Nimble thinkers can leave long-term visionaries locked in a time warp

IN WESTERN Texas, they’re building a clock in a mountain designed to last for 10,000 years. The project, backed by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos and many other tech luminaries, will take decades to complete and is the centrepiece of a movement to encourage more long-term thinking. The foundation behind it makes a point of writing the year as 02012 as a reminder of how much future there is ahead of us.

The urge to think longer term is fashionable business advice. The business secretary Vince Cable wants to incentivise long-term thinking in companies through changing the rules on pay votes for listed companies. But he’s been criticised for his suggestions too, and this is one received idea that deserves to be taken with a grain of salt.

The 10,000 year clock is a wonderfully ambitious, inspiring project. There’s a great deal to be said for people looking up from the narrow horizons of the here and now to contemplate what we might be able to achieve as a species in the long run. But at the same time, it’s important to remember how murky events become the further ahead we look. Huge historic turning points, like the launch of Sputnik, the collapse of the Soviet Union, 9/11 and the Arab Spring, take even the experts by surprise. One reason Bezos is building this clock inside a mountain is to try and make a structure, rather like a nuclear waste store, that can survive all possible changes in the world around it. Planning for the long term means making something massively unwieldy; virtues like nimbleness and adaptability are not an option.

We can think long-term far more easily by turning to the past. You don’t need to add a zero to 2012 to see that we have thousands of years of recorded history on which we can draw, without relying on out-of-focus crystal balls. Builders of nuclear waste stores have done just that, by studying Roman concrete, because time has proved that this material can survive thousands of years in remarkably good condition, even in seawater environments.

Using historic data for risk management is nothing new, and recent events have shown the danger of relying too much on the recent past as a guide to extreme outcomes. But the recorded past has a great deal more to offer as well: wisdom, experience and above all, the chance to learn from other people’s mistakes.

Long-term thinking is trendy, but a nimble, adaptive focus on the near-term allows us to address the opportunities and threats we can actually see. While the long-term thinkers must sit in their bunkers, locked in to the idea that the Berlin Wall will never fall or that 8-track tapes must be the future of music, resilient entrepreneurs can be out in the world, working around what actually happens, moment to moment. Alongside a deep appreciation of the lessons of history, it’s a powerful approach that still stands the test of time.

First published: City A.M., 15/6/12

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Filed under Business, Human nature, Innovation, Technology

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