We live in a VUCA world: this summary used to hit the nail on the head during the last few decades. Through this lens, however, we no longer can derive useful information from this model. Instead, we seem to face chaos larger than VUCA – in politics, global warming and the current pandemic, any many other spheres of life. For future purposes, I therefore would like to propose that we apply the BANI acronym instead of VUCA. The meaning of each component of this new word – B:rittle, A:nxious, N:on-linear and I:ncomprehensible – makes much more sense in the face of today’s challenges. In this article, I will explain the details for this more accurate method to describe these circumstances.1
For the German version of this article, click here.
What is VUCA – or rather: what did VUCA stand for?
Everyone knows the acronym VUCA – no wonder since it has been around for almost four decades. As we all know, the blended term consists of “volatile,” “uncertain,” “complex,” and “ambiguous,” and it was significantly shaped by the results of the Cold War. Afterwards it served as a great point of orientation in terms of agile and self-oriented approaches to working, thinking, and making sense of the world in general. However, the situation has substantially changed since the term was coined in the 1980s, and complexity for instance seems to have evolved into chaos.
The VUCA environment has substantially changed
Not only that the term has been excessively used and thus lost its meaningfulness, it also has ceased to provide useful insights concerning the basic question: How can we reasonably deal with current circumstances? In this world at its current state, VUCA does not suffice anymore to make sense of it or to figure out potential future scenarios. In other words: this is no longer a VUCA environment. It has evolved, which calls for a new terminology, a new language to explain the changed world.
So why BANI? In a nutshell: It paints a clear picture of how the world looks to us nowadays, and it makes each aspect more tangible.
- What used to be volatile has ceased to be reliable.
- People do not feel uncertain anymore, they are anxious.
- Things are not complex anymore, instead they obey non-linear logical systems.
- What used to be ambiguous appears incomprehensible to us today.
Let us have a closer look at that.
What does BANI stand for?
As in the VUCA acronym, each letter has a specific meaning that contributes to the concept.
“B” as in Brittle
You cannot rely on something brittle or frail. It may break down out of the blue – despite looking reliable, flexible, even unbreakable. It may even be – up to a breaking point that cannot be predetermined. In a BANI world, a brittle system may work well on the surface while being on the verge of breaking down for good.
A system turning brittle often is the result of maximizing profits – and that applies to basically any area of life. Just take
- Monocultural farming, effectively draining the soil plus making it more vulnerable: one minor error may cause only this crop’s harvest fail.
- The resource curse, when large regions focus on their natural resources exclusively – just before technological progress supersedes them entirely.
History offers numerous examples for both patterns, and you can find such a critical point of failure in virtually any system. What is even more: in a world in which everything is interconnected – as it is today – a disastrous failure occurring in one country may cause a ripple effect all over the planet. Just look at
- Food supply
- Energy supply
- Global trade in general.
Our critical systems are essentially interwoven, and they do not have fail-safe systems. If one component fails, the result may very well be quite a number of systems failing and falling like dominos one after the other.
“A” as in Anxious
Against this backdrop, the obvious consequence is that the next letter in BANI should stand for “anxious”. If you are anxious, you will also feel helpless and unable to make decisions: any available option may potentially turn out terribly wrong. In an anxious world, people
- Watch for the next disaster to happen
- Tend to become passive to avoid potentially wrong decisions altogether
- Feel desperate about missed opportunities
- Face the terrible gut feeling of depending on someone who may very well make decisions with negative consequences for them.
However, when generally moving within an environment shaped by anxiety, the point is to learn how to deal with these circumstances in a productive way. In a nutshell: It is up to us to canvass a positive view on things – and we can do this by being clear in our own minds. From this basis we can deduce positive aspects, opportunities, and potentials for improvement.
Unfortunately, we get sidetracked as we permanently receive news that increases this sense of anxiety – and it obviously has increased during the last few decades.2 With the current pandemic, we even see a notable spike in anxiety and depression.3
Meanwhile, media focus on what is happening right now, and often fail to mention what is or would be right or what action will lead to which consequence. In addition to that, we deal with what we call fake news on a daily basis. Incorrect depictions enhance the pent-up emotions listed above, and they add to the ubiquitous anxiety in all spheres of life.
“N” is for Non-linear
The next letter as cause and consequence no longer are assessable in advance. The basic logic of what we know as a linear cause-effect chain has become non-linear: they do not quite fit together.
- Small decisions have disproportionate impacts that can turn out beneficial as well as devastating.
- Changes lead to consequences with huge delays or only later become tangible.
- A lot will not necessarily help a lot and great effort may just fizzle out.
For instance, the current pandemic has introduced an unprecedented crisis in terms of scale, scope, infection, and mortality rates – and this fight will go on for another couple of months, probably years. The same patterns of non-linearity apply to the climate crisis. Global warming as it is manifesting today in fact is the result of decisions made by industries around 1980.
The same also holds true for economics, biological systems, medical health… The fully-fledged consequences of any given cause may take a fairly long time to emerge.
