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The Art of Transformation

Various trappings of success and progress have so far gilded Q1 of 2013, perhaps signaling an even greater probability for a continuing upward trajectory. It feels good, the numbers are decent, and momentum seems to have escalated past the doldrums experienced during much of last year. It almost seems inappropriate to begin the next sentence with that anxiety-producing and negating word, However…

 A deeper examination and greater reflection reveals signs worth considering. Optimism is often another word for self-delusion and can be the ultimate counterproductive characteristic of a transforming economy and culture. Since the DOW peeked over 14,000 and continues to hover in the high 13s and a newly amended jobs report indicates even more jobs were added over the past three years than originally stated, there is some evidence that an elusive corner has been turned. But, as Lee Corso is apt to rejoin, Not so fast my friend!

 The current transformation is global and all-encompassing. More critically, it will continue for the remainder of this decade as developed and underdeveloped countries experience structural, political, economic and social changes that are inherently difficult and unsettling. It is now clear that the Earth is warming much faster than predicted in 2007. An enormous amount of ice has been lost from glaciers and sea ice throughout the world, temperatures are generally hotter, drought is becoming more prevalent and unpredictable, and violent storms are becoming the norm. Paralleling such evolutionary climatic change, society and business should be revising and recalibrating various elements of agriculture, financial services, water distribution, building codes, emergency planning, service delivery and new product development. Unfortunately, far too little is being done while we foolishly postpone action, incorrectly assuming there will be a magical return to ‘normal.’ Or, as the fiscal cliff debacle indicates, continue diddling with decisions that, were government a business, would be made in one brief meeting.

 Historically, the shift from agriculture to an industrialized society brought enormous new social, cultural and economic opportunities. While neither seamless nor without difficulty, American society made the rural to urban shift during the past century, while inadvertently positioning itself as leader and benefactor of much of the free world. Similarly, we are now experiencing a momentous shift from manufacturing to a service economy, but acceptance and understanding of its value has occurred far too slowly. Why should this concern us?

 During the 1920s, as so brilliantly reported by Timothy Egan in The Worst Hard Time (Mariner Books 2006), there was a perfect storm of climatic shifts, poor agricultural decisions/ policy, an unprepared financial system, a preoccupied federal government, and the convergence of industrialization and urbanism. While the recession triggered in 2007 may not equal the Great Depression in terms of its catastrophic depletion of this country’s will and resources, it revealed corrupt practices, foolish policies and social inequities that contributed to a tipping point that was barely averted by action, grit, and the accumulation of enormous debt. We spent our way clear…but for how long?

 My concern is that few apparently grasp the fact that this country and the entire global community is undergoing a transformation of epic proportions. Virtually nothing is or will be immune from major technical, economic, social, political, climatic or cultural shifts that will change everything we know. Entire regions are in play in Africa, the Middle East, Europe and Asia, cascading toward…something different.

 Transformation requires understanding the forces energizing and motivating implosive or explosive activity, as well as those technical innovations that drive social evolution. As noted here before, it is essential to look past what is occurring or spend too much time wondering why it is occurring and focus on impact. There is a certain art here; the ability to understand what and why, but to also be prescient enough to recognize value, opportunity and emerging options. My best advice remains to read all you can, analyze what is happening and understand how it might impact your community, family and organization.

 Social evolution occurs whether we like, understand, or accept it. The ability to remain clear, knowledgeable, and responsive to emerging challenges has become an essential characteristic of this transforming world. The best part is that old adages continue to apply to every community – go slow, look before you leap, seek first to understand, and know when enough is enough. Good advice as we power through this first quarter and set our sights on a sound, progressive 2013.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow TieWith 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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