Five Exercises in Long Term Thinking

Long term thinking is a skill of immense value, both in business and personal contexts. As a long term thinker, I am always interested in what could occur in the future, its consequence, and how that possibility can or should shape my present decision making. But how to think effective about the long term? In this article I will outline five techniques I use and have found effective.

Before jumping in to the five methods, let’s clarify what long term thinking really is about. If long term planning is forming a specific plan about how to react to future events, long term thinking is about expanding the list of what those events may be. Unlike planning, the goal is not to gain control over a future scenario, but to better anticipate the variety of future scenarios. Done well, long term thinking has the immediate effect of a feeling of wonder and loss of control, because it increases the potential futures we must one day face. Of course, many of those possibilities do not come to pass, or appear in variations we had not predicted. But the exercise of rigorous and intentional long term thinking enlarges our perceived cone of uncertainty, and therefore helps us to be less surprised as the future situation is revealed.

Long term thinking methods need to strike a balance between creativity and realism. The creative aspect is about lateral thinking and seeing paradigm shift potentials when they are not yet obvious mechanical extrapolations. The realism is necessary because we are not simply fantasizing, we want to conserve our mental energy for future scenarios that may indeed come to pass. Unbridled creativity can be entertaining, but is not so much long term thinking as just imagination. Unrelenting realism is just as bad, because it extrapolates only along known dimensions and ends up assuming we have better horse drawn carriages or steam engines. In the middle is where magic happens, where we have a wide cone of uncertainty that nonetheless is a defensible list of potential futures. The next five methods are ways I personally approach long term thinking. In each method I use a principle to guide my thinking and then, either alone or with selected partners, I delve in to my thinking. And once I begin thinking about long term potential, I suggest you take the practice seriously. The poet W. H. Auden said that attention is to the inner world what action is to the outer world. In your mind, attend carefully to the scenario you are building, being rigorous and rich in the details you create. The last technique described below gives an aid for ensuring realism, but that burden is ultimately on the thinker. The Greeks surmised aspects of the world such as atoms by this kind of focused thought. That is what you should strive towards.

To give the methods below some practical example, imagine the world as it will be in 2030. As of this writing, that is 16 years in the future. Nearly everyone reading this article will still be alive, and most will still be working. Developing propositions about life in 2030 seems absurd at first, but it’s practically on our doorstep. In long term thinking timelines, this is one step away. More importantly, many of the decisions you make now will bear fruit in that time frame. For example, decisions to have children or to save for retirement, to start a business or to get married. These all have payouts predicated on the world in fifteen or more years. From that perspective, it’s crazy not to try to guess at the world as it will be in 2030.

Method #1: Listen to Stated Goals

You do not have to think long term in isolation, and one of the more effective ways to begin framing the future possibilities is to review what other decision makers are stating as their goals. It’s clear that not all of those stated goals will come true, but simply anchoring to them helps you get started because (a) they may indeed be realized, and (b) the path towards them shows where critical resources will be placed at least in the short term as the goal is pursued. Consider, for example, the stated goal in 1990 to have the human genome sequenced by year 2005. At face value it was a bold goal. Perhaps most important was that its progress was not linear: over 50% of the sequencing took place in the last 18 months, just as we would expect from an exponential process. But it provided a clear anchor and also indicated consensus industry expert opinion about progress they could expect. Did you, at that time, base your assessment of the future on that claim? If not, why? I suspect most people simply ignore the valuable clues publicly stated goals offer us in our own long term thinking. To kick-start this, consider some of these stated goals for 2030:

  • Google claims there will be general AI software that is more intelligent than any single or group of humans. It will be able to read, talk, and learn like a human. It will also have social capabilities, like flirting or telling jokes.
  • SpaceX and Elon Musk plan to have a built colonies on Mars.
  • The USA government has committed to 42% lower greenhouse gas emissions in the year 2030 compared to year 2005, even though the current level is in fact higher than the 2005 emissions.

Method #2: Imagine a single breakthrough technology or event

One of the ways our creativity for imagining future scenarios is stifled is that we ignore the reality of non-linear changes in the body of human knowledge. Research breakthroughs come in sudden avalanches of paradigm shifts, not slow accretions like stalactites forming in caves. The best way I have found to mimic this process is by giving my imagination permission to assume one breakthrough technology change or social upheaval. For example, I may begin a thought experiment with the assumption that a new form of social choice has replaced voting for representatives to the US government. Instead of “one person one vote”, the country has moved to a page-rank algorithm for selecting candidates. The “voting” is done by each citizen selecting zero to N other citizens whom they would be happiest as their representative. The citizen with the highest page-rank score on a specific day is then given the job for a fixed period. What I am doing here is allowing my thought process to mimic the experienced reality of human progress: it is driven by black-swan events that sound insane in prospect but make sense in retrospect. Can I explain how the USA government would come to such a new voting system? No, but that is of no importance. What I do instead is make one big change to the landscape of possible realities, something large but not impossible, and then I go back to rigorous exploration of what the world might look like given this change.

