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Virgling: Combining Unlikely Forces to Drive Disruptive Change

Long-term thinking is good - but vulnerable to illusions

Submitted by: John Elkington

Posted: Nov 02, 2011 – 04:23 PM EST

Tags: future quotient, fq, sustainability, innovation, longterm thinking


By John Elkington

A 100-year business plan sounds too good to be true and, sadly, so far it is. As a lover of history, I lapped up hoaxes from the Trojan Horse through Operation Mincemeat, designed to mislead the Nazis about Allied plans for the invasion of Sicily. But it’s different when you are caught out yourself by a hoax—something I realized last week has happened to us.

I was in Singapore, preparing for several presentations on our new report, The Future Quotient. While researching on the mighty Google, I found myself following a disconcerting thread that we seemed to have missed.

First though, to make the come-uppance richer, earlier in the day, I sat next to a woman at lunch who used to be a well-known TV journalist and now helps run Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. She had recently criticized her daughter for using Google for her studies without diligent fact checking. We nodded our heads wisely, reflecting on young people’s over-reliance on search engines.

Then, using Google later in the day, I discovered that one of the 50 ‘Stars of Seriously Long-term Innovation’ spotlighted in The Future Quotient had been an elaborate hoax. Pitched by Richard Branson and with a slew of facts, this was Project Virgle, a 100-year plan allegedly developed by Google and Virgin. The wildly ambitious aim: To create a human settlement on Mars with Virgin Galactic and Google’s $30 million Lunar X-Prize for the first privately funded team to land operational robots on the moon. And there was something here that seemed to chime with what we already knew about these companies.

Talking it over later with people in Singapore—and with the team back in London—one clear conclusion was the need for more rigorous fact checking. Sometimes in your most time-pressed moments, luck seems to turn your way. In our case, we had been looking for striking examples of corporations adopting significantly longer-term time horizons. Project Virgle, with its immensely ambitious time scale, was exactly the sort of initiative we had been looking for – so like a trout with a fly, or the Trojans with the Greek’s Horse, we embraced it a little too greedily.

For me, now the dust has settled, three other key lessons emerge from this latest lesson in the perils of online research. First, be open about your mistakes—as soon as you discover them. Second, learn the necessary lessons, however painful. And, third, move on – because none of this undermines the need for The Future Quotient.

Indeed, reflecting later as I watched a tropical storm illuminate immense clouds in front of my window in Singapore, I remembered standing next to a Chinese government minister a few years back on a platform overlooking Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. I recall him turning to me and noting the real trouble with the West is that market capitalism and democracy mean it is often dangerously myopic. These days he might be saying the same in terms of the collapse in the value of China’s investments in the West. By contrast China, he insisted, can—and does—think 100 years ahead.

Hmmm. Even though I am trained in long-term planning, I remain skeptical about our ability to plan into the 22nd century. But if two (or more) companies were to come up with a serious commitment to ‘Virgling’, bringing novel corporate partners together to drive radical new solutions, I confess I would still want to track down a copy of the plan. Who would you like to see produce a 100-year plan? Tweet your answers to @futurequo #100years. 

About John Elkington

John Elkington is Executive Chairman of Volans, co-founder of SustainAbility, blogs at http://www.johnelkington.com, tweets at @volansjohn and is a member of The Guardian’s Sustainable Business Advisory Panel.

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