, input and output are disproportionate. Cause and effect don’t match in scale or speed. Audio feedback is an example with which we’re all familiar; the spread of pandemic disease is, unfortunately, another. In BANI, nonlinear refers to systems that see changes that don’t match expectations built on familiar reality. Sometimes that means a divergence between cause and effect, like with climate change, where there’s a delay of at least a decade between changes to carbon levels in the atmosphere and changes to temperatures.

Recently, in Forbes magazine, writer Jeroen Kraiijenbrink described the nonlinear in BANI as meaning “the illusion of predictability.” Nonlinear processes disrupt what we expect to see as the result of our decisions. Small changes can have undesired big effects. Bad decisions can spiral out of control.

Nonlinear chaos is disproportionate, surprising, and counter-intuitive.

Finally, the I in BANI is for Incomprehensible. I get the most pushback on this one — can we really say that something is truly impossible to understand? But what I mean here is that, when something is incomprehensible, its details or processes are thoroughly opaque, with difficult or incomplete explanations.

The decision-making of machine learning systems is one example, where it’s difficult at best to explain how a deep learning system reaches its conclusions, and sophisticated AI can make strange errors, such as a self-driving vehicle repeatedly mistaking the moon for a traffic light. Incomprehensible can also mean behavior outside the realm of rational understanding. Think of how many recent events in your own countries, cities, even organizations left you thinking “why did they do that?”

Incomprehensible chaos is ridiculous, senseless, even unthinkable.

When I created BANI, I did so largely as a way for me to visualize the diverse ways in which global systems were failing. But it turns out that there’s hunger around the world for just this kind of framework. Over the past year, I’ve given a dozen or more talks and presentations on BANI for audiences all over the globe.

But it’s important not to overpromise what the BANI framework can do. Thinking in BANI terms won’t give you a new leadership strategy or business model. It won’t tell you how to better make profit amidst chaos.

In other words, BANI is not a magic wand to reveal solutions. Arguably, most of the kinds of system breaks that BANI encompasses don’t actually have solutions, at least not in the conventional sense. We can look for responses and, better yet, adaptations.

So when I’m asked about what can be done to withstand the chaos of a BANI world, I go to human elements and behaviors like resilience, empathy, improvisation, and intuition. The chaos of BANI doesn’t come from changes in a geophysical system or some such, it comes from a human inability to fully understand what to do when pattern-seeking and familiar explanations no longer work.

Brittle systems need resilience, the capacity of a system, or institution, or person, to withstand sudden shocks. To be flexible rather than brittle. System resilience often means building up resources as a cushion for the unexpected. That might be tangible goods, such as storing additional food supplies in case of periods of limited availability. Or it can be something less concrete, such as knowledge, like emergency planning or practice at responding to large-scale disaster. Either way, what’s critical here is that a truly resilient system needs to be built up before a crisis hits.

Anxiety-inducing systems need empathy, the recognition and acknowledgement of the negative human effects of a broken or chaotic system. In its simplest form, it’s the willingness to be kind and forgiving — both to others and to oneself. Many of our communication tools seem designed specifically to increase anxiety as well as fear, anger, and mistrust. Engagement with a TikTok video or a Facebook post is said to increase when it upsets people, prompting the digital network to push even more of that kind of material. Empathy from the BANI perspective can come down to seeing the algorithmic manipulation for what it is, and being able to appreciate that chaos-driven stress affects all of us.

Nonlinear systems need improvisation, the ability to adapt quickly to unexpected changes and developments. To be creative under pressure. Improvisation requires that people not be restricted to just pre-determined choices. Under normal conditions, those pre-determined choices might be the best. But when conditions are no longer normal, just continuing to do what you’ve been doing — or, worse, being forced to continue doing it — can sometimes have disastrous outcomes.

Incomprehensible systems need intuition, listening to our brain’s ability to recognize hidden connections, or when something doesn’t feel right, even when everything seems okay. In the US, we sometimes refer to this as a “gut feeling,” and I suspect you have similar terms in your own countries. Our brains are remarkable machines of pattern recognition. Our subconscious minds can reach conclusions based on piecing together evidence that’s there, but that we don’t consciously notice.

Here’s the thing about intuition: only human brains can do it. It’s the product of millions of years of biological evolution. Reaching for insights when you don’t know exactly what’s wrong, or what to do, can sometimes be the only path to success — or even survival.

I’m pleased that so many people around the world have found BANI useful. We had been groping for a way to articulate a sense of chaos, and BANI provides a common, understandable language for doing so. BANI helps to give structure to our experience of the chaos swirling around us, and in doing so, helps us to consider more fully what to do next.

Unfortunately, our current period of chaos is by no means over. In fact, it may just be beginning. We face a long future of adaptation — and we can do it. All of the BANI responses to chaos that I just talked about — intuition and empathy, improvisation and resilience — are very hard to measure, impossible (at least for now) to turn into algorithms, and very human. They’re the ways that human beings have long adapted to periods of upheaval.

The way I see it, transformation amidst chaos is the very definition of what it means to be human.

Thank you. Muchas gracias.