With the new decade well & truly underway, I’ve been thinking about the future, and wanted to share some helpful techniques with you. These techniques can enable us to extend the range of our thoughts, supporting us to take a longer-term perspective and imagine possible futures.
The future is itself an idea: we conjure it in our imaginations. We are better than other species at making this imaginative leap, and it is the reason we have civilisations, have landed on the moon, plant trees for future shade, and have built cathedrals across centuries, for posterity.
However, we’re also by nature impulsive and reactive... The short-term vs long-term tension is part of who we are, and balancing it appropriately is important. For example, this tension arises in the healthcare and financial services industries when encouraging people to look after their health. We’d mostly prefer to eat treats and relax on the couch, but doing this consistently is bad for us, so well-designed incentives (such as shared value models in an insurance context) can encourage us to make good choices now (like moderation and exercise) that lead to future health benefits.
This article is inspired by the work of Bina Venkatamaran, a former journalist and policy advisor who teaches at MIT, and Ari Wallach, a futurist. Both of them gave separate TED talks, and we also reference Bina’s book* and Ari’s essay in Wired magazine where he calls for a “visionary yet goal-oriented” framework for long-term strategy that “can help leaders navigate the balance between short-term gain and long-term ruin. A CEO might say: ‘That may be good for the bottom line, but it poses significant risks to our longpath’.”
It’s also about how we choose to measure our success, and the meaning of our lives. In Bina’s words: “Do we measure ourselves by the moment, by what’s happening in this immediate moment, or do we measure ourselves by what we’re doing towards the longer endeavour of both what we’re doing in this life and how we’ll be remembered?”
Read more to explore Bina and Ari’s ideas, examine our preference for immediate gratification and the mistakes we naturally make, consider our unique capacity for mental time travel, contrast prediction and forecasting against judgement and foresight, discover different tools and techniques for thinking ahead, and watch Bina’s TED talk. It’s particularly fitting too that 2020 is synonymous with perfect vision – I hope that these tools will help us all to envisage our ultimate aims more clearly.
In the roughly 13-minute video Bina discusses how we can secure our future and do right by coming generations (becoming the “good ancestors” we long to be) – see the end of this article to watch it. For those interested in delving into more detail than we cover here, Bina has also written a book (called The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age*), which is an exploration of how we can plan better for the future. In it, she draws from stories she reported from around the world as a journalist as well as research in psychology, biology, archaeology and economics to explain how we can make decisions that benefit us over time. She highlights successful practices that we can adopt to make more thoughtful choices that contribute towards a better future.
I love how varied the examples Bina uses in her talks and writing are, crossing industries, countries and time, and reflecting her broad experiences including in the areas of climate change, epidemics, science, and education. She’s worked as far afield as India, Alaska, Cuba, Mexico, Vietnam, and Guatemala, and her examples span the globe, including West Africa, Mexico and Japan among many others… Her stories cover Pompeii, Fukushima, “catch share” schemes, small-town politics, superbugs and antibiotic resistance, poker, investment management, US national parks, perennial grains, George Carver Washington and more…
The Allure of the Immediate
Today’s world often seems like it’s all about instant gratification. We focus on short-term goals and gains rather than make decisions for the long run. We’re hyper-reactionary, placing heavy emphasis on the here-and-now. Behavioural economists refer to our focus on the tangible, near-term as parabolic discounting, where the future seems so far away that we minimise its possible outcomes in today’s terms i.e. the further away it is, the much less important it is to us.
Our technology plays to our natural impulsive and reactive biases too, encouraging us to concentrate on likes, notifications, and retweets. Ironically, making short-term decisions makes the future more uncertain and less safe, partly because it becomes a consequence rather than something we actively shape. Ari refers to quick fixes designed to patch over the immediate issue at hand as “sandbag strategies” and Bina warns against “neglecting long-term systemic opportunities or threats”. At Protagion, we believe in the importance of long-term thinking in the context of our careers, including actively capitalising on opportunities and mitigating risks.
Short-termism also plays out in the problem of the tragedy of the commons, where individuals act in their own immediate self-interest to the detriment of the wider group. This present bias vs future wisdom can be seen in the example of fisheries, where individual fishermen can catch lots of fish now, but the impact combined across many fishermen leads to rapid depletion of stocks, and the population can’t recover for the future. This leads to the individual fishermen suffering in coming years.
...nowadays, it can feel like there's no time but the present. What's immediate and ephemeral seems to dominate our lives, our economy and our politics. It's so easy to get caught up in the number of steps we took today or the latest tweet from a high-profile figure. It's easy for businesses to get caught up in making immediate profits and neglect what's good for future invention. And it's far too easy for governments to stand by while fisheries and farmland are depleted instead of conserved to feed future generations.”
