February 22, 2020

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Envisioning the Future We Want to Create

Tackling climate change requires us to invent a new future.


This blog post is the sixth of an eleven-part series on CSRwire that summarizes key lessons from the new book Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs. Check out the full series here.

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it." –Alan Kay

Business people know that they can't predict the future, so they do their best to create it.  And to do that, they set a goal and then determine what they would need to do to achieve it, adjusting dynamically as reality dictates.  I call this approach "working forward toward a goal".

It's not as simple as that, of course.  The process of making strategic choices is an iterative one that usually proceeds in a nonlinear and unpredictable fashion.  It starts with simple thought experiments, followed by more detailed analysis, prototyping of key components, and exploration of alternative pathways, with lots of feedback, false starts, and reevaluation of initial assumptions. 

Scenario Analysis: Freeing you from self-imposed constraints

wind power evolution

The most sophisticated thinkers in this space use what's called "scenario analysis, which is a structured way of exploring the future. While it's impossible to predict the exact time and place of pivotal events, it is possible to anticipate them, as the scenario planners at Shell demonstrated a few years before the oil crisis in 1973. They developed a formal process(still used by the Global Business Network) that allows organizations to illustrate the possible effects of the most important and most uncertain factors shaping their future. They then think through responses to possible scenarios, so however the future actually does unfold, they have "on the shelf" a set of well-considered responses to those developments. As Randall and Ertel explain, the scenario approach "allows leaders to explore and exploit the unknown, and … enable[s] action in the face of uncertainty."

So what makes this technique so useful in exploring the future? The main reason is that it frees you from the constraints embodied in your underlying assumptions and worldview.  By making a hypothetical statement ("assume solar photovoltaic panels get really cheap in ten years, what else would need to happen in other parts of the value chain to take advantage of that development?") we focus not on all the reasons why something won't happen (which is most people's initial inclination) but on how we could make something happen that goes well beyond what those trapped by conventional thinking would find feasible.  

It places us squarely in the business of anticipating likely developments and shaping future events in a more promising direction than they might otherwise go (by inventing the future, as Alan Kay so aptly stated).  And this is exactly the kind of thinking we'll need to pull us through the complex and difficult problem of climate change.

Inventing the Future: The Steve Jobs Example

iphone tough yet beautiful adThere are many examples of the power of this technique, but one of my favorites is in the recently released biography of the late Steve Jobs.

In the 1960s, Corning Glass had developed a very durable type of glass they called "gorilla glass", because it was so tough. They had stopped making it, but in 2005 the CEO of Corning (Wendell Weeks) explained the material to Jobs, who immediately wanted to use gorilla glass for the first iPhone.

"[Jobs] said he wanted as much gorilla glass as Corning could make within six months.'We don't have the capacity,' Weeks replied. 'None of our plants make the glass now.'

'Don't be afraid,' Jobs replied. This stunned Weeks, who was good-humored and confident but not used to Jobs' reality distortion field. He tried to explain that a false sense of confidence would not overcome engineering challenges, but that was a premise that Jobs had repeatedly shown he didn't accept.  He stared at Weeks unblinking. 'Yes, you can do it,' he said. 'Get your mind around it. You can do it."

As Weeks retold this story, he shook his head in astonishment. 'We did it in under six months,' he said. 'We produced a glass that had never been made.' Corning's facility in Harrisburg, Kentucky, which had been making LCD displays, was converted almost overnight to make gorilla glass full-time. 'We put our best scientists and engineers on it, and we just made it work.' In his airy office, Weeks has just one framed memento on display. It's a message Jobs sent the day the iPhone came out: 'We couldn't have done it without you.'"

Weeks is a brilliant businessman who knows how to make glass, but his initial inclination was "it can't be done". It was only by confronting Jobs' challenge (and I mean really confronting it) that he and his company were able to make it happen (to his own surprise). Of course, we can't just ignore real physical constraints, but most of the time constraints are self-imposed and say more about us than they say about actual limitations on our actions.

Anticipating Technological Progress

Another advantage of this technique is that it meshes well with the rapid pace of recent technological progress. Designing ahead of what's possible allows you to be ready when technology finally moves your way.

…design is like a rubber band: if you stretch it too far from where you're starting, you experience more and more resistance, and ultimately it'll break. Thus, if you want to get to a new design space, you must jump straight to it, then stretch the rubber band back toward where you are now to accommodate technologies not yet ready for prime time: then as they mature, they'll relax back toward your goal.

So "working forward toward a goal" is a way to sidestep the natural tendency to underestimate what is feasible, and to take advantage of advances in technical capabilities as they develop.

Note: In Chapter 3 of Cold Cash, Cool Climate I describe the warming limit approach, which is one example of the more general way businesses approach big strategic challenges.

Next: Using information technology to change the game.


Addressing the Underlying Drivers of Emissions Growth

The Scope of the Problem

So You Want to Solve the Climate Problem...

Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Some Fundamentals

Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-Based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs

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