Exploring the origins, ethics and future of changemaking

Working across timescales: the future may never get here

In Futures on July 26, 2012 at 10:24 am

Last week I read a cool tweet by @SimonLongstaff at the St. James Ethics Centre which read:

“A proposal: that every regulation automatically lapse after a limited, fixed period – only being renewed if deemed essential”

I thought this was a cool idea to change the default from what is most often permanent legislation, to a default to make it limited or temporary and to have it renewed only if it proves itself. I also wondered if this should be the default for organisations or companies. Perhaps new companies or social services should also have a limited shelf-life (or business registration) that would only be renewed if it was deemed essential, effective and impactful. I wonder whether that would change our thinking around the strategies that we adopt, and the overriding purposes of our organisations.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should only think in short timescales. As a futurist, I am a big champion for extending the horizons in which we think, create and work. I mostly think in strategic cycles of 12-15 years within a longer vision of 50-100 years. I celebrate those organisations and communities which have the foresight to extend this further. The Queensland Folk Federation and the Woodford Folk Festival have established a 500-year Strategic Plan which has led to a remarkable shaping of their festival and development of their site.

Proposing a default short-term closure simply recognises that there are natural cycles in all aspects of life, and cycles within cycles. This is the paradox of this problem. If we take a long-term view and construct strategies that are informed by and consider distant futures, we can more easily honour cycles within cycles. We are more likely to allow for change and movement in within a strategy as we move forward. The long-term view makes short-term redundancy more unlikely.

Conversely, if we start with a default on short-term thinking, and extend our plans and strategies from our current reality, it is more likely that our current strategy (business, legislation, whatever) will become redundant at some point in the future. This is because it hasn’t been considered within a long view.

To take a real example, a prominent Australian youth charity was originally set up on this premise – a limited time period to spend its entire corpus. The original intent was that the organisation would close within twenty years having totally exhausted its resources. As such, the organisation was purely focused on philanthropic giving for the first twenty years of its life and its social impact was very questionable. In having a short-term closure locked into its DNA, it failed to consider a long-term vision about where it wanted Australia to be in 100 years with regards to how it relates to young people.

Recently the organisation was successful in changing its Constitution to allow the fund to be extended indefinitely into the future, and to ensure the organisation’s longevity and impact. While they are now Constituted to be in existence in perpetuity, their public responsibility is to now extend their vision into the future. Unless they do this they will run the risk of continuing to develop short-term strategies that have limited long-term positive impact.

It is interesting to consider this in relation to private philanthropy whereby some people think that money should be spent in one’s lifetime. People like Warren Buffett are on a mission to spend their fortune before the end of their life, which is certainly a noble mission. If this money is spent in ways or on projects that have been constructed with a short-term view, then potentially there are dangers that they are supporting initiatives which may cause long-term harm. Philanthropy also needs to consider what its impact is across multiple timescales.

So I think that Simon Longstaff’s proposal is fascinating. A window-period for legislation (or indeed organisations) could be wise thinking in keeping in check those ideas/organisations/policies that have a limited long-term view. The onus will be placed on Governments, communities and organisations to think more long-term about what they are creating, including its sub-cycles, thus ensuring their ongoing relevance.

Image at top from blog Lesism, original designer unknown.

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