Thinking ahead

At the House of Commons event the other day I ran into a futurist called Susan Clayton. I like futurists. They do important work reminding us to remember our descendants. We don’t (can’t?) think far enough into the future. Our horizons are miserable, collapsed, mean-spirited. Future generations don’t really get a look in – one or two electoral terms (half a generation!) is about as far as we can see.

Susan told me that some Government departments have people thinking as far as 80 years ahead – on climate change, for instance. Corporations are probably worse – accounting practice and abbreviated reporting periods keep things short-term.

We certainly have no useful tools for engaging with the far future – 100 years or more – even though doing so could be an effective way of extending our tenure of the planet and improving the lives of those that come after us.

Adapting existing investment instruments to time-shift capital into the future, for instance, would make use of the wonder of compound interest to massively amplify the impact of a small investment made in the present day – but the financial and legal framework for these very long term bets doesn’t exist. Ask your accountant to set up a trust to manage a thousand year investment… Go on.

Peter Schwartz, top futurist and grandaddy of the ‘scenario planning’ discipline (and Stewart Brand‘s partner in the influential GBN) was interviewed in Tuesday’s FT about his new book, Inevitable Surprises. Schwartz, despite his association with the disastrous idea of the ‘long boom‘, keeps the faith:

“Pervasive dense information is like cheap energy. One of the things that drove the 20th century was cheap energy – it expanded the wealth of society enormously. I think the same thing is going to happen relentlessly with information. We had a hiccup because the evolution of the infrastructure got out of phase.”