Futurist Thomas Frey: On Sunday, April 17th I had the privilege of being the opening speaker at the TEDx event at the University of Chicago. The lineup of speakers was quite impressive and I felt honored to be presenting on the same stage with them.
The event attracted a young, high-energy crowd that combined college students, techies, business people and an assortment of other interested parties.
I opened with a talk on the topic of “Communicating with the Future” and discussed my theories on the personal relationship we all have with the future. I then went on to explain how we can leverage our understanding of the future to the point where we can exert influence, even control, over it.
Our ability to manage, influence, and control the future is something far closer than what most people think. In fact, we are at a point where a team of us at the DaVinci Institute are planning an experiment to test the limits of this theory.
The team working on this includes two of our Senior Fellows – Jeff Samson and Bert Vermeulen, along with Kevin Weller, Brian Baker, and myself.
After discussing several possible themes, we hit upon the topic of micro agriculture which conjures up a strong sense of fascination among nearly everyone we’ve talked to. For this reason I would like to take a couple minutes to explain the grand experiment that we are planning:
Controlling the Future
I should first mention that whenever I start talking about “controlling the future” that people start freaking out. If I were to say you need to control your own future or control your company’s future, people are okay with that. But when it comes to controlling “THE” future, that’s where I run into trouble, and the gods of the future will strike me down with lightning bolts for speaking such heresy.
To be clear, I’m not referring to controlling “THE” future, just part of it. The smaller and more focused the piece, the more influence and control we can have over it.
Most of us have been led to believe that the future just happens, and we, the victims, are relegated to the role of accepting whatever the future has to dish out.
As humans, we tend to focus on the volatile and ignore that which is stable. Buildings, trees, and mountains change very little from one day to the next. Driving down a street we typically don’t worry about trees falling onto the road. Only rarely do they undergo a radical transformation quickly.
The earth’s orbit around the sun, the speed of light, the changing of the seasons, the schedule of tides, the frequency of quartz crystals, and the laws of gravity are all predictable with a high degree of probability.
Most of our future is being formed around stable, slow-moving elements that are highly predictable.
As we begin to delineate between the stable and volatile aspects of the future, our options for adding some dimensions of control become clear.
Let’s start with the simple question, “how does the future get created?”
The future gets created in the minds of everyone around us. Virtually everyone has a hand in it, but not all contributions are equal. As you might imagine, a small group of people armed with powerful ideas can make a disproportionately large impact.
But creating the future needs to involve much more than just ideas. The ideas create a starting point but need to be put into a visual context, massaged, enhanced, and somehow made to spring to life.
This is very similar to the way the advertising geniuses on Madison Avenue take existing products and give us the visual tools to imagine how existing products can be integrated into our lives.
When we talk about micro-agronomy, what images come to mind? If you are struggling to put an image with the idea, you’re not alone. And that is a key part of the problem we’re trying to fix.
Images can be very powerful tool when they are combined with stories and purpose. So here is what we are thinking along the lines of story and purpose.
Micro agronomy is based on the notion that a decentralized food grower’s network will lead to greater biodiversity, and greater biodiversity will lead to a healthier supply chain to meet the hyper-individualized needs and desires of future generations.
Naturally the stories will become longer and the purpose will diverge from this central theme, but this is a starting point.
When we add a range of stories to a series of pictures, illustrations, storyboards, models, and videos, the growing body of work will begin to influence global conversations, and those conversations will begin to change the way people make decisions today.
At least that is the plan.
This grand experiment in micro agronomy will involve a six step process that starts with building a community.
Step 1 – Building the Community
Today’s web-based communication systems give us unusual abilities to pair and match people and ideas in ways never before possible.
No person has a monopoly on ideas, and un-nurtured ideas tend to shrivel and die a very lonely death. For this reason, the first step in this journey will be to build a community of like-minded free-thinkers to establish a fledgling brain-trust for the work that follows.
Our micro-agronomy community will be comprised of people who believe that small-scale farming has the potential to change in the future and want to be part of it. The last decade has been an exciting time as people started growing gardens up-side-down and even on vertical walls. Small farm, back yard and indoor vegetation has become a new experience.
The health benefits go beyond just small amounts of food, to improving air quality, the natural environment and providing healthy exercise. In fact, gardening is rated among the top ten best forms of exercise.
Some people will want to join this community for reasons of self-sufficiency and others just for the fun of it. Farming is tied to our happiness, well being and the good life. Will it always be just that memory of a day on the farm or can we all begin to grow our own food supply?
As a community we can learn from each other and build a knowledge base of ideas that will morph and grow as we begin to change the world.
Step 2 – Breaking the Paradigms
“All knowledge and habit once acquired, becomes as firmly rooted in ourselves as
a railway embankment in the earth.” – Joseph Schumpeter
Much of our thinking today is rooted in old visions and old ideas. So how do we jettison the old and accommodate the new?
