Secretaries of the Future

The future can be daunting to contemplate, but better to give it some consideration now before it becomes the present.

The future can be daunting to contemplate, but better to give it some consideration now before it becomes the present.

Kurt Vonnegut wondered why U.S. Presidents have secretaries of state, interior, defense, treasury, labor, education, veterans affairs and health and human services, but not a secretary for the future.

His question speaks volumes about a lot of organizations that busy themselves with today’s entanglements without casting an eye to future challenges and opportunities.

Many organizations have created departments devoted to sustainability to guide longer term decision making. A few have hired futurists to predict what lies ahead. And then there are visionary CEOs such as Elon Musk and Richard Branson who are committed to speeding up the future.

Considerable energy is given to long-range planning, which often resembles what we would like to see happen as opposed to what is likely to happen. Case in point: Land-use regulations designed to prevent sprawl, but that also limit housing supply, which affects housing affordability.

No one exactly knows what Vonnegut had in mind when he suggested a Secretary of the Future, but you could imagine he meant an office dedicated to looking forward, identifying choices that need to be made and providing a framework to vet those choices.

The Vonnegut Secretary of the Future wouldn’t run hospitals, count money or stage bombing raids. It would be in the idea business. When you look around, you can see plenty of problems that call out for fresh ideas.

Take, for example, how to combat widening income inequality. Or the educational system America needs to remain competitive. Or steps to halt climate change.

A secretary of the future isn’t just needed for the federal government. Most organizations would do well to look up from today’s headaches to see what the future might look like and how they could influence or capitalize on that future. Peering beyond the horizon can open your eyes to breakthrough ideas or new paradigms. You literally see things in a new light. 

Companies that manufacture things from sports apparel to mining machines might contemplate how to navigate in a world where the motivation to chase cheaper labor is offset by punitive trade and tax policies in their home country.

Land developers who must win local voter approval for annexations may want to recast how they approach development and how they sell it to local residents.

Technology companies should search for ways that protect user privacy without creating dark holes for terrorists to operate.

Small business owners facing larger, multi-national competitors could search for unique ways to add value to cement customer loyalty. 

The pressures of today will always dominate our thinking. Vonnegut reminds us that those pressures shouldn’t totally block out thinking about the future. You don’t really need a secretary of the future to guide you.