Mistakes We Make
Bina explains that the source of our short-termism is from three mistakes we naturally make:
Both Ari and Bina are optimistic about the future, believing that as individuals, organisations and leaders, we have more power to shape what comes next than we realise.
...The future, we treat it like a noun. It's not. It's a verb. It requires action. It requires us to push into it. It's not this thing that washes over us. It's something that we actually have total control over. But in a short-term society, we end up feeling like we don't. We feel like we're trapped. We can push through that.”
The basis of my optimism is that we have a choice. There is a dangerous misconception… that human nature is just doomed to short-sightedness, that capital markets are cursed to be myopic, that politics is necessarily locked in short-term cycles. What my research shows, through example and evidence, is that this is a choice we’re making. I consider myself to be an ‘engaged optimist’… The examples in my book, which come from all over the world, give us the context for understanding how we can make better decisions in our own lives, but also in businesses and in society.”
Human Superpower: Mental Time Travel
As I described in the introduction, humans are able to conjure the future in our imaginations. Our species evolved to think ahead, dream of what’s next, and sow seeds for later harvest. Our “mental time travel” is responsible for much of human civilisation, as we build into reality what we first envision.
Bina explains that we are able to exercise foresight and look ahead, even in times of immediacy. Our environment and culture and circumstances can change the way we make decisions about the future: “Science and example both show us we have the capacity to think ahead when we are in groups and environments that encourage and enable us to do that”. Techniques include prompts, nudges and peer comparisons, and she illustrates this with reductions in prescriptions of antibiotics to prevent superbug resistance. Bina also argues that “collective action and wise policy have been proven to help us think ahead in ‘tragedies of the commons’ problems”, and contends that “it’s a near universal value held by humans and human societies to be concerned and invested in future generations”. She asks: “How can we make our aspirations to care for future generations part of our actions and part of how we actually embody our political decision-making: when we vote, how we hold our leaders accountable, how we run our societies and our governments?”
How do we think about valuing future generations? Do we leave them just wealth? Do we just grow our economy? Do we conserve natural resources like our air and water for them? Or do we try to invest as much as we can in scientific progress and have our legacy be the knowledge and tools that we leave to future generations?… It’s a really important question that we’re not asking enough these days. We’re very focused on the present… My hope is that more people start to think about the choices we have today that will shape the legacy of the future.”
Prediction vs Foresight
Bina also refers to our growing ability to predict the future, including through the use of algorithms. “We have this extraordinary ability now, with machine learning and sophisticated data collection, to predict the future even more powerfully. We never see the future perfectly, but we have really accurate weather forecasts going out to at least 7 days; we’re able to predict what kind of products customers will buy; we’re able to predict how flu outbreaks or disease outbreaks like the Ebola virus will spread with these sophisticated tools.”
However, she highlights that forecasting/prediction isn’t everything. Applying judgement is crucial too i.e. the decisions we make using the predictions as inputs: “...the judgement and the foresight to use those predictions to help ourselves make the future better.” Important elements to incorporate, she argues, are our psychology, our imagination, and our culture.
We also have the ability to shape the future… whether that’s looking at artificial intelligence and gene editing and how they are redefining what it means to be human, what our societies will look like, or whether its how we look at our emissions from running our power plants and our vehicles today and how that’s shaping the climate of coming centuries.”
Techniques to help us Think Ahead
Both Bina and Ari offer ways to help us imagine the future, with Bina referring to hers as “bridges to where we need to go”. The tools and techniques to shift our mental models and think differently include:
Ari uses Patek Philippe, the luxury watch manufacturer, as an example of long-term thinking: “[Businesses] who break out of short-termism not surprisingly are family-run businesses. They're transgenerational. They're telos. They think about the futures. [Patek Philippe are] 175 years old, and what's amazing is that they literally embody [long run] in their brand, because, by the way, ‘you never actually own a Patek Philippe… you merely look after it for the next generation’.”
Bina says that “making the long game pay now” is especially important when facing scarcity (resources, time, bandwidth). One historical example of this is how George Carver Washington understood that planting peanuts in soils that had been repeatedly harvested for cotton was beneficial in that it replenished those soils for the future. Yet, even though this replenishment strategy would pay later through improved cotton harvests, key to its adoption was making it pay now too. He came up with 300 uses of the peanut in order to popularise it among share-croppers, making it lucrative in the short-run to bridge the gap.
...The single most powerful way we can reclaim foresight [is] by seeing ourselves as the good ancestors we long to be, ancestors not just to our own children but to all humanity. Whatever your heirloom is, however big or small, protect it and know that its music can resonate for generations.”
See the video of Bina’s TED talk below, including the “beautiful and melancholy” sound of the dilruba instrument she inherited from her great-grandfather.
* PROTAGION is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk. The links with * participate in this programme.