I find this is the most effective way to create a meaningfully wider cone of uncertainty. Unlike the use of publicly stated goals, it allows for future situations predicated on events no one is trying to achieve. In that way, it is also a way to explore future scenarios that represent collective failures: dark ages that may come to plague us through no one’s stated plans. But it’s equally useful for positive unplanned events. To give some example, start imagining life in 2030 given one of these changes:

  • The earth’s albedo can be controlled by a UN governing body: climate change as a result of greenhouse gases is perfectly neutralized, but the other effects (ocean acidification, etc) remain.
  • Sustainable fusion is achieved. Energy is free (at levels currently consumed), and ultra-energy consuming activities will be enabled.
  • A space elevator or sky hook is constructed, cutting the cost of moving materials out of the Earth gravity well from around 40k USD per kilogram today to around 300 USD per kilogram in 2030.
  • An outbreaks kills 25% of urban, and 5% of rural populations respectively.
  • People begin wearing nearly immersive life-logging devices. It’s now practically impossible to have a conversation or interaction that does not get recorded by multiple perspectives and can be rapidly retrieved in the future. There is perfect social memory and no chance to commit overt crime without identification.
  • World superpower industrial nations stagnate and then retrogress under mounting social, ecological, and economical tensions, i.e. USA, Japan, and the EU become the new Russia.

Method #3: Look for “future now” examples and imagine them scaled up

The future is already here, just not widely distributed. That is a truism worth turning to when conducting long term thinking. Almost no world-changing event comes to us entirely new, but rather has antecedents that could have given a clear picture of its coming long before the majority of people took notice. This point is obvious to the point of banality. Long before we can arrest or reverse aging in human bodies we’ll be able to do it in clinical trials or in animals. By finding and attending to these kinds of events, we can see potential future scenarios.

I find this technique most useful when imagining events that require mass adoption or distribution. An asteroid strike, for example, is a single event that either occurs or does not. It’s not a good candidate for this method. But the appearance of the internet of things, in contrast, is well suited to this avenue of exploration. Long before we have an overwhelming majority of internet traffic being done “thing to thing”, there will be at least some internet traffic devoted to it. Because it must scale up, by definition there will be early adopters and a chance to see the potential before it is a reality. This offers a way to fill out future scenarios not based on black swan type events, but nonetheless to find interesting possibilities that result from achieving critical mass adoption or distribution. These are so called trailing edge technologies, places where the truly disruptive aspect comes with critical mass rather than early adoption. Mobile phones are an example. They existed as prototypes for more than a generation. They were expensive gadgets for niche use cases for a decade before their adoption really started picking up. And long before the app stores appeared and apps became mega-revenue generators, there were examples of people doing all variety of things with their mobile phones in 3 world countries. Indian fisherman were using mobile phones to coordinate market pricing and demand on the shore with fishing trawlers on the water. A sharp observer could take that example and predict what scaled-up scenarios might look like.

Here are some examples of current technologies or processes that may, in time, achieve tipping points of critical mass:

  • China experimenting with elections, where the residents of an area vote to fill positions that would typically be appointed by the local communist party officials
  • Quantum computing, not focused on general logic but rather on combinatoric problems. Early adopters such as Google already exist.
  • The proof of concept and early adoption of encryption-based currencies such as Bitcoin
  • Corporate research and development centers operating off the coast of the USA, to avoid immigration issues but enabling engineers to be near-sourced to silicon valley
  • Printing of an image at maximum optical resolution, i.e. it is not physically possible to improve the resolution.
  • Printing of cultured meat for human consumption

Method #4: Read science fiction

Okay, this is a bit unorthodox. I am not advocating watching Star Wars to think about the future. But science fiction, especially what is called “hard science fiction”, is a domain dedicated to the subject of long term thinking in entertaining and engaging ways. I read voraciously, about 100 books per year. Of these, the majority are non-fiction. But I also read a fair amount of science fiction because it provokes creativity and a wider sense of the possibilities of our future. Just as important, it often tries to explore the human condition or experience as it would be under new conditions.

To give an example, the science fiction author Robert Reed has a story called “The Cuckoos Boys” in which a virus is engineered to deliver genetic material to fetuses of pregnant women who become infected. This is, unfortunately, something that could conceivably happen with the right engineering. As a short story it was enjoyable, but as an instigator of long term thinking it was invaluable: what might such an event provoke in response, how would we deal with the resulting children, and so forth. Another example I remember very clearly is Stanislaw Lem describing a future date when human beings have supplemented blood. His story barely touched on it, but the idea was a great spark in my own thinking. Why, for example, would we not engineer improved red blood cells if it were possible? We would be able to swim for ten minutes at a breath, to avoid choking to death in most situations, and generally to lead healthier lives. Lem mentioned this in a book he wrote in the 1970s, way before such a thing could be predicted as feasible. Now, this is something researchers are indeed developing and have already brought to animal testing.