“I” is for Incomprehensible
Such non-linear results of any given cause, events, and decisions often seem to lack any kind of logic or purpose – they are incomprehensible. We cannot grasp the cause because it may have been long gone or it may appear too appalling or flat-out wacky. This renders investigations simply ludicrous and we cannot make sense of it.
For instance, software may only work with a certain line of code that apparently does not serve any purpose or work in any coding logic. However, deleting the line will make the software useless. It may be a programmers’ cliché, but it illustrates the term incomprehensibility well. Programming generally follows stream-lined logical patterns, yet the case is well-known, and cause and effect do not make sense at all.
Interestingly, having more information and data available does not equal finding an answer either.
- Along with potentially valuable signals, the noise increases as well.
- At the same time, our ability to make sense of the world remains the same.
- Therefore, more information may only overwhelm our thinking capacities.
Speaking of software, we also need to look at Artificial Intelligence.
- AI has been introduced to many spheres of daily life and becomes increasingly important.
- Their algorithms continuously learn from what we do – our behavior, available content, and so on.
- Meanwhile, we observe disproportionate results as well es deeply racist, sexist, and other discriminatory effects, even despite our best intentions.
Nonetheless, it is important to note that we may not understand numerous aspects now. However, future technologies and synergy effects (human brain + technology) will most likely render many things comprehensible after all.
Statistics prove the need for a new framework
At first glance, these observations may shed a devastating light on the formerly VUCA world. One could regard BANI as a rather dystopian, even apocalyptic point of view. Working in the field of future scenarios always carries the risk of “end of the world” images, while the average citizen may have those too. We have statistics and numbers such as suicide rates4, studies on alcoholism5 and other surveys6 indicating that the BANI world confounds people all over the world on all levels. This may result in solid despair and a general tendency to succumb to pessimism.7 Yet I ask you not to.
Being more accurate and concise than VUCA, the BANI acronym offers a productive framework
- To make sense of the world anew
- To better grasp the links between causes and effects
- To find a stable structure to determine what is going on in the world.
As such, each letter of the acronym also hints at viable options to respond to our current challenges:
- If something is brittle, it requires capacity and resilience.
- If we feel anxious, we need empathy and mindfulness.
- If something is non-linear, it calls for context and adaptivity.
- If something is incomprehensible, it demands transparency and intuition.
The BANI framework = an underrated gate to the future
Obviously, these are reactions rather than solutions to any problem. But this indicates that the problems can be solved at some point despite the anxiety we feel so deeply. Clearly we have left the VUCA world and entered a new (BANI) level or phase:
- The proceedings in the world are massive, and we do not know their full effects yet.
- Systems we rely on are subject to changes – including trading, information, social, societal and collaborate systems.
- And change always comes at a price.
With BANI, we now have a new language at our disposal to describe and grasp what is going on. It provides us with a basis to build on and to develop new approaches with. This is a chance to seize, so let us explore the options we have.
Personally, I am part of the consulting team of the German Zukunftsinstitut (institute of the future) and in our work, we have enhanced our thinking models by the insights the BANI framework provides in a productive way. The Grounded Thinking Model is one productive answer to the societal and economic questions a BANI world faces.
This is one approach to putting the acronym into proper action. Let us act together and find more ways to move forward in a productive and sustainable way, shall we?
Infographic: VUCA versus BANI
The following infographic shows how the BANI acronym may supersede the VUCA model and summarizes an appropriate framework to describe the (formerly VUCA) world:
To embed this infographic in our blog or website, please use this code:
<div><a href="https://stephangrabmeier.de/bani-versus-vuca/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><img src="https://stephangrabmeier.de/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/BANI-vs-VUCA_Infographic_Stephan-Grabmeier.png" alt="Infographic on BANI versus VUCA" title="BANI versus VUCA"></a></div>
(Cover image: © blende11.photo | stock.adobe.com)
 This text was inspired by Jamais Cascio’s post “Facing the Age of Chaos” on medium.com. While his description is really well done, I would like to introduce my point of view to contribute to the BANI concept becoming more popular as basis for a future sensemaking model.  For instance, prescription antianxiety drug use has significantly increased in the U.S. from 1988 to 2014, as this statistic shows.  The frequency of anxiety and depression symptoms in 2020 are many times higher than in 2019 in the same months, as this Statista infographic shows.  For instance in the U.S., suicide rates in males and females have increased during the last 20 years.  For instance, comparing the 1999 and 2017 numbers of alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. have doubled as this Statista infographic shows.  For instance, the individual answers to questions like “Is life in our country better or worse today than it was 50 years ago” may radically differ as this Statista infographic shows. To name two examples, 65 percent of the people in German would agree, 20 percent would not. In the U.S., only 37 percent share the opinion that life nowadays is better than 50 years ago while 41 percent clearly disagree.  In fact, it already seems to be the case in multiple countries as this Statista infographic suggests: The world’s most optimistic countries.