31 July, 2009

Having a long view is essential to face 21st Century challenges

Sergio Abranches

Thinking about the future is not easy. It is very much like gaming, one has to get through a maze of obstacles and deception to reach further and higher, moving to increasing levels of complexity, towards one’s goal.

The task is to envisage plausible, different, alternate futures. The whole exercise is about increasing levels of abstraction and detachment from current experience, down to concrete hypothesis about a new state of the world.

One could do that either by using quantitative simulation tools or qualitative story writing. Quantitative methods are still too linear to my liking. If necessary I would prefer to use system analytic tools such as Studio 8 (Powersim) for PCs, and Stella or iThink, for Macintosh (my case). If I can choose, I’d rather use more qualitative scenario writing that can be as effective as simulation curves. Dealing with the future is a tricky affair, be it to interpret the results of one’s models, be it to get meaningful results from one’s storyboard.

Future thinking requires an awkward combination of audacity and discipline. Audacity to dare to be radically creative and to feel absolutely free to use all one’s intelligence, information and knowledge to consider alternate futures. Discipline not to let the past and the present to contaminate your views of the future. Both past and present have to be wisely and carefully applied in shaping the context for your future stories, but they cannot dominate them. The greater danger lies in the temptation of linearly projecting our present experiences and biases into the future, what Ray Kurzweil calls “intuitive linear view” in opposition to the “historical exponential view”.

Let me be clearer: the present writes linearly the “business as usual” future. In many cases, as for climate change, the “business as usual” future is the one we cannot afford, because it is not feasible. It is a future that will not actually be. There are emerging forces, many still latent, that will very likely change the course of future history away from the “business as usual” scenario. The contradictions of maintaining the status quo generate a turbulent environment in which these forces tend to unfold and gain strength. At the same time it is a hostile environment for the dwindling forces behind the status quo.

Let’s look at it empirically and logically. Can we say that the world we live today is the outcome of 30 years of business as usual? Look around you, all the gizmo, the economics, the social networking, the cultural context, all significant elements of both your personal and professional lives. Now, think back 30 years ago. Almost nothing that is relevant for our current personal and professional lives could be found in 1979. Why should we bet our existence on the belief that 2039 will be approximately equal to 2009, linearly increased or decreased, a bit improved or a bit worsened? Isn’t it more likely that it will be as different as 2009 is from 1979, or even more so? Some of you reading this post weren’t even born back in 1979. Is there a more radical change than between being and not being? Look at all the differences it means to be 20 or 50 years old. To me business as usual, in the long run, is a logical impossibility.

Besides, a business as usual outcome in the age of global warming and climate change is much less likely than a happy scenario of a low-carbon society or a doom story of a society that has chosen to burn itself out of history.

The dangerous temptation of projecting the present into the future should not be mistaken for acknowledging the political, social and cultural strength of the status quo. We’ve built a world not to change, but to expand upon what we already have and are. Our institutions are set to prevent that we shift towards the very different. They are adjusted to help us become more efficient, building upon what we already do. Like the French say with savvy, the rule is: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more it changes, the more it remains the same. This is true on the short and mid run. On the long run, however, the World will change no matter what forces try to prevent it from changing.

There is another danger haunting everyone trying to think about the future: “short vision” or the inability to hold a long view. In this hectic society we live, overflowing of news, information, scientific findings, gadgets, you name it, threaten to engulf us on an ever accelerating pace. To adapt and survive we have to spend so much time sorting out what is meaningful to us, that we can only look at today. Tomorrow will always be another day, very much like yesterday, and so this experience seems to hold for the future as well.

It doesn’t. The future will not be like yesterday, today or tomorrow. It will be something very different. If we look back at twenty, thirty years ago, our world was so different from today. There are countless things we do, use, have that we couldn’t even dream of a few years ago. The only thing we can be sure of is that change will happen, life will find a way very likely unprecedented and unforeseen by most.

A group of future-minded people was so worried about this short view syndrome that they decided to create a foundation dedicated to promote long-term thinking. I should have said very long-term, because they say they “hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years”. They intend to do that by providing a counterpoint to today’s “faster/cheaper” mind set and promote “slower/better” thinking.” Among the founding fathers of the Long Now Foundation are two well known authors and professional scenario planners, Stewart Brand and Peter Schwartz. They aren’t a group of “outliers”. They’ve been sponsoring some of the most creative and interesting seminars I’ve seen lately. One of the most recent, on July 28, was on “Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future”, with Pamela Ronald, head of plant genetics at UC Davis, and Raoul Adamchak, who teaches organic farming, there. Their main claim is that “to meet the appetites of the world’s population without drastically hurting the environment requires a visionary new approach”.

To adopt a long view – it doesn’t have to be 10,000 years long – is to open ourselves to the novelty that lies ahead of us. It may sound as a cliché, but the future is indeed full of surprises, bad and good ones, and, more often than not, inevitable surprises. Peter Schwartz wrote in his 2003 book, Inevitable Surprises: Thinking Ahead in a Time of Turbulence, that “surprises are the norm”, particularly after science and technology-powered revolutions have greatly increased the complexity and turbulence of our life. He tells us that there will be more surprises, we will be able to deal with them, and we will anticipate most of them. We cannot know their consequences in advance or how they will affect us, but we know many of the surprises to come, like economic collapses, for instance. He wrote that in 2003.

Far-reaching scientific and technological changes have accelerated our biorhythm as they exponentially increased our power to tinker with both our natural and built environments. We are right now experiencing the early beginnings of yet another scientific revolution. It will lead to the convergence of several advancements that are already among us, but when put together in full interaction will likely become something very different. Something much larger than the simple sum of their parts. I am talking about the fusion of digital, nano, bio, and neuro science and technologies that will inevitably produce a new techno-age, full of wonder, potential, and risk.

The breadth of the changes to come can be so astonishing that we may not continue to be able to anticipate surprises, and to make “pretty good assumptions about how most of them will play out,” as Peter Schwartz asserts. We may be traveling to a higher dimension of our future, totally new and yet inconceivable.

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