More importantly, how do we decide which of our current methods are worth saving and which ones need to be revamped?
Working with a self-selected group of innovators is a great starting point. Add to it a safe environment for creative ideas to flourish, a few resident experts to answer questions, some tools for breathing life into ideas, and suddenly we have the makings of a vibrant innovation factory.
Step 3 – Building New Visions
Our toolkits for crafting new visions will include a wide variety of elements in it. The first and foremost will the intense levels of creativity resident in all of the participants. This creativity will be leveraged with a visioning process that builds on itself over time, including:
- Short stories
- Graphic art
Creating the visions will be an iterative process involving people with a diverse range of skills and talents. Shifting perspectives will lead to new stories, and these new stories will lead to new visuals. Over time, the few crude concepts used to start the exercise will be dwarfed by the layers of ingenuity that follows.
Step 4 – Turning Visions into Attractors
An attractor is an event in the future that we are somehow drawn towards. They exert a powerful force on the world around us.
Leonardo DaVinci dedicated over 500 drawings and 35,000 words to the concept of flying. In the late 1400s, this was a long time before most people thought we would ever be able to fly. But over time, DaVinci’s ideas were added to a growing body of work by other visionaries, turning the notion that humans could fly into an inevitable force of nature – an attractor.
We have many examples of attractors throughout history, and even today. Flying cars, cures for cancer, the first person on Mars, teleportation, and space hotels are all persistent concepts that drive the energies of people on earth.
Attractors are ideas that have been perpetuated through movies, books, science fiction, artwork, and other media. They will all eventually come to pass because of the consistent level of intellectual bandwidth being dedicated to keeping the visions alive.
Another way of saying this – these visions have become self-perpetuating.
The obvious question then becomes, how do we create new attractors?
The process for turning our visions into attractors, as it is currently envisioned, will involve the following five steps:
- Start with a vision
- Add dimension and realism
- Build elements of purpose
- Create relevance to the world we live in today
- Rinse and repeat
Realism and purpose help drive viability in the minds of the visionaries, but the key to building a new attractor comes with an ever-expanding body of work. Stories lead to other stories and artwork and movies need to lead to other artwork and movies.
Once a sufficient body of work is in place, the vision will begin to exert its own influence on the world.
Step 5 – Unleashing the Vision
At a point where the body of work reaches a suitable level for mass consumption, a strategy will be put into place for publishing the visions.
There are many ways to “infect” the world with an idea-virus, so this becomes a critical decision point. Some options include traditional media such as radio, television, and newspapers, but may also include more viral components like YouTube videos, blogs, mobile apps, and social media.
The primary objective at this stage is to begin the global conversation and start influencing the influencers.
Once the concepts are in place, competitions, prizes, and other incentivize can be used to build awareness.
Step 6 – Monitor the Results – Anticipatory Analytics
Anticipatory analytics is the tool that I have devised for “communicating with the future.”
Communication, in its most basic form, is nothing more than a signal sent and a signal received. By unleashing the vision as described in step 5, we are sending out a signal in the present for people to receive in the future. These visions will be tagged with unique keyword phrases for us to monitor.
That is the “signal sent.”
Once people have immersed themselves with the concepts and visions, and start integrating the keyword phrases into their daily conversations, we can begin to assess the impact they are having. By monitoring keyword usage through Google searches and with other tools, we can evaluate both short term and long term effects.
This is the “signal received.”
When the frequency of keyword phrases reaches critical mass inside of the “global conversation” we can determine:
- When the vision will become self-perpetuating
- When the market is ready for products and services related to the vision
Once there is a sufficient body of work and sufficient global conversation, the visions becomes self-perpetuating, and the future will happen quicker
Our goal in doing this is to test the theories of the “communicating with the future” process.
Our first meeting will take play on May 24, 2011 – Details here.
We hope to build a cohesive community that becomes emboldened around the theme of micro agronomy. Once the community is ready, our plan is to host a weekend event where talented and creative people come together to build a series of long-term visions of the future.
After that has been completed, we hope to be able to unleash these visions in a way where they can begin to influence the global conversation.
Our plan is to go through each of the steps above, and if done correctly, begin to reorient the world’s thinking around micro agronomy.
This is our first attempt at doing something like this, so we expect to encounter a number of failures along the way. When we do, we will adjust and move on.
As you’re reading through this, there are many questions that will come to mind. And I’d love to hear your thoughts.
In a recent conversation, a close friend of mine listened to my thoughts on this topic and asked me, “When it comes to controlling the future, how much control do we really have?”
To this I answered:
- “We can ignite the spark”
- “We can drive the vision”
- “We can cause the world to take notice”
- “We can implant new visions into the minds of the decision makers”
- “We can track the progress”
- “We can act on the results”
He then persisted, “No seriously! How much control do we really have?”
I concluded, “It’s less than we want, but more than we think.”