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Over the Horizon

I have often encouraged readers to ‘get on your tiptoes and look over the horizon.’ The practicality of this advice is grounded in the value of being an early adopter or adapter while also being able to spot emerging issues and challenges. A couple of weeks ago, I stressed the importance of understanding the various transformations that are taking place in America and throughout the global community, but it also contained an implicit warning that prescience requires the courage to explore current and anticipated realities that could very well sink our collective ship. The simple question remains, ‘How many have the will to indentify and face those impending challenges that have the power to alter the very foundation, fabric and course of this Nation?’

Converging Variables

The U.S. faces several enormous challenges. Among the most important are:

a)       After years of being the 800-pound economic gorilla, the U.S. must now face global economic competition at an entirely new level. Every community, business and industry in America must be prepared to compete on a more even, no-holds-barred field…but are we fully prepared and will this occur rapidly enough?

b)       Global communication and shared information / knowledge require aggressive new policies, processes, platforms, and perspectives that utilize rather than deflect and discount how information is driving social and economic evolution. Did anyone notice the recent backlash when the concept of a free national Wi-Fi network was proposed? Yet, other countries have broader and better Wi-Fi than the U.S. system, which was created by private companies that squeeze every dollar out of consumers while providing marginal service.

c)       As a country and people, we spend more than we make and borrow to pay the bills. This is totally unsustainable and has led to enormous deficits-not only due to federal government largess, but due to a culture driven by entitlement, avarice and myopic lifestyles. Deficits are strangling this country, but will we act before it is too late?

d)       The ‘threat’ of rapid climate change and ensuing drought, floods, hurricanes, fires, and other unpredictable mayhem  is no longer ‘possible’ or ‘probable’ but is now an annual phenomenon. Prevention has ceased being the best option…we are now in the costly stage of preparation, mitigation and annual recovery cycles. Who bears the brunt? State and local government.

e)       Energy consumption continues to soar, increasing dependence, depleting reserves, and fueling an economy based on cheap fuel. Over time, this cycle will end. Are we doing enough to prepare for the next energy cycle and is there a plan to evolve? Or, will we ride this pony until the end, then, a day late and many dollars short, finally seek new options?

Other Realities

In addition to these realities, there is a very real horizon relative to loss of institutional memory as Baby Boomers retire after building so much of what currently exists. Do newcomers have the required core competencies to take business and government to the next level? With training and professional development sadly lacking at virtually every level of federal, state, and local government and throughout industry, there are signs that sustainability will become a greater issue within five to ten years.

While savings have increased, the average retiree has less than $50,000 saved for a retirement that may last 20 to 25 years. Social Security will hardly be enough as food, medical, energy, housing and long-term care costs escalate. Are we ignoring a huge segment of society that is wholly unprepared for the next two to three decades? What is the role of government? What about personal responsibility? What will happen to all those people who are without the means to survive as they age? 

Some social scientists and economists report the evolution to a service economy while the data indicate a growing resurgence in on-shore manufacturing. With off-shore labor and transportation costs rising, there is a very real possibility that the U.S. will regain greater prominence as a creator and producer, allowing time for the service economy to mature. What are we doing to understand the dynamics associated with these parallel economic opportunities and is American business properly positioned? Is government creating the ideal economic environment?

The fantasy surrounding oil independence is both remarkable and troubling. While natural gas and coal are plentiful, oil reserves are difficult and expensive to reach and refine; demand is rising and under careful examination the entire industry appears to generate more questions than answers. There are too many conflicting reports of oil quality, extraction costs, environmental damage, and long-term accessibility for me to fully sign on. Some well-credentialed pundits have opined that it is a massive scam to assure citizens that all is well regarding energy. I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory but am moved to seek truth when I see so many conflicting reports from supposedly reliable sources.

What is the plan for U.S. education, infrastructure, health care, entitlement and military reform? All are teetering on a slippery slope compounded by short-term planning, inconsistent priorities, insufficient funding, archaic reasoning, and decision makers who grasp neither the pace nor the magnitude of the current and predicted global transformation. Leaders have vision; they take the long view and can describe the rational and implementation tactics of desired strategic outcomes. A massive and challenging horizon is approaching at a speed that was unimaginable even fifteen years ago. Big things are happening here and abroad. Are we prepared? Are we going to be? When will we begin, and I mean seriously begin, to get ready?

jfl-pic-blue-shirtyellow-tie.jpgWith 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 government 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 2010 book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, is being hailed as the best book for public managers and community leaders who are committed to building a sustainable future.  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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