Let’s Engineer the Future

For a nation founded on ideas, whose history has included many of the best thinkers to be birthed on planet earth, we seem remarkably devoid of them. I can’t count the number of meetings I have had with business and policy leaders in which they actually tell me they are cynical. That nothing is really going to change. That, in a phrase more than one has used, I “need not to be naïve.” That because there is no new money (and may be less old money) there’s nothing new we can do. And on it goes.

But I believe in ideas, and the extraordinary power of a dynamic, growing, knowledge network. Transforming, disruptive power. Power not just to provide solutions, but to find out what lies back of presenting problems. Not just to engage in controversy but to reconfigure it. Not just to help prepare for what comes next, but decisively to engage its direction. Frame the questions, and you will shape the future. This is not to be naïve. But it is to recognize that the cynicism that so readily pervades our political culture has itself become the #1 barrier to the strategic action by which alone America’s future will be determined – and America’s capacity for global greatness and global good sustained.

Note to our many friends around the world, and in the diplomatic and IGO and NGO communities in DC who are partners in our knowledge network: I think we agree that there are few on the planet who will benefit if a cynical, short-term, disconnect from the future shapes Washington DC in the second decade of century 21. I think we are agreed that a failing America will be a flailing America, defensive and protectionist and suspicious – just about the worst news for the global community. I think we are agreed that Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage – if every nation does what it’s best at, all nations benefit – enables America as chief global competitor as well as chief global citizen; there need be no zero sum in this game.

I have written in recent weeks of what the data explosion and new warp-speed of change mean for “expertise” (a word that sounds increasingly dated in the knowledge world) and leadership (that baseline in change times that for . Both have become a lot more interesting; complex; and of course threatening to those who man (and they usual do indeed man) the silos of tradition where power is locked down, and knowledge locked in.

As we know, harbingers of such paradigmatic change are not unique to our time, even if the pace of change is. John Ruskin, the great Victorian social and literary critic (think H. L. Mencken), wrote in the mid-19th century, when the revolution in science and religion was transforming his world, that he could hear the chink of the geologists’ hammers at every cadence of the Bible verses. For us, aptly enough, it is visual not auditory: each time we think technology, century 21, asymmetry, we don’t hear chinks, we see near-subliminal visions of that inexorably rising graph of Moore’s Law, penetrating with unimpeded exponential impact through a generation past, and setting its curvilinear path to a future beyond our imaginings. We face change quite literally beyond belief. And the question is not whether we wish it. As Wired founder and tech age guru Kevin Kelly – who joined C-PET for an Innovation Leaders’ Telecon last week – argues in his remarkable new book What Technology Wants, it is hardly up to us as a species to say No. But that does not preclude the need for actionable foresight, for leadership grounded in the future, for decisions. Far, far from it.

So, what to do, and specifically what to do in Washington, DC?Three principles, four strategies, and a challenge.

First, three principles.

  1. Embrace Convergence. The old distinctions between this science and that (biology, chemistry, physics . . .) are dying. A recent report from MIT, launched at the AAAS earlier this month, set out this argument elegantly. And it was being heard: respondents included the FDA Commissioner, an NIH director, and Tom Kalil, associate director for policy at OSTP, the White House tech policy think tank. Yet (as I pointed out to some of the above) the same point was being made a decade ago in the NSF’s Converging Technologies project by Mike Roco and Bill Bainbridge and many others. Even then, it was hardly new. It is, however, profound. Disruptive. Hard for the science and funding establishments to grasp and acknowledge (at the launch, AAAS leader Alan Leshner said it would “make life hell” for them). And it goes further. The old distinctions between science, engineering, and technology are also weakening. The distinctions between the institutions that fund public S and T make less sense every day. Action is needed at the top level of these institutions; apt structural realignment that is not merely epiphenomenal.
  2. Smash the silos. Convergence reaches further, far beyond S and T, into a wider growing commonality that has always demanded attention and almost always been ignored. We have innovation, risk, policy, regulation, social policy, ethics, investment – each one of which is intimately connected with each of the others as the synapses join the neurons in the brain. The knowledge of none of them can properly be stated and engaged without knowledge in all the others. I wrote recently in more detail about the relations of innovation and ethics (the third point of my “Three rules for 2011”). Think mash-up, boys and girls. It’s the only way; and the combo of warp speed and the data petaclasm means unless we find way to make this work we should be scared, very scared. Concurrent engineering is needed across the whole front. Now.
  3. Engage all articulate voices. In reaching beyond partisanship, we need to transcend the potent tendency to disregard opinions we see as extreme or simply unreasonable. At one recent event, a corporate science leader stated he wanted all voices round the table – except those who were biased. I made the obvious point in return, that bias is inevitable, and the appearance of bias on the part of those with whom we disagree universal. Yet the point is fundamental: If we seek to capture the very best ideas, and to fight groupthink with every sinew (a clear task of the innovative thinker; and a no-brainer, surely, in the wake of the dot-com bust and the Wall St collapse), we must welcome all articulate voices, and learn from them, and let them shape our common conversation. So often it is from the extremes that the best questions come, even if those on the extremes do not have the answers. So often those with the answers are not asking the right questions. Think Copernicus. Think Einstein. Goodness, think Wall Street. To capture value, we need every articulate voice round the table. Right through the conversation.


