Let's Think About the Future Again

Stanley Kubrick said the future has no cure for the past. That's true. The past has already happened and the future will just distribute benefit at the time of delivery. But how is the future made? On one hand, the future is made by default. The passing of time from today to tomorrow means that the future will arrive whether we like it or not. In another way, the future is being made today. We have to be intentional about how we construct the future. There are very few people, relatively, concerned with how that will actually happen. Here is why you should be more concerned.

The past few years have been tumultuous. That is probably true for any subset of years in the past. By contrast to our past, our recent years have been some of the most peaceful in history. This is due to the advancements in communication, logistics, transportation, and medicine. Because of these things, we can be more egalitarian in how we distribute opportunity. Scarcity is something that causes conflict and we have done a good job as a society solving that problem. These are intentional improvements, made to solve problems that came up as a result of conflicts from the past. Conflicts often force a clear and obvious target, with varied problems along the way.

As a result of COVID-19, society was presented a clear and obvious target. Pharmaceutical companies, governments, and researchers all banded together with the objective of creating vaccines for COVID-19. Many estimates of the speed at which a vaccine would be deployed were years off, because they only considered the existing solutions. Many successful vaccines solved the problem using mRNA, a less known solution. We now have a new problem of encouraging vaccinations, and distributing these vaccines to countries which are less fortunate. This is a visible problem that has attracted a lot of attention.

Distribution of the vaccines is a visible problem, one with a clear path to an acceptable solution. Developing the vaccine itself was an invisible problem. Invisible problems are those where the solution is unclear or there is no acceptable path available. Another example of an invisible problem is space travel. This type of problem often appears to have few redeeming qualities, and no easy path to success. Someone may be able to identify that space travel would allow us to launch satellites more easily, or travel to other planets as we lose resources on our current one. But there are other problems which space travel on a commercial basis will solve as well which we may not even be aware of currently. There are also many problems with commercial space travel that we haven't solved for yet. Many will target space travel as a waste of resources or time. Those who are against space travel are detractors of our collective future.

So how does one reorient themselves to think about the future? First of all, it is to identify the current implications of the problems they are solving. If you are in tech, (as I'm going to assume a large swath of my audience is) consider the problem you are solving. The best analogy I can think of is to consider what Steve Jobs said to John Sculley. Steve Jobs, who succeeded in convincing John Sculley to leave Pepsi, said "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?" In tech, as in other industries, there are plenty of problems that are sugar water. They are easy problems that will deliver a stable paycheck. Changing the world, on the other hand, is hard. Often to change the world you encounter invisible problems. Only those attempting to tackle these problems will succeed.

To succeed at something you must first try, and to try you must get started. That is the first step. Beyond that, it is dependent on the problem. If you are solving for a problem that exists today with no clear answer, the path to success is to try things that haven't worked in the past. If the problem is one which doesn't exist today, the path is to understand both what tools you can have to solve that problem and what success of that problem looks like. If you manage to solve the problem, the following step would be to consider what your solution might mean. For instance, with COVID-19, vaccines mean that volume and distribution is important, so building a partnership with the parties that can facilitate that becomes important.

Thinking about the future is something that isn't easy to prioritize. We must be able to consider future problems only when our current ones aren't too strenuous. If visible problems are more important, then they must be solved first. If you have the capacity to think about the future, it becomes an important exercise. If we don't stop and think about our future, we might lose it.

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