Six hundred years ago, the first renaissance began in a period with several recurring outbreaks of plague. The fear was real; a third of the European population died and it was clear that neither the church nor the rulers could protect them against this catastrophe.
Simultaneously, two popes – one in Rome, the other in Avignon – were competing against each other. The result was a loss of belief in the authority of the Vatican. The church lost its iron grip on the common people who increasingly felt that independent thinking was both allowed and important.
Today, for different reasons similar trends are in play. We are losing trust in our governments and in big business and the evidence shows that this is not just because of the economic crisis. Rather there is a long-term trend, away from faith in distant forms of authority and towards putting our trust in ‘people like us’: our peers.
We are again seeing a collective loss of peace of mind. Globalisation and the severe economic crisis have cost millions of jobs in the Western societies. Life is not as secure as it used to be. Our jobs may be moved the China and many young people feel that there is no room for them in society. They worry about how long the economic crisis will last and how they will fare. Within this context, governments are seen as powerless.
In the 15th century new means of communication enabled information to travel in unprecedented ways. In Gutenberg's ingenious invention – the movable metal type – made knowledge available beyond the elite as books became cheaper and numerous. Today the internet is a revolutionary global tool that makes global dialogue possible: more than two billion people are using some social media. This is not a top-down dialogue; rather it is non-hierarchal and horizontal.
As well as new means of communication, we are seeing radical changes in the means of production. The way we manufacture products is based on economies of scale, with global companies able to drive what consumers want or need, providing standardised products in a top-down market place. The internet and other technologies are changing this. Within 10 years it is likely that we have millions of small entrepreneurs, producers, sometimes one-person ‘factories’ providing goods to a potentially global customer base. Their tool will be the 3D printer and scanner.
Their products will be marketed through the internet; and the horizontal production and dialogue will dramatically transform our societies.
This second renaissance will challenge traditional hierarchies and established authorities, which will need to develop radically different strategies if they are to adapt to the new market place. The winners will be ordinary people and the result will be a more diverse, richer society as more and more people discover and attain their dreams.
This is not a revolution in the traditional sense because these changes are not driven by ideology with two or more groups fighting for dominance. Instead what we will see is a gradual but radical change of societal structure. Hierarchies are already flattening but this process will be accelerated as the cost of new technologies comes down and their use increases. Government and political institutions will need to respond to these trends by re-organising and developing strategies that make room for people to participate beyond election campaigns.
The first renaissance inspired ordinary people to think for themselves and some of those who led this revolution of ideas - Leonardo da Vinci, Shakespeare - remain famous today. Just so, our second renaissance will create a more participatory society and unleash an explosion of new ideas and creativity in arts, science and exploration.
This comment is based on the book "The Renaissance Society" – How the Shift from Dream Society to the Age of Individual Control Will Change the Way You Do Business by Rolf Jensen and Mika Aaltonen, published by McGraw-Hill in May 2013.