BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 30, 1999 ISSUE
COVER STORY -- 21 IDEAS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

We Are Offering 21 Doors to the Future and Invite You to Explore


When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, Mars seemed to be just a space shot away. But forecasters who saw the moon as a springboard for colonies on the Red Planet and voyages to the stars were mistaken--even moon walks are off the agenda. In fact, for the half of the world born after the last Apollo mission, walking on the moon belongs to history, along with Roald Amundsen's trek to the South Pole in 1911.

Like the Space Age enthusiasts of 30 years ago, forecasters who extrapolate from today inevitably get tomorrow wrong. In 1929, just before the Great Depression, Yale University economist Irving Fisher said stock prices had reached ''what looks like a permanently high plateau.'' In 1973, economists lined up at the gas pump were sure that oil prices were headed for $100 a barrel by 1980. The figure today is $21.

So on the eve of the millennium, when everyone is drawing lines on graphs to see where the world is headed, BUSINESS WEEK cut loose and went nonlinear. In this summer special report, you won't find any tables predicting Internet usage in 2020, mortality rates in 2030, or per capita income in 2040.

Instead, we have compiled ''21 Ideas for the 21st Century.'' It's a set of propositions, concepts, and vignettes that are in no particular rank. And although we use the language of prediction, the real intent is simply to put a lot of ideas on the table. From meditations on empty forests and extremophiles to the outlook for urban sprawl and the immortality of the mind, we opened our sights extra wide. The headlines say it: ''The earth will don an electronic skin'' (page 132). ''Creatures on the fringe hold secrets of life'' (page 114).

The notion underpinning this special report--let's call it the 22nd idea--is that by pitting multiple scenarios of the future against one another and leaving many different doors open, you can prepare yourself for a future that is inherently unpredictable. Brainstorming pays off. And the more possibilities you can entertain, the less likely you are to be blindsided.

Some of the possibilities are entertaining indeed. Try this one on for size: A world in which you could download from the Internet the ''recipe'' for a cell phone, to be assembled at home in an oven-size device called a nanobox. Such boxes would radically reshape the manufacturing sