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Embracing the New Year

As I begin this New Year, I am drawn to a comment made by the extraordinary Christopher Hitchens, who succumbed to cancer on December 15. With his typical mix of droll wisdom, disdain and brilliant articulation, he promised to address the prospect of death as an active participant- one who ‘did’ death almost as an elective activity and not as a passive recipient of fate. If you haven’t read much of Hitchins, I encourage you to do so…but be prepared for his incandescent honesty and towering intellect.

Regarding 2012, it seems that there is a message for us in Hitchins’ final joust. The underlying message is about facing inevitabilities with passion and spirit, while also finding the will to resist the malignant forces building against humanity. Believing we can change the future is fundamental to changing it. And, for the most part, it is not too late.

Just the number 2012 brings a mix of apprehension and allure that is both troubling and somewhat mystical when compared to other years. It an important election year that bridges a confluence of cultural, social, generational and economic norms, but is also a reference point for the 2,500 year-old Mayan calendar that predicts the end of an age. If we thought 2007-2011 were landmark years, we haven’t seen anything yet.

As Europe struggles with solvency, it also struggles with a much deeper and more complex challenge: a formula for accommodating evolving globalization, religious nationalism, cultural integration and historic patterns of dissent. So much is in flux in Europe and throughout the Pacific Rim, it is difficult to comprehend. Add the rapid development of India, Brazil and Argentina, the continued success of Canada, New Zealand and Australia, and a growing chasm between developed and developing countries, you have the ingredients for chaos, growth, prosperity, conflict, and rampant confusion.

As we analyze current status, we see declining unemployment, growing consumer confidence, and more decisiveness among EU members. There seems to be greater commitment to long-term stability in Pacific Rim and European countries and several major economies continue to provide the foundation for slow but steady growth. Globally, an emerging middle class will steadily improve markets throughout this decade, with slightly more upward acceleration during 2012. Not to say we’ll turn the corner, but a turning point will be more apparent within 12 months.

Technology will drive progress and global integration in more ways than we can possibly imagine. People are talking; entire cultures are now able to bear witness to atrocity, innovation, celebration, and misfeasance in real time. People seem to know things, care about things, desire things, and understand more than ever. How this flight from ignorance will drive the future is hard to fully imagine, but the amount of globally generated social energy is enormous.

Outdated institutions (U.S. Post Office) will continue to fade while new institutions (ASEAN) will seek broader economic growth and stability. Prepared and prescient businesses and public organizations will morph and prosper; those refusing to interpret patterns of change will struggle and many will die. This New Year is a transitional year. While many are tired, confused, and enamored with the past, those who embrace new challenges and seek to understand new opportunities will reap tremendous rewards during this decade.

The huge IF that is associated with the previous statement depends on a single element: leadership. Far too many leaders in our political, government and corporate institutions are driven by various combinations of avarice, control, power, ego and a compulsion to perpetuate historic norms. The great thing about Generations X and Y is that they, for the most part, seek newness. Among this very large complement of society, many realize that capitalism does not necessarily equate to avarice and that ego can be a good thing. Most seem to be driven by a sense of community, collaboration, and living a ‘good’ life. If they can establish these elements as essential norms while energizing an entirely new culture that preserves the best American values, there may be a more positive future than some would predict.

It is time to understand that foolish decisions, greed and myopic planning led to the current predicament. Virtually all celebrated economists encourage patience during this 6 to 10 year re-centering period. Careful, deliberate, and prudent community planning, along with deeper market understanding and commitment to value will generate growth. Critical questions center around what constitutes leadership and what this country needs during such a transitional period. Vision, insight, purpose and planning must integrate with value, equity and the common interest. The ultimate questions must pertain to what is in the best common interest of all citizens, not only in this country but in every culture. Who will work for the common good? Who will confront reality and have the courage to speak the hard truth?

As 2012 dawns, keep these questions, and your own private answers, in mind. Above all, believe in the future…it will be challenging but bright for those who choose to make it so.

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. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His new book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, was released in October 2010. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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