I've spent most of my career helping organizations build comparative advantage at the intersection of strategy, technology and innovation. I now believe both individuals and organizations should aim even higher.
We have the good fortune and awesome responsibility of sitting at the inflection point of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For better or worse, ever better and cheaper technological building blocks, including pervasive connectivity and computing, AI, robotics and genomics, are blurring the lines of the physical, digital and biological worlds. They are already reshaping industries and societal patterns, and the transformation is accelerating.
Our individual and organizational opportunity is to guide our little slices of the universe toward the better, and away from the worse, potential outcomes. In doing so, we can help build a collective future with greater health, sustainability and prosperity. We can build a world we can proudly leave to our children and their children.
In this post, I am sharing the video and slides from a recent webinar where I explored this theme and offered three lessons drawn from my recent book, "A Brief History of a Perfect Future," written with Paul Carroll and Tim Andrews. (Thanks to Zoom for hosting and sponsoring the webinar as part of its monthly "Work Happy" series.)
Here are the three lessons, in brief:
1. Make a Third List.
In addition to the daily and weekly to-do lists that many keep, develop a "third list" of your biggest, most ambitious goals. These are the audacious goals you and your colleagues want to accomplish in the next five, 10 or even 20 years. They might even be goals that can't be realized during your tenure. But they should be goals you are always on the lookout to materially advance in your time, whenever possible.
In my presentation, I talked about how Rahm Emanuel and his predecessors as mayors of Chicago had the restoration of the Chicago River on their third list. Through a combination of long-term master planning, patient zoning, opportunistic development and political savviness, they shepherded a decades-long transformation of Chicago's slimy, concrete-entombed downtown riverfront into the magnificent Chicago Riverwalk.
2. Embrace the Laws of Zero.
Seven technological building blocks—computing, communications, information, genomics, energy, water and transportation—are advancing exponentially in capability and, on a relative basis, headed toward zero cost. That means we can plan on being able to throw as much of these resources as we need to at any problem to address it intelligently. Success in doing so would bring us closer to what my coauthors and I call the Future Perfect.
But the building blocks are not the buildings. It is easy to imagine these capabilities being used to exacerbate societal problems in areas such as health, equity, civility, privacy and human rights.
3. Write Your 'Future History.'
As the saying goes, "If you don't know where you're going, you might not get there." "Future histories" are narratives that help illustrate and crystallize a desired future scenario. Rather than predicting some abstract or fantastical future, they aim to describe an ambitious yet attainable scenario by a specific date. The target date should be far enough out so you don't worry about short-term noise, constraints and implementation details (yet) but near enough to allow realistic estimates of what is technologically possible. Working backward to today, you can chart the possible paths to that future.
For example, when President John F. Kennedy declared in 1961 that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of that decade, he rallied the nation to achieve a complex challenge that might otherwise have taken many decades. Kennedy’s narrative was a magnificent example of a “future history.” With vivid strokes, JFK described an ambitious yet attainable goal by a specific date. His narrative captured public imagination and support and, as he said, “served to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.” Working backward from Kennedy’s future history, an extensive public/private partnership laid out the path to invent the future Kennedy envisioned. This included, in no small part, developing and integrating a host of new technologies and capabilities, such as in materials, propulsion, guidance, control, communications and safety.
Here's a video that further explores future histories.
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Today, the world finds itself facing challenges much more daunting than going to the moon, such as in climate change, war, health, equity and poverty. But we also have near magical building blocks and tools to augment our human ingenuity. It is the opportunity of a lifetime.