Today, 30 years later, I took up the table-tennis rackets again with the kids. The old skills improved quickly, until… one of the youngsters brought along a little egg-shaped plastic ball! “You can now play with this egg,” was the simple instruction. After a few shots, amidst lots of giggling, we realized we could not continue like this! The movement of the egg-shaped ball was totally unpredictable. Even with the best anticipation of the movement, there was no way we could figure out in which direction the odd-shaped ball would move. The movement was inherently non-linear, so that we could not carry on playing by the old rules. So we gave up!
As a teenager, I used to really enjoy hitting a little white round ball across a table for hours on end. The repetitive click-clock-click-clack surely irritated my mother, but she never complained about it. The game was quite easy: when you hit the ball with a certain force in a certain direction, it usually moved in that direction, and after a bit of practice hitting the ball became quite easy. We added more excitement to the game by adding a little spin when hitting the ball, which made the movement of the ball a little more unpredictable upon impact. Yet when the opponent also hit with spin, the ball could be returned fairly accurately.
Is this the same way that our world has changed? Instead of linear, predictable movements requiring simple skills, the global environment has become odd-shaped with non-linear, unpredictable changes that require very different competencies. This has occurred in the economy, technology, politics, society, media, and even in the environment. The old rules do not work anymore. Neither does the old understanding of the world. So where to from here? Complexity requires complex answers, and chaotic movements need systems thinking. This is the point at which strategic foresight comes in. We want to ask new questions: What new goals do we want to aim for? Whereto could these non-linear movements take us? By which new rules should we play? And how can we still enjoy the game of non-linear movements?
As future thinkers, we could come up with a new game that does not require predictable straight-line movements of little white balls, but that could purposefully involve the erratic movements of small egg-shaped objects jumping in all sorts of directions. What should we call it – “unstable tennis?”