Our anchor, Ari Wallach, lays out his vision for long path thinking, and asks if it is compatible with democracy, or feasible when prior frameworks that provide (more)
Felicia Wong, Executive Director of the Roosevelt Institute, shared what she’s learned in engaging individuals and institutions in long-term thinking. She sees (more)
The best discussions are almost always driven by great questions, and this roundtable on Reinventing Longpath Thinking was littered with them.
Our anchor Ari Wallach, who is in the early stages of writing a book on how to mainstream long-term thinking, or what he calls “Longpath Thinking,” had more questions than answers to feed to our illustrious group. The other roundtable participants had plenty of great answers, but their share of questions too.
Everyone gathered in this roundtable could be considered the next generation of long-term thinkers, and all had been taught in some way by an earlier generation of long-term thinkers, like serial innovator Stewart Brand and futurist Peter Schwartz, who cofounded the influential Global Business Network, or GBN.
This roundtable built on that previous body of work and started asking the hard questions about why long-term thinking seems so absent from many current public discussions and how it might be more fully integrated into more routine planning by individuals, companies, and countries in the future. These questions are all the more urgent given that many of our biggest challenges, like climate change, will require decades to solve.
What follows are a dozen questions to emerge form this lively discussion. Many prompted terrific answers that you can see in the videos, but more often they pointed to the need for more discussion in future roundtables that we just might have to hold in the year ahead:
- Ari set the table with the overarching question: how can we mainstream the kind of long-term thinking that is practiced in relatively small circles of future-oriented groups? Unless this becomes more widespread, the techniques are doomed to fail.
- David Hodgson picked up on that and asked: what kind of capacity-building exercises would be needed to raise young generations to not make the mistakes of their parents, and routinely think more long-term and, while we’re at it, more global?
- After the group gave several examples of how people are hardwired to think about the future, Ari wondered: Is it possible for the kind of long-term thinking we see exhibited by individuals get scaled up and carried out by larger groups, big agencies, or countries?
- Do we need God to help a broad range of average people to think about the future? Ari made the case that Judeo-Christian religions had a clear framework for the individual to think about his or her future, ending in heaven or hell. But with the rise of secularism and the demise of religion, are we losing future thinking as well?
- Is this lack of long-term thinking more an American malaise?, asked Daniel Erasmus, a South African linked in from Amsterdam. He rightly pointed out how China routinely issues 10-year plans, and Europe is always thinking in terms of decades or centuries, though often looking backwards, towards the past.
- Are there any new tools, or technology advances like computer simulation, that might help make long-term thinking easier, and counter the trends towards presentism? That came from yours truly, Peter Leyden.
- Is American-style democracy incompatible with long-term thinking? Are authoritarian governments like China the only ones that have the wherewithal to do this anymore? This question of Ari’s prompted a heartfelt response from Felicia Wong, president of the Roosevelt Institute, who objected that America had made many tough, long-term decisions in the past, like FDR’s push for social security, or JFK’s call for landing on the moon.
- So then are such grand strategies a thing of the past? Ari asked what has been done in America on that scale since 1980, or since the empowerment of everyone through the internet?
- Are centralized decision-making processes like in corporations better suited to making long-term plans than more democratic processes? Peter reluctantly asked this question after listening to various examples of corporations like Amazon making such long-term decisions, but only under the influence of powerful leaders like Jeff Bezos.
- Felicia asked a very simple but central question at the end of the roundtable: why does long-term thinking matter? Alexander Rose, from the Long Now Foundation, and Nicole Boyer, both professionals working in the futures field, where quick to answer that.
Many of the questions above were not fully answered, and so the feeling at the end was that this roundtable was just the beginning. There’s plenty of fodder to explore more in a possible in-depth series sometime in 2014. Or we might just have to wait for Ari’s book…
As the world faces up to the magnitude of the major challenges of the 21st century, our concept of time is going to have to greatly expand. Anyone facing the facts about these super-complex problems quickly realizes that they will not be solved in four years, or a decade, or any of the timeframes usually applied to politics and economics.
We have to reintroduce the concept of long-term planning back into our frenzied, modern world to solve problems like climate change, poverty, security and even truly wicked ones like domestic abuse. In other words, we have to Reinvent Long-term Thinking, or as Ari Wallach says, Reinvent Longpath Thinking.
Wallach is a next-generation strategist who advises top companies, foundations and government agencies on how to drive innovation. He’s best known as co-founder of The Great Schlep whose video had over 25 million web views and started a national conversation about race, faith and democracy during the 2008 presidential campaign.
People need to get back to thinking beyond our own lifetimes, according to Wallach. People in the past routinely did this as they planned and carried out building Cathedrals or other civic projects that took hundreds of years. Even in the 20th century, people planned for infrastructure projects like the Interstate Highways that would take a generation or more to build.
However, we can’t go right back to those old forms of top-down, centralized planning where a few leaders made the plan and everyone else just blindly carried it out. That’s too brittle.
Everything we’re learning from today’s technology and business worlds points to more agile forms of development where teams try things out and build for awhile, then test, learn and possibly pivot to a more promising approach.
What’s missing is Longpath Thinking, in Wallach’s view. We need to look far off, like from a hill across an open wilderness, and choose the long-term goal to shoot for, like a mountain in the distance. From there you pick a path that works its way generally in that direction. But the path can switch back, and meander, and offer alternative ways forward. All the while you keep checking for general alignment to that distant peak.
This roundtable will bring together an eclectic group to consider how Longpath Thinking might really work. How long is long? Are there better methods for thinking in this way? How would we begin to institutionalize this approach in government and business, the economy and society? Full Post →