Glen Hiemstra’s Letter From The Future
By Glen Hiemstra, 2000.
In 1999, as the new century approached, Futurist.com sponsored a writing contest, offering a cash prize for “Letters from the future.â€ We picked several award winners, whose task it was to imagine the world 45 years in the future, and to write a letter back in time from then, addressing the people living in 1999.
This is a letter that I wrote at the same time, for a conference on philanthropy, from the perspective of 2028 looking back to the year 2000.
Later I did a variation on this letter, more broad in focus, for Scenario and Strategy Planning, which you can see here.
The Day Begins
It is 2028, a warm day in June here in Seattle, Washington. My smart alarm has awakened me a few minutes late. During the early morning the alarm was scanning the net when it noted that auto traffic had come to standstill on Interstate 405 due to a construction accident. After checking with the intelligent assistants of the other participants in my morning face-to-face and confirming that a delay of an hour was expected, the alarm programmed an additional hour of sleep, which I greatly appreciate. I am 78 years of age, and even in my good state of health and arrested aging, an extra bit of sleep is most welcome.
Not so long ago, at the turn of the century, a person my age who was not retired was considered either most unlucky, or an eccentric. Now, just twenty-eight short years later the culture has made a 180-degree turn. A 78-year old who is not working is considered either unlucky or eccentric. This is quite a shift, as you can imagine.
This is just one of the changes that we now are getting used to. To the young the new world seems pre-ordained, as though this is the way it has always been. But we who lived with you back in 2000 know how much the world has indeed changed. Though it is early to make such conclusions, suffice it to say that we now live in the latter stages of the techno-socioeconomic revolution that began about 1970 and is now essentially complete. Like the last such revolution driven by telephones, electricity, and automobiles more than a century ago, this revolution has in many ways changed everything. There were many drivers both social and technological, but the technologies that stand out now are digital, biological and nanotechnological advances. As in such revolutions through history, they have changed how and where and when we work, where and how we live, how we make and buy and sell things, how we communicate and travel, and how long and how well we live. It really is a new day, just as you suspected it might be.
Now that I am up, I ask my assistant to report on the grant proposals that came in yesterday. He reports that he has read them, explored the entire web sites of each applicant organization, compared the reports to our general guidelines, researched the success of similar projects over the past 10 years, and made a preliminary annotated recommendation on each proposal. I am most appreciative, and tell him so. Did I mention that my assistant is a computer, one of the many $1000 machines we have which surpass the human brain in processing capacity, a threshold we passed nearly a decade ago?
After scanning the report summaries, I instruct my assistant to contact the assistants of two of the proposing organizations, and ask them to provide further information. This transaction, like most business transactions today, will probably involve little or no direct human involvement. Often we cannot tell whether we are interacting with a human or an intelligent assistant.
Site Visit & Project in Learning
With this done, I ready myself to travel to one of our grant sites for my face-to-face. We have joined a network of corporate foundations to support the cyberlearning initiative, a worldwide project.
I must explain several aspects of this that will sound unusual to you. First, we consider it rather quaint that in 2000 important corporate and individually supported foundations were focused on the improvement of education, yet they almost always began by asking how to improve schools. By starting with this question, they never got out of the box of assumptions which suggest that learning is to happen in schools. Internet-based learning existed in 2000, but it was crude and of mixed quality, so I suppose focusing on schools was natural. In 2028 we have concluded that in this age of creativity the ability to learn continuously is vital, but most important we have seen the obvious, that what we need to support is learning. A common model is the one I am about to visit, a cyberschool in a regional shopping center, where learners of all ages, parents, and educators, gather in a self-organizing yet coherent way to accomplish learning goals. Today I will see youngsters studying language via a global net hookup with others from three countries. While I could review this project via my home videonet, there still is no substitute for person-to-person contact at critical times to really see and feel what is going on. Did I mention that I will travel to the site in my Moller Skycar (though the others I am to meet are not)?
Learning is one of the most critical areas that the philanthropic community supports worldwide. The global economy has doubled twice since 2000, and the percentage living in absolute poverty has fallen from 16% to less than 6%, but we still have far to go in bringing substantial learning opportunity to the world. The successful completion of the Internet in the Sky by Teledesic in 2008 was key to progress in this arena.
New Philanthropic Organization Forms
With my site visit complete I travel on to the office. I am one of declining number of my colleagues who work for a foundation sponsored by a single corporation. As work life shifted from jobs to stints, as foreseen by Peter Drucker, we have seen the emergence of several new forms of philanthropic enterprise, including free-lance corporate giving specialists who work for several enterprises at once as part of roving teams. There are foundations that are supported by many companies (which change themselves so often that the foundation is the only institution with stability), and a vast increase in the number of privately endowed foundations from the super rich of the new economy.
Arriving at the office, I convene a meeting in the virtual presence room of several participants based on three continents to discuss a global heath project on the number one global health challenge, bringing the benefits of genomics to the 85% of global population who cannot easily afford these new forms of medicine. This project combines perhaps the two most interesting new forms of philanthropic enterprise, the project-based foundation, and the Eye of the Needle Foundation. The project-based enterprise springs up when a problem or challenge is identified, often without it being clear just how it started, generates amazing amounts of giving, may last for a few months or years, and then disappears when the project is considered complete. These enterprises, as in our current meeting, are most often global in nature, organized and coordinated largely on the net and never create a lasting institution. (It is a little unusual for an established foundation like ours to be a part of a project team, but we have some particular expertise of value and thus have been included.)
The second interesting new form of enterprise is The Eye of the Needle Foundation, a brain-child of the science fiction writer David Brin at the turn of the century.1 He planted the seed for the idea of periodic gatherings of 100 pragmatic but far-seeing individuals from around the world to identify a few top priority and really big things that need doing. The EON Foundation then attracts the fabulously wealthy in conjunction with the $15 trillion in inherited wealth that existed by 2015 to tackle these one-time projects. EON works in amoeba like fashion, growing, shrinking, splitting and moving as projects come and go.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that so far I’ve not mentioned a role for government in my day in the world of philanthropy. That is primarily because the role of government is greatly diminished in this arena, as was underway in 2000. As the century turned we were moving away from government as the institution we would expect to solve large social problems. Drucker was forecasting that the world of non-profits would emerge as the primary kind of enterprise we would look to, and he has turned out to be correct. Governments – local, national and global – still play roles which range from minor to vital depending on the issue, but in general the government role has diminished significantly. Great debates have raged about how to use tax and regulatory policy to encourage philanthropy, as well as volunteerism, and we have seen policy swings in the past twenty-eight years. The bottom line is this. We are doing more, with less government involvement than in a couple of centuries, and we are sufficiently supported with tax and other incentives to make this work well.
Health Issues Focus
The holographic meeting that takes the remainder of my morning reflects our emphasis on improving global health. In the rich countries life spans have increased considerably, beyond 100 on average, and breakthroughs continue to be announced in applications of Genomics that suggest an increase to 120. While all over the world we have seen improvements in health and life spans, as you can imagine significant gaps still exist, and much effort is spent in narrowing that gap. Key global health threats we focus on include heart disease, depression and psychiatric illnesses, stroke, war and interpersonal violence, and interestingly, traffic accidents.
It is noon and time for lunch. I join some friends for a 40-minute jog, followed by a light and lively lunch at a nearby outdoor cafè. If we have learned nothing since 2000, we have learned to slow down some. We can, like you in 2000, do so much more, so much faster, there is a temptation simply to do so, but at my enterprise we learned to get off that treadmill, and we are not alone.
Professional Development and Strategies for Giving
Following lunch it is time for some professional development. There is hardly a day that goes by, in any kind of business, which does not include some organized learning. Today we are delving more deeply into the form of intelligence called holisapience, developed by the 21st Century Korean philosopher Sunghai (Thomas) Kimsunghai.2 In 2000 you are quite familiar with the shift in targeting of corporate and other philanthropy toward “strategic” giving, which usually meant giving in a way to support business goals and strategies, though it could also mean giving in a more targeted way with greater evaluation of results. Today in 2028 we have evolved beyond that in many ways, though we continue to be keenly interested in strategy and results on many projects. There is hardly a person in this business who is not educated in systems thinking, chaos theory, the techniques of forecasting second order consequences of actions, self organizing systems, and now, holisapience. The latter is a form of thinking that emphasizes seeing problems not from one point of view, or from two sides, but from many points of view simultaneously. This way of thinking is considered a high form of wisdom, and we’ll be learning about it for the next hour, as we apply it to global issues. Working with this wisdom form will, we hope, improve our ability to solve problems as well as to act in more interconnected ways, a theme in our work for the past two decades.
Email and other things that do not change
At 2:00 PM, my class finished, I pause for 30 minutes to catch up on mail – yes we still do that, and like you I deal with both email (often video) and voice mail. It is rare however, that we deal with paper, difficult though that may be for you to believe. What used to be on paper we tend to read on our slates, or on the nanopaper we can fold and carry in a pocket. This paper can be connected wirelessly to the net, and with a single sheet we can read a report of unlimited pages.
At 2:45 PM I call a friend in Lagos. We have been discussing the idea of convening a conference on the question of what to do about the declining world population. Surprised? By the year 2000 sixty-one nations had birth rates below population replacement rates, and the U.N. was revising population forecasts downward, anticipating a peak at about 8 billion by somewhere between 2030 and 2040. But it happened faster than anyone thought, and we peaked at 7.8 billion, in 2025, and the numbers confirm that we have now begun to depopulate the planet. No one is quite sure what to do. We think convening a conference to talk about what it means will be important. Some political leaders are already calling for programs to promote large families, and there is great confusion. How will the economy work when there are fewer customers each year?
Arts and Community
My next hour will focus on one of my favorite areas, the support of local arts activities combined with the regeneration of local neighborhoods. As we approached the quarter century, it became clear that we had entered the age of creativity, a time when creative talent could be nurtured because most goods and many services could be provided by the nanotech and regular tech devices. People could simply have more time, if we could just figure out how to use it. So we and many others have begun greatly intensified efforts to support arts of all kinds, especially performing arts in our case. In a systemic way we also use these efforts to encourage further strengthening of neighborhoods. The hi-tech and global age we experience is an extension of what you were seeing already, and there is a need and we believe a real value to promoting local relationships and local community, while participating in the global village as well.
As the work day concludes, I take a moment to access the net on a personal matter. I am looking forward to a vacation I’ve dreamed of since I built a spaceship of cardboard boxes and marbles lit by light bulbs in the basement in Idaho. A vacation at the orbiting Virgin Atlantis Hotel. Two weeks in artificial gravity with play time in the weightless auditorium. I am a bit nervous about the whole thing, but I figure I had better do while I am still young. Perhaps I’ll see you there.
1 An EON Foundation has been proposed by prominent writer David Brin.
2 Holisapience is in fact being developed by the 21st Century Korean-German-American philosopher Sunghai (Thomas) Kimsunghai.
Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video host and Founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.