Method #5: Sense-check with known macro trends

The last method I’m describing can help generate new ideas but also can act as a rein to keep your creative scenarios on track. What I suggest is to do some research about known macro-time scale trends and to keep the trend documentation somewhere where you can see it regularly. What you are trying to do is to internalize facts we know almost certainly will come to pass, because they are tied to things out of our control. The more you internalize these trends, the sharper your long term thinking will become because you’ll be working from and constrained to fit a factual framework.

I’ll name a few of the trends I suggest keeping tabs on. Demographics plays a vital, almost principle role in human progress. One notable demographic trend occurring now is the so called “silver wave”, where 1 world nations are switching from a pyramid-like age-to-population-size distribution to the opposite. It is fueled by the drop in reproduction rates, as well as the improved longevity of the older population. On the front side, we’ve passed peak-baby sometime between 1985 and 1990. Now, each successive school year the schools of the world have slightly less children. By 2030, there will be 25% less children than there were in 1990. On the upper end of the age distribution, life expectancy is approaching escape velocity. Over the last 30 years, for every 10 years of real time the life expectancy has increased by nearly 3 years. So, someone insuring lives 30 years ago would have assumed nearly 10 less of life from the entire population. And the boom in longevity is actually ahead of us, not behind. By 2030, we may have life expectancy improvements in the range of 7 or 8 years per 10 years of real time. Our bodies will never become immortal, but they may become like houses or bridges, capable of indefinite occupation with luck and care, but still susceptible to accidents.

Another demographic trend of importance is urbanization. Over the last two hundred years the proportion of the world’s population living in cities rose from about 1% to over 50%. There is absolutely no sign this is stabilizing or reversing. According to the UN 2011 assessment of Urbanization: ”the urban areas of the world are expected to absorb all the population growth over the next four decades while at the same time drawing in some of the rural population.” Also of importance is the demographic trend towards heterogeneous mixing of the human gene pool. The role of race and ethnicity is changing severely, either in reaction to or as a driver for the mixing of people around the world. Statistical differences in the genetics of regions are diminishing.

The next major area of trends to anchor to is ecology. Here there are several items. One is the loss of groundwater in key regions, such as Punjab India. Many locations depend on underground aquifers that are in the last stages of collapse. Once they are gone, they do not return because the space left by the lost water is filled with collapsing earth and therefore no recharge is occurring. Another important trend is the rise of invasive species, causing unintended loss of biosphere niches. The overall degradation and potential loss of major biosphere mechanics, such as ocean salination or fishery collapse, are important trends to watch.

But, of course, climate change is the most obvious. Even if a miracle solution appeared tomorrow, allowing humans to produce energy in the forms we need and the places we need without emitting carbon dioxide, there is already a huge load of greenhouse gases making its way in to the upper atmosphere. Both statistical trends and predictive models suggest that major, potentially human-culture shattering, climate events will occur by 2030. Hydrology is the major mechanism for heat dissipation in the earth’s climates, so most of these climatic events will depend on extreme water-related weather. Although not often brought up with ecology, I’d also point out the wider ecology of our solar system. In particular, the longer we look out in the future the greater the statistical likelihood of a major collision with an asteroid or (less likely) a comet.

Socio-economic trends also exist. One of importance is the increasing density of wealth, a trend that has been going on in places like the USA and the EU for at least thirty years but is nonetheless causing social tensions. In the USA, for example, the top 1% of households hold more wealth than the bottom 90%. The top 1% account for the about 35% of wealth, i.e. 1 million households control a third of the wealth in the USA. Will this continue? The answer is “yes”, short of some intervening event. Both of those possibilities should factor in to your long term thinking.

Putting it all together

This article introduced five mental exercises I have found useful when conducting long term thinking. As mentioned before, long term thinking is not the same as long term planning. It is not about generating strategies to control or maximize future payouts, but rather about creating a realistic but broad range of potential scenarios we may face at a later date. It builds a wide, but reasonable cone of uncertainty out towards the future. Obviously many of the scenarios will not come to pass, but accuracy is not measured like that for long term thinking. If anything, I suggest accuracy is measured by how surprised you are as the new “now” unfolds. Done well, long term thinking provides a pleasant sense of awe during the moment, but helps prevent us from being surprised at a later date. Casual long term thinking is fine, but I suggest you at least try a few sessions where you go deep and rigorous either alone or with companions. Any of the methods described here act as good starting off points. Document your ideas, and try to keep notes around you regarding unstoppable known trends, since the more these are internalized the better the scenario building will be. And, of course, best of luck!

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