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Los Angeles Times Interview

Peter Schwartz

Bright Future's Prophet Stands by His 'Long Boom'

October 04, 1998|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is Director of the JSM+ New Media Lab

Among the traits that distinguish humans from other earthly creatures is our ability to imagine the future. The ease with which we can project forward into time has been crucial in the development of everything from primitive agriculture to the New York Stock Exchange. Yet, while we are fairly sure that the sun will come up tomorrow and that spring will follow winter, we also understand the future as vast, unknown and unknowable.

Of course, that hasn't stopped us from seeking out oracles, seers and psychics. But there are also serious forecasters among us, people who use scientific method and rigorous analysis in an effort to identify the forces that will shape our tomorrows. They track current shifts and trends and use them to create a variety of scenarios that describe possible futures. For this they are often handsomely paid by corporations, institutions and governments.

Perhaps the most visible of these "scenario builders" is Peter Schwartz, chairman of Global Business Network, a group of forward-thinkers based in Emeryville, Calif., near San Francisco. Schwartz has recruited an eclectic gaggle of heavyweights to help him parse out possible futures, including former astronaut Rusty Schweickart, Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill Joy and musicians Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel. Last year, Schwartz launched a heated debate when he and writer Peter Leyden published a scenario called "The Long Boom" in Wired magazine. In it, Schwartz proposed that we are now entering an extended period of economic prosperity, which, driven by the biotechnology and telecommunications industries, will have us all rolling in dough well into the next century.

Not surprisingly, Schwartz's long-boom motif has been shaken by the unpleasant economic events of late. Yet, the 52-year old futurist, who was trained as a rocket scientist, still believes it's possible. Married and father to an 8-year-old son, Ben, he has two brothers who are rock musicians in Los Angeles. In a conversation from his Berkeley home, he talked about imagining alternate futures as a way of preparing for what's to come, the crushing pace of change in our society and his dream of an era of prosperity like none ever seen before--the long boom.

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Question: What's the difference between predicting the future and preparing for the future?

Answer: We recognize that the world is complex and essentially unpredictable. There are a few things that we can predict, that are inevitable and that one can see, but most things are not. Who could have imagined at the beginning of this year that someone named Monica Lewinsky was going to distract an entire government? So, rather than trying to predict the unpredictable, we try to create rigorous scenarios of possibilities--different ways that current forces might turn out. We try to think about all the various possibilities and prepare, so that we're not surprised. You've heard people say, in retrospect, "Boy, I wish I'd thought of that back when." Careful scenario planning is a way of avoiding that regretful emotion.

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Q: But what if your scenario is wrong? For instance, in the 1950s, popular notions about the future included lots of robots and flying cars, and that future never arrived.

A: Yes, and another good example involves the U.S. military. Today the Cold War is over and the big bad guy went away. But the military prepared for every scenario but the one that occurred, winning the Cold War.

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Q: How does one create scenarios for the future that have a good chance of actually occurring?

A: First, if you can find things that are inevitable, those are very powerful signals. Look at Japan, for instance. In a few years, fully 25% of all Japanese will be over 65 years of age, making it the oldest society in human history. There's no way to change that, because the momentum of their demographics makes it inevitable. But what is undetermined is how Japan will try to cope with this change. Will it try to import young people? Or will it be so slow in responding that the few young people left will want to leave? One can imagine two radically different responses to the same phenomenon.

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Q: But what about the unknown, unpredictable events in the future, things that we can't possibly anticipate?

A: We work very hard to identify the seeds of change in the present. There are very few things that are entirely surprising, that somebody didn't see coming. We work hard to scan as much information about the world as we can. We do that by trying to identify the most perceptive observers throughout the world. We now have a network of about 100 people who are at the leading edge of change--artists, economists, writers, scientists--people who really have their finger on the pulse of change, or who are themselves involved in creating the future.

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