How to Hit the Future on the Upswing

It’s all about trends. Not the celeb-type “trending” that’s become trendy on Twitter. But reading the runes; sensing which trends that can be seen to have meaning. More Chinese- than English-speakers on the internet in 5 years? Young people’s use of email dropped almost one-half in 2 years? What does the ineluctable shift to mobile mean for the latest FCC pronouncement on “neutrality”? The faster everything moves, the more important it is to track the trends and pick the ones that will shape the future. Which means, not least, that decisions can no longer be data-driven in the way we used to believe they should. Knowledge-powered intuition, decision-making in creative groups, scanning for patterns amid the exaclasm of data.

As we used to say in slower times, a difference in quantity can become one in quality. When tectonic plates finally shift; when paradigms shatter; when conventional wisdom becomes so much (dangerous) trash. We’ve seen it domestically with the explosive emergence of an exopolitics – from to the Tea Party, the cable-TV-star rallies, and beyond. We’ve seen it in geopolitical terms with the first harbingers of the Asymmetric Century. Two men have emerged who best understand how the rules have changed, and neither works for the USG (clue: their names begin with A and Bin L). We are seeing it, back of all this, in the technosphere, where Moore’s Law has teamed with much-too-young people like Zuckerberg and Stone and the Grouponites and the Quora crowd not just (as we tend too readily to think) to give us fun gadgets that could even have business use, but to shake by the hair the entire human project – with Gutenbergesque, Manhattanprojectian, Sputnikish, tectonic éclat. Years back my then team kindly presented me with a mug. “Some people make things happen; some people watch things happen; some people wonder what happened.” Boy, are we in Category 3!

But that’s not how the United States is going to re-find its debt-ridden, educationally-deficited, anxious but laurel-resting, footing in 2011.It’s through leadership (internally and ex), vision, and a recognition of two huge facts. First, that we can make good decisions for the present only if we have a firm if complex grasp on the future. Second, that while everything is not about technology, technology is about everything.

So: the respective science and technology committees of House and Senate need to trump all others and set the pace (note to Leader Reid and Speaker-elect Boehner); the Office of Science and Technology Policy, a White House adjunct with little budget and not much more influence but some excellent people, needs to hold sway like OMB over every agency (note to POTUS); and (could I be even more controversial? But I have said some of this before anyway . . .) all political appointees should be fired on January 1, and rehired only if they score a high pass in an innovation-friendly, future-aware, test (POTUS again; he could do that in a memo); and we should ditch academic tenure (it can, I think, be done in an appropriations rider – House GOP please note) to shake to the foundations the disciplinary silos that mean 20-somethings get the big interdisciplinary ideas but siloed 50- and 60-somethings run their careers and make the grants. (OK, I know, good steps have been taken to encourage inter-disciplinarity and innovation; but we are talking tectonics, and timescale, and U.S. leadership; so while we are about it, what about diverting, say, 25% of all S and T spending to a new federal research-funding body led by 10 top VC and entrepreneurs, 7 of them under 30, most of them from the Valley? Again, an approps rider could do it, could it not? Time for some serious, risky, experimentation.)

So Rule #1: business as unusual.

Rule #2: the emergence of what I am calling an “exopolitics” (hereby reclaiming the term from the UFO peeps who had helped themselves to it; much more useful to the rest of us) offers an exceptional opportunity for us to begin to refurbish our political traditions and positions (as I have said before, we have them, we need them, and I have mine) through re-prioritization and, crucially, addressing how new and emerging issues find their place within them. So: what if those most engaged with the virtues of the Founders took more seriously their locus in the visionary Enlightenment of the 18th Century, and their commitment in Article I to innovation through its corollary, intellectual property? My sense is that before long the comparative advantage of the United States (thank you, Ricardo) may lie almost entirely in the IP domain. (See Neal Stephenson’s remarkable 1995 book The Diamond Age for a prefiguring of such a future.) What if those most focused on questions of social justice, and most quizzical of market-oriented solutions to them, reflected more seriously on the Moore’s-Law-driven, exponential impacts of emerging technologies on the next and next-but-one generations? These may or may not be the best salients into our current political topography. But they suggest something that some “conservatives” on left and right will find threatening, while the true radicals across the spectrum whose first loves are the good of the people and the standing of America will find pregnant with possibility: changing priorities will reshape traditional positions, and new issues will reshape agendas. It is very hard to imagine the politics of, say, 2020, as those of 2008. If they are, it will be all over for us.

Point is: the current deep disillusion with politics-as-usual has given leaders across the spectrum a once-in-a-generation chance to reshape the agenda and refurbish both the credibility and utility of the political class, as servants of the future not simply of the past.

So Rule #2: use the rising exopolitics to refurbish, repristinate, and future up our political traditions. And our political class.

Rule #3. A vigorous embrace of innovation and technology’s future is key. But that does not suggest we street-luge our way downhill into a technophilic naïve-topia. Far from it. It’s being future-aware that enables us to critique its possibilities. It is those who favor one-day-at-a-time who will ironically bring in a technoworld uncritiqued by the norms of social and cultural and political conviction; the short-termists ensure the lobsters get cooked. The visionaries are those who open the conversations. Looking ahead 10 years brings values immediately to the table, since values drive both policy and markets, and investors know that very well.

Case in point. C-PET is collaborating with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center in a series of events in 2011 addressing emerging technologies and their social impacts (you can register through Back of the burgeoning discussion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) lies a growing awareness that in the world of 2011 the business environment will increasingly favor what are perceived as socially-responsible uses of capital. The Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP), founded in the 90s by the late Paul Newman, brings together 150+ Fortune 500 CEOs. Its CEO, Charles Moore, recently commissioned McKinsey to produce a fascinating report on business strategy and sustainability in the emerging global environment that makes just this point.

So Rule #3: as we grasp the innovation agenda, we must face the values issues it entails. They are not side-issues, “ethics” concerns, matters for “public engagement;” they will shape both policy and markets; and they lie at the heart of our nation’s choices as Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson meet Ray Kurzweil and Mark Zuckerberg.

Point is: the ostrich will always be out-smarted, and that is true both of the political classes and their associated values communities here in the United States – and of the United States in the global community. Which is not to say that I favor a U.S. “industrial policy” approach (though I hope we are tracking with care those competitors – pretty much all of them – who are putting their money there; let’s track how that is working); or the idea that we should appoint an innovation czar to solve the problem (surely, in decade 2 of century 21, that is squarely the job of our chief executive? – point to ponder as the jockeying for 2012 begins).

So what will 2011 bring? More of the same – being short-changed by our short-term thinking; America rests on wilting laurels as more energetic nations assert themselves?

We need to man up, and woman up, to refurbish our capacity as both chief global citizen, and chief global competitor. As a nation founded squarely, uniquely, on principle, America’s calling is to bring to a single point of focus our vision of the good life and our extraordinary capacity to innovate.

C-PET’s task is to bring them into focus. Whoever frames the questions shapes the future.

Permission granted to reproduce in full and with acknowledgement

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