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The Future and Public Leadership

A few years ago I was presenting at the American Public Works Association International Congress and had an opportunity to work with David Zach, a talented and entertaining futurist speaker. My program later that afternoon was on the future of public works and addressed challenges leaders would face. One area where David and I differ relates to the concept of predictability.

Even as a trained futurist, David’s stated view was that the future is not foreseeable and it is folly to attempt prediction. I disagree. While there are certainly many variables that will have impacts that are impossible to predict, there are many that have measureable and predictable outcomes. Public leaders need to understand those trends and be committed to planning for predictable community impact. Remember, much of history is cyclic – it repeats itself…you just have to understand history, be aware of the trends and have the foresight to implement ahead of the curve. What goes around DOES come around.

A New Era

My best guess is that we are indeed entering a new era…it is a time of transition and transformation. Predictions range from the end of the world in 2012 (according to the Mayan calendar) to devolution into a global agrarian society within a hundred years. We read predictions of the United States being divided into four autonomous mega regions, China eclipsing the U.S. as the global economic power, and about worldwide class or religious warfare. Those things are hard to predict…but there are a LOT of sharp people dedicated to positive outcomes related to climate, economics, peace, and global collaboration. For every negative possible future, there is a positive future. For virtually every negative variable, there is a counter-trend. However, change is in the air. Tipping points have been reached in several areas and be assured – the pace of change will accelerate. The outcomes could be profound. Is your state or local government ready? Are you sure? How do you know?

Scenario Planning For Public Leaders

Converging variables related to water, peak oil, global economics, environmental degradation, and global climate change are real and most exhibit data that contributes to predictability. Similar data exists for economic development, infrastructure, and natural resource utilization.  Public leaders must be adept in the art of Assessing the Possible. It is essential to know state and local trends, understand potential impacts, and have clarity about short- and long-term community impact. Very few elected officials or public managers have been trained in scenario planning as it relates to government or public agencies. Fewer have developed expertise in this form of long-view strategic thought or have implemented local collaborative programs. Now is the time.

Government Failures

Most Americans are in denial. They believe that, with a little luck and a few stimulus dollars, things will soon return to the good old days. Others predict a longer return to ‘normal’ citing an inherent inclination toward innovation and the creative American spirit as forces that will right the ship.  Not going to happen – at least not the ‘return to the good old days’ part. It’s a new day…a new era. And government at all levels MUST provide leadership. Several things must be done:

  • Government leaders and managers must become more enlightened about converging trends that will bring enormous community change.
  • These same leaders and managers must understand the difference between issue and impact; change doesn’t matter much unless it has impact. What are the potential IMPACTS of known trends and predicted changes?
  • Government must become more collaborative and share a longer view; impact and opportunity will encompass regions – not just communities. How can we engender a new commitment to regional cooperation?
  • At all levels, government must become more aware of escalating issues and challenges; it must be more adaptable and nimble when addressing known or predicted events. This takes leadership – not politics.
  • Inertia is eroding the democratic process…there is gridlock everywhere. Some pretty stark changes will take place when gasoline is $6 then $9 per gallon…perhaps then we’ll see collaborative efforts to address mass transit. With peak oil now an openly discussed, data-driven fact, how long will it take to address the ‘what’ ifs’ related to reduced oil supplies and $9 gas? Same with climate change and potential for drought in key agricultural areas, reduced mineral supplies, and eroding infrastructure. I won’t even get into Social Security and Medicare costs or the health care debate.
  • We must deal with fundamental issues – many related to finance and business- but others related to ‘first things first.’ What are the basic human and community needs that provide the foundation for quality of life, prosperity, and economic vitality? Never mind that there may be a notable contraction in the size of local economies; people can still prosper and have a great life with much less. Does anyone doubt that?

Unite to Confront a Common Foe

Everywhere I go I encourage government leaders to ‘Confront Reality!’ The common foe is not change; it is the unwillingness to confront issues and pose tough remedies. Oceans will rise, the planet will continue to warm, the global population will grow, oil and other natural resources will be depleted, and cultures will compete. It is the historic cycle. The most critical questions pertain to our response and willingness to make a commitment to a future legacy. Government is being overwhelmed; converging challenges are just too big. Regardless, a new transformative era is underway and gaining momentum. The real work begins with every state and local community and, as strategic thinkers, there is much we can analyze, predict and address. It’s time for every community to confront the evolving world and pursue thoughtful strategies that forge new alliances and totally new paths to desired alternative futures. There are options and opportunities.  But, do we have the vision, competitive spirit and will to collaboratively work through each complex issue? And will we do so before it is too late?



With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges. He holds both the MPH and MPA degrees as well as a doctorate in education.  www.futurescorp.com  (public futures)

One Response

  1. Hi John,

    I’m convinced that our representatives are not there for us, be they liberal or conservative. Their constituants are the lobyists and their next election. In your article, you used water as one of your examples. Water is the example that I used in a speech I’m preparing for my toastmaster club. I sent it out several weeks ago, I’m not sure if I sent it to you. The write-up for that talk follows. It’s a shame that we have to scare ourselves into action.


    Modified from the rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and his lament of being in an ocean of water with not a drop to drink.

    We need to use all the water we can and then use some more. The only way that we will have sufficient water for our children and their grandchildren is to USE, USE and USE and then, watch what will happen.

    Our biological systems are not yet programmed to take in salt water. I use the qualifier “not yet” since I don’t know what science and biology might bring about in years to come. Certain crops have been shown to grow with salt water. As of now, we remain programmed to slake our thirst with fresh water only. So the Ancient Mariners rhyme stands today as it did in the late 18th century, during the time of Mr. Coleridge, that is to say we still can’t drink salt water.

    . The “experts” tell us that we will experience water shortages, within this decade. Some areas already have water in short supply. For example Lima Peru and the adjacent Atacama desert receive zero rainfall in some years, however there are rivers flowing from the Andes Mountains. The Gobi and northern Africa are likewise dry as are the areas of the Middle East where our troops remain engaged. Today we’re asked to conserve water and as loyal and patriotic Americans and concerned members of our species we must and really must conserve. The terms “experts” and “shortages” are used in this article, who are the experts and what constitutes a shortage?

    An expert might be a person with academic credentials, e.g. a hydrologist, a persons who has spent their lives engaged in observing or otherwise involved with the “water cycle”, an environmentalist, a farmer, rancher, ski resort operator. e.t.c. Last but not least the politicians and the lobbyists must be a part of the equation. These experts are usually very passionate about their point of view and feel that their point of view supercedes all others. Behind their passion might be financial gain, humanitarian needs, ecological considerations and we are asked to support one or more of these views. Can we look to the past and see how others might have found a solution. Take for example, the story of the biblical King Solomon and how he suggested finding the true mother of a child claimed by two women. He suggested cutting the child in half so that each woman would have at least half. The true mother refused that plan and offered the other woman the child. King Solomon choose wisely and granted the child to the true mother. Perhaps we could take the existing water and divide it equally among the competing forces. No one would have enough but all would share equally. How would Atilla the Hun have solved the dilemma? Most likely, he would lay siege to all the competing groups except his own; accordingly, the water needs would be greatly reduced and he would have sufficient water to continue his campaigns. A room full of “experts” all competing with different plans for the same resources can not solve much. With our current knowledge, we cannot create nor destroy water. What falls from the sky is evaporated back to the sky, that is the very simplistic water or hydrological cycle.

    A water shortage occurs when someone says “there is a water shortage”. Will water prices rise? Will people, animals, or crops suffer? Will the “declaration” of a shortage create an opportunity for politicians and/or corporations to pressure for self-serving “actions”, including corporate take-over, international conflicts? Yes, yes and yes. Since we cannot now create water, what can we do?

    We can use our intellect and support science and technology – with sufficient public oversight to prevent abuse of the technology – to make use of the oceans until such time that other technological advances eliminate or mitigate future shortages. For example:
     high efficiency, nano-technology filters to remove salt and others impurities,
     local, small and single purpose nuclear powered evaporators with highly controlled reprocessing of spent fuel to significantly reduce radioactive waste.

    There will be abuse, no matter how tight we control the processes and technology. Most of us enjoy the comforts that we have grown used to. It is up to us and those who represent us to have systems in place that will note processes that, if abused could result in serous harm. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. We cannot let science and technology be minimized just because, if abused, that technology could harm us.

    To quantify this heading, conservation is good, is necessary and must be carried out in all our endeavors, because – to not conserve is to waste. Conservation is only a half measure. Creative thinking and action is the other half. If we rely on conservation only and find that we can “get-by”, we run the risk of accepting the half measure only. By accepting the half measure we are forestalling the time when half measures will no longer “cut-it” and time has run out. There is an old adage “if in ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Some things are not broken but we can find new things and ideas that will greatly improve the things that “ain’t” broken.

    Perhaps we need to look at the situation in a slightly different light. If water shortages are a real problem and conservation along with “some” technological advances are not enough and/or are moving too slowly – guess what I’m proposing. Forget conservation, use our resources to their fullest and deplete our reserves to an alarming and visible state. At that time, we will be very aware of what we need to do and may be then, we will demand that our politicians do what we tell them to do. It’s a shame that, sometimes, progress only happens when we are justifiably scared into action.

    For those who do not want nuclear plants to distill ocean water and those who do not believe that filters can be economically designed, manufactured, installed and function safely; I ask that they suggest a solution to eliminate our chronic need for more water. The alternative is to conduct our selves as Atilla might have recommended. These actions might also help solve our current economic dilemma and bring science and technology in our universities back into vogue. Ms., Mr. Elected representative, please start some action before we are forced to call upon Atilla.

    Very truly yours,

    Thomas J. Devine, (Tom)

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