Monday, June 8, 2009

The Future that Hasn't Happened Yet

As the Future Catches You: How Genomics and Other Forces are Changing Your Life, Work, Health and Wealth by Juan Enriquez Cabot is one of the books we've been reading recently in our thinking about Life Sustaining Work Environments. Published in early 2001, Enriquez (who drops the Cabot off the dust jacket for some reason) argued that the Millennium was only the beginning point of the "digital-genomics convergence" and the even more complex proteomics revolution. Seen from the perspective of eight years ago, the new life sciences were going to present breakthroughs shortly that would enable millions of us (especially those lucky and smart enough to be in the developed world) with the prospect of living well past 100, as we gain "control directly and deliberately [of] the evolution of our species and that of every other species on the planet." Enriquez says that "if you're thinking about Iraq, if you're thinking about politics, if you're thinking about the stock market, you are missing the single most exciting adventure we've ever been on." Pretty big assertion!

And, furthermore, he could be right. Genetics and the life sciences certainly present a prospect for an existential breakthrough in the human condition. What would it mean to you to know that a very, very slight altercation in your genetic code could enable you to live to be 130? Without serious reflection, the implications seems almost unimaginable. First off, who could afford it?! What about all those other people just being born: will they live to be 300?! Methuselah move over!

However, this is not a note about the genetics revolution. In fact, the point is that this revolution hasn't happened. Enriquez says that "Celera is ground zero" in the "New World" of genetics. Celera is a company founded by Craig Venter, and, according to how one reads the data, was either first or tied for first in mapping the human genome. You could have purchased Celera stock for about $50/share as Enriquez' New World was getting underway in February 2001...and it would be worth about $8.50/share today. There seems to be a degree of growth in life sciences hiring, but the graphic at left doesn't give the impression of the explosion in the field that was being predicted in 2001.

Enriquez presents a lot of potent info to back up his claim that "genetics is a hockey stick," but it turns out that there are a lot of hockey players on the field. Remember global warming, for example. While there's been a degree of controversy about the accuracy of the global warming data, most of the graphics depicting the rise in temperatures worldwide have caused a tremendous amount of concern about the rate of change in that metric and what it means. Global warming is a hockey stick too.

So, which of the two should we be paying the most attention to? Which one is the most pressing? Which one involves the biggest changes? The short answer is both, depending on what's important to your thinking at a particular moment in time.

Wait, it turns out that there are a whole bunch of other hockey sticks that are also worth considering. For example, look at a trend graph showing the aggregate differential in military expenditures over the last twenty years between the US and its nearest competitors. It is estimated that the US spends one third to one half of the world's budget on arms every year. It spends more on arms than the next closest eleven also-rans, $375B in 2004 vs. $60B by China, for example. So, the US has an enormous lead in this category. No one can or will catch up to the US in conventional arms expenditures. That isn't pleasing to everyone, which is one of the drivers of asymmetrical warfare and its attendant behaviors, also known as terrorism.

How about the volume of international trade over time or the flow of capital across markets? Hockey sticks with a past and, probably, a future.

So, at this moment, there are a lot of very potent and prospectively game changing phenomena occurring simultaneously in many different domains of human experience. To the extent that one is wrapped up in a particular field where there is a rapid pace of change, it becomes easy to see the impact of an inflection point in one's own focus of attention.

It is much more challenging (and fun!) from a strategic point of view to acknowledge the presence of multiple inflection points all happening in concert or in contradiction to one another. The playing field for every organization thinking about its future is much more dynamic when seen from this perspective. Virtually anything and everything is possible, and very little is certain.

Mystics like John Michell believe that there was an epoch in human history, before the officially recorded past, where a natural order pervaded human activity. Affirming the "dimensions of paradise," Michell found a similar architecture in a multitude of ancient sites--a geometry for the New Jerusalem--that supported his thesis that there once was a time of cohesiveness regarding what human beings were supposed to do with their lives, i.e., bring about an alchemical merger of stimulative solar and receptive lunar energies on a personal, subjective, intrapsychic level and on the external, organizational and social level. (Michell's study of the Glastonbury Abbey is one of his most famous.) Architecture, social activities and daily personal practice were, according to this legend, all designed to support spiritual attainment and the readiness of Earth to receive divinity. This is a claim that certainly has a lot of implications for the design of life sustaining work environments.

Ours is an amazing era full of both beauty and dross. It is a time of great possibility and horrific anxiety. Perhaps humanity will so lose its balance on the planet as to be thrown off by the centrifugal forces we have set spinning at an ever faster pace. Or, perhaps a beautiful, fractal order will appear to us all, revealing an underlying Michell-like harmony that the most recent story in the headlines can never find. Maybe it's always been like this.

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