Next: four strategic actions. Need a bridge to the future? Here’s how to start.

1. We must disprivilege disagreement. We need mechanisms intellectual and practical that empower and reward political and executive initiatives in areas that are not driven by partisan and ideological divergence – because they simply are not within the purview of our current binary politics. Sadly, with few exceptions, it is only when an issue proves controversial enough, and someone on one side of it has political power, that there is action. I am given to offering suggestions that are indeed naïve, but are offered as thought-experiments, not talkers for lobbyists. What about a joint committee of congress whose brief is to take up issues that are important but uncontroversial? With very senior membership? And crowd-sourced, web-based grassroots to drive its future-focused agenda?

2.We must work steadily to reweight the points of conviction within our political traditions, and enable new issues to rise up. What does it mean to be a “conservative” or “liberal” when the issue is privacy (which may be one of the cornerstones of 21st century society); or the brain-machine interface (now available in a $100 iPhone app; destined utterly to reshape the human experience); or humanoid robotics (which could destroy 50% of the jobs in the labor force). Let’s hear it from Moveon.org and the Tea Party and the Center for American Progress and Heritage and Brookings and all the rest.

3. We need to span the coasts. Last summer I proposed (somewhat but not entirely satirically) an act of congress that would require all elected federal officials to attend a series of technology conferences every year, of the kind that are typically hosted on the west coast. Not “attend” as in make-a-speech-at-and-leave, but attend as in attend – attentively, beginning to end, and into the cocktail hours and the dinners and the late-night drinks where the mash-up takes off. Believe me, if every Hill denizen sat through two weeks’ worth a year, it would be the learning experience that transformed America. (Idea: what about making a start with a bipartisan Pledge for America’s Future?) Not of course that all the high-tech and the innovative thinking are on the left coast. Yet by the same token, the Valley guys need to get a lot more serious about Washington. I asked the leader of one of our largest corporations why it is that, while he has a 15-year plan for China, when he gets to DC he believes his lobbyists that 12 months is long-term.

4. Washington, meet Washington. I count at least five Washingtons; DC as MPD. So: We have the mainstream policy community – federal government plus think tanks. Then we have the other policy community, which has remarkably little connection: Defense and intel. Then we have universities; which despite all those centers and programs have – yes – remarkably little traction in either of the former. Then we have the heavyweight business community, the Economic Club of Washington, the Dulles Corridor, the defense contractors who uniquely and bizarrely advertise their jet planes on bus shelters and radio shows. Then, #5, we have the District, qua Council. The local politicos; bad, indifferent, and good; yet what entirely unique potential to build the most innovative community in America, to the utter benefit of all five of these Washingtons. My point? Every improved connection across these communities that co-exist within one District and two States (most in just a handful of zipcodes) adds value. Incremental value. Value rising without apparent limit. And at no necessary dollar cost at all. Network effects, par excellence.

Now the challenge. No question, 2011 is a pivotal year. We’re recovering, slowly, from the shock of the 2008 financial trauma. We’re gearing up for battle royal in 2012 and 2016, but we really aren’t sure how to as the drivers of our politics are increasingly found in the exopolitics of the profoundly disenchanted.. We’re coming to some sort of terms with the new post-Cold War world order, so different from the mono-polar world some had expected, with BRIC, Group-of ad hoc global leadership jams, a Russia decisively post that wonderful if dipso Yeltsin, Gates in extraordinarily generous retirement while MS looks increasingly old-economy, still 20-something Zuckerberg man of the year though (surely!) with FB a concept and company ageing prematurely fast, and Julian Assange holding to ransom not so much the secrecy of U.S. global communications as the possibility of institutional privacy in a world now pivoting on asymmetry – and therefore the notion that the big guys wield the big power.

The challenge is to determine to live and act as if there were a future. As if it were capable, in some substantive measure, of being anticipated. As if our own futures mattered to us. As if electoral cycles are, as it were, made for man; not man for electoral cycles. As if the smart and committed women and men who represent this very great nation on Capitol Hill and at 1600 Penn. NW and in the myriad agencies (and indeed in the Court) were tapping tomorrow so that their choices for today will stand the test of time.

Not much, perhaps, to hope for. Non-naïve, surely. Non-cynical, assuredly. American through and through. Can’t[nc1] imagine the Founders saying no.


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