Three Months Circling the Future
Nigel Cameron is President of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies (C-PET), a Washington, DC think tank on technology and the future. He also blogs at FutureofBiz.org.
Two years ago I penned, or should I say keyboarded, a commentary with the title A Week in Tomorrow. It told the tale of three successive conferences. That will help explain the trope of the title. But I anticipate.
Midway through 2012, there are four big things on my mind. They should be on yours too. Not simply because in themselves they are in varying proportions significant and fascinating. But because if we are to start thinking straight about the future, in our companies and our government, here are the case studies to teach us. They are plain enough; the four dominant (non-defense) issues of this year. In no special order:
- the Facebook IPO
- the Presidential election
- the Dragon spacecraft
- and the global climate process, focused on Rio+20.
As some of you will know, I’ve touched on each of these before, both in newsletters and my blog posts (at c-pet.org, and FutureofBiz.org). Here, I’d like to look at them through the lens provided by the past three months of my travels. For fate, or le bon Dieu, depending on your predilection, determined that I would be invited to nine different conferences (to be pedantic, actually 11. I pulled out of one – on corporate social responsibility – as I was sick; and another, on the future of healthcare, got postponed). Of the 11, eight were in the United States, and three in Europe. (No repeat of 2010-11, when I managed to be invited to make a speech on each of the five inhabited continents. Let’s not get into the 46 hours and four flights it took me to get from Cape Town to Beijing, slowly recovering from, well, you can guess . . . . Great bio lines come at a price.)
A word about the issues. Facebook. When did America last flock to a movie about a start-up? Even Google, our ubiquitous info point, never got that. And when did Wall Street find itself confronted with a hoodie who was not trying to occupy it – and hand over very, very serious cash? The election. Rhetoric notwithstanding, Moore’s Law determines that every presidential election is in certain key respects more significant than the last – whatever our politics, and whatever the merit of the respective candidates. Dragon. Suffice to say that 50 years ago American got seriously interested in space, lost interest, and is coming to terms with the fact the next round is being catalyzed by private money and private leadership (and China). Then climate. I’m not here taking a view. But there are many more views than two, and according to all aside from one of them this issue is huge. And even that one should take out an insurance policy.
Now for the conferences. What interests me above all is that I don’t know anyone who was at more than one of them. Certainly, the nonofecta was mine alone. I was invited to all of them; to join the program at 6 and be a guest at the other 3. At the risk of convincing you I have a ridiculously wide range of interests, let me run through them. My presentations/moderations were at WorkTech (future of work; in NYC); the European Cloud and Identity conference in Munich (a 3-day marathon which I was invited to moderate after sharing the opening keynote); a conference on global education, my keynote being on resource-poor regions; Gov.2.0LA addressing the new accessibility of government in the digital age (and a chance to save democracy); Planet under Pressure, the global science gathering preparing for Rio+20, the UN process on climate change; and the Tech Policy Summit (an annual goodie, this time in Napa, which C-PET co-sponsored). I was also a guest at a conference of 1100 venture capitalists and entrepreneurs (MAVA, in DC); the Ideation conference, focused round social enterprise; and SOBcon, which gathers leaders in social marketing under the irresistible, almost ineffable, queen of blogging and much else besides, Liz Strauss.
If you’re counting, five of these events were business-focused, three on policy, and one on education. What all nine had in common was rapid technological innovation, and the shadow of the future. As conferences, they varied: from the intimacy of SOBcon, with every meal and a nightclub and karaoke together for just over 100; to 3,000+ at the climate event. Gov 2.0LA was smaller but had 100,000 following the webcast around the planet. MAVA was mostly pitches and updates from entrepreneurs; Ideation reports from social enterprise gurus and start-ups; WorkTech, a packed one-day event in NYC (they have other sites around the globe), that brought together Intel’s futurist and MIT’s Sherry Turkle with space planners and real estate leaders; in Munich I had the honor of presenting the European Cloud and Identity Awards to the likes of Daimler and Deutsche Bank (oh yes, and joining one of the famed Ping parties, hosted by its CEO who was still passing out shots when I left at 1.00 a.m.). And Planet under Pressure was dripping with Nobelists; most notably the great Elinor Ostrom, whom it was my special honor to meet for the first and, so sadly, last time (she passed a few weeks later).
Point is: There is a fundamental alignment between our thinking about the future, risk, business, social enterprise/CSR/nonprofits, innovation, and technology. Some examples from my personal mash-ups:
- My argument on global education was that mobile had changed the “valuation” of resources now available to resource-poor nations, such that innovative solutions to education are now possible (that parallel the M-PESA banking revolution in Kenya).
- On the Future of Work at WorkTech: That how we think about the future must powerfully determine how we act today (let’s not talk about how failure to address the future will doom it for you and your company).
- To Gov2.0, that digital offers us our great (and urgent) opportunity to save democracy.
- To Planet under Pressure: That a fundamental reframing of the climate debate in terms of global risk is needed, and that it must be led by industry and government leaders, not the scientists and NGOs of the parallel universe.
- At the Munich cloud conference: inter alia, I moderated the discussion about cybersecurity, on which hangs a good deal of C21.
- At Tech Policy Summit, the panel I moderated: What do we need for U.S. competitiveness?
That is to say: In each of these seemingly diverse contexts the imperative is to take the future more seriously; to bring the Moore’s-Law driven tech revolution into every conversation; to recognize that every single decision we take today is profoundly shaped by the assumptions we make about tomorrow. Value for business, and good policymaking for government, are dependent on a convergent conversation that spans every one of these seemingly disparate, silo’d conversations. The moreso every day.
Oh, and by the way: The most memorable, and perhaps most illuminating, response I received at any of these nine expert gatherings was at the event on global education, where a former senior official of the United Nations summed up my argument as “crap.” At least he was listening.
I trust you can see where we are going. My key point here is the connected nature of these discussions, the fundamental relevancy of each to the other. Our standard approaches to understanding, and its child decision-making, are revealed as threadbare because they are hopelessly silo’d. For, tragically, within these silos we have essentially distorted our capacity to prepare for continued exponential change. That is, we have insisted on defining the future in terms we find congenial. We bend the path of exponential change to ensure that we face a future that is thoroughly compatible with the present, rather than daring to think of one that mirrors the creative destruction of which we have learned from the deep discontinuities of the past.
Back to the case studies. Facebook? Well, many investors are treating it as if it were the next General Motors. Yet as a digital company its lifescycle will be foreshortened (the lifecycle of these digital companies will typically get faster); as one analyst has suggested, it may soon resemble Yahoo, a profitable enterprise yet with far lower value in the market. Discontinuities have powered the success of entrepreneur Elon Musk and his Dragon spacecraft, whose seemingly flawless first trip is just completed. The Presidential election is fielding two smart decent men (sorry, partisans; I have my own take but this much is obviously true), neither of whom (sorry, again) seems unduly, or even duly, preoccupied with the future. And the climate debate, now post the hyped and hopeless Rio+20, displays all the most expected naivety of the global NGO movement which honestly believe that their voices raised loud yet again will shape the thinking of corporate and government leaders. As I pointed out at Planet under Pressure, this debate is now running backwards. And as I have subsequently argued, it is crucial to reframe the discussion – in terms of global risk and in the context of other clamant risk issues, from rabid nanobots to WMDs to the prospect of post-antibiotic medicine to security asymmetries (especially cyber-risk) – if decision-makers in finance, business and government are to take it seriously. The fulminations of scientists and left-leaning NGOs have only so much impact, and it can be net negative.
Some tentative conclusions
Three practical proposals
- In every discussion of strategy, include a futures advocate whose task it is to stand 10 years out and raise hard questions.
- In every discussion of strategy, include outlier opinion from today. As far out as you can find. All articulate voices. Seriously. In 1. and 2., protect that person with the authority of the Board Chair/Head of State. Indefinitely.
- Work with your team, not once but repeatedly, on what the E-word means. Exponential. It has become the most important word in the vocabulary. At every strategy meeting begin with a discussion/reflection/meditation on what are its implications for your business. Every.
Major newspapers have lately appointed “Public Editors” to speak from the outside and act as ombudsmen. How about every company, department of state, NGO, appointing a Public Discussant, whose task it is – at the most senior level – to raised the hard long-term issues, and ensure that groupthink is shot at if not down?
The issue is not, let it be said, about technology. Technologies become the vehicle for and catalyst of dramatic change. Change is the point. Change and the fact that we cannot prepare for it by being good at the things we used to be good at, in the way in which we used to be good at them. Exponential change operates at a visceral level. Take a look at what has happened and is happening to newspapers, and to book publishing. That’s the impact of exponential change. Its effects will be felt in every area of the economy and most areas of social and political life. Those effects have only begun to engage.
Let’s suggest Three Draft Laws of Exponential Change
- We are required to make faster and more far-reaching decisions; all the time. Alvin Toffler’s famous book Future Shock, published a generation ago, essentially made this argument though long before its implications were as dramatic as they are today.
- Each year is shorter than the last. At the International Content Summit last year I suggested that organizations revamp their schedule to gather sooner each time they met. The year is shortening. Time to add a touch of geometric progression to the Gregorian calendar?
- Competitive advantage lies with companies, nations, and individuals who are nimble, flexible, and integrated.
So as we value Facebook, anticipate space policy, reflect on issues of global risk, and prepare in the United States for a presidential election – and as in our companies and organizations we work through our own plans for strategy and tomorrow – this is the way we shall need to go. In a context in which the only issue from the future deeply concerning this nation, the deficit, is an issue from the past; and in which recent research revealed only a tiny handful of CIOs from our major companies personally engaged in social media; the only way would seem to be up. Let’s go.
- The #CSR Business: Alignment and Transparency in C21 (futureofbiz.org)
- On Michael Porter’s Shared Value Salvo (futureofbiz.org)
- Specialism, Generalism, and the Meta Option: Death to Silos (futureofbiz.org)