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An Evolving Future

The past six weeks have brought confusion, distrust, fear and downright panic to many segments of the global community. This can be generally attributed to wildly fluctuating (mostly downward) markets, China’s steady decline, a collapsing oil market, continued shenanigans in the Middle East and a host of other factors. It seems mildly interesting that China’s decline, or at least its malaise, was predicted over two years ago and is another example of ‘predictable surprise,’ a term that has been presented in this space in previous articles. So too has the general phenomenon of fluctuation, meaning, simply, that what goes up tends to come down at some point. Of course, when there is precipitous decline, there is a parallel ‘pucker’ that is typically felt across generations and social strata.

As we begin looking seriously at the 4th Quarter, it may be wise to consider even longer-term preparation for 2016. From all accounts, the economy is doing fairly well, we are only vaguely playing at war, Iran seems to be placated, the European Union is holding together and most saber rattling has the feel of bluster rather than foreboding. That is not to say we should be cavalier about the next few months or forego planning for the coming year. Rather, it is merely a reflection of the global environment where we continue to battle, strip, plunder, compete, ignore and diminish while we also earn, develop, innovate, cherish, preserve, care, protect, dream and evolve. So many unanswered question pertain to balance. In time, we’ll find out which list of adjectives will ultimately result in either a horrific end-game or enlightened evolution toward a remarkable New Age.

There is both wonder and a form of ennui when one considers NASA plans for sending astronauts to Mars within a decade or so. While those of us who were around to see the first Moon landing can recall the unbridled thrill, many more will have that detached, ethereal amazement when someone finally walks on Mars. Many of this planet’s best minds are collaborating on the Mars expedition, while their countries simultaneously joust over economic sanctions, alliances, mineral resources, fishing rights and shipping lanes. Dichotomies are growing as populations soar, fires burn, drought increases and crop yields decline. On one hand we cooperate to reach for the stars; on the other we argue over meaningless ideology while people die from starvation, deprivation and annihilation. There are earthly civilizations that have devolved into barbarity, enslaving entire communities, butchering innocent citizens, selling young girls, and destroying historic monuments that were beautiful tributes to truly great civilizations. There are others that try to make peace, share, innovate, reflect and constantly build. More than any time in human history contradictions abound.

In a connected world ignorance is not bliss; there are few who do not know what is occurring around the planet and this knowledge breeds discomfort, disunity and detachment. A fundamental reality of these troubling days is that most feel helpless to intervene. Things have grown so big, complex, fearsome, costly and convoluted that we don’t know where to begin. We are asked to contribute to NGOs and voluntary agencies pleading for funds to help the less fortunate. But where do we give and how do we reach others in a manner that contributes real value? How do we create hope, prevent disease, provide shelter, pump water, and grow crops? How do we intervene in clan warfare and prevent genocide? Most are only able to share meager resources, send a few dollars, support the troops and offer a prayer.

There are around 320 million people in the United States and around 50 million live at or below the poverty line. Half of school-age children qualify for free and reduced school lunch; immunization rates have fallen, preventable childhood disease is rising, drug use among teens is escalating, graduation rates are higher than ever but still low and U.S. science literacy scores place America 28th in global rankings. These are only a few critical markers that might indicate to even the most unassuming citizen that we have work to do at home. Not saying we should become isolationists, but merely providing encouragement for more attention to detail within our own borders.

Stepping outside political ruminations and ideology, the country has paid down some debt, brought service men and women home, expanded health care to many more individuals and families (whether some like it or not), reduced unemployment to around 5.1% and generated significantly more economic vitality. Consumer confidence remains high, corporate profits are up (so far), and the cost of war has been significantly reduced. So, are we rounding the corner on recessionary times, or has there merely been a pause in the country’s long-term decline? Time will also answer that question, but, by all indices and standards, the U.S. remains strong, capable, innovative and prosperous.

I would like to see more attention paid to those activities that made America strong – education, business development, new infrastructure, sensible immigration, and meaningful regulation that protects the public while not curtailing business growth. There is much to do and we have time to do it. But this decade was predicted to be and has been transformative. America is in the midst of a transition that is rapid, complex, difficult, and for all the marbles. If we don’t get it right, we stand to lose big. This means, as always, careful planning, strategic thinking, resource conservation, and a dual effort to preserve ideals while aggressively creating a new future. It can be done, but it will take leadership, statesmanship, and a willingness to sacrifice for the good of future generations. That is not to say we must curtail the present. It merely means that we must demonstrate a deep commitment to doing what is required to have any kind of future at all. Our parents did that for us. It’s time we did the same for our children and grandchildren.

JFL Pic Blue Shirt-Yellow Tie

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). Reprints of his book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders (2010) has sold out three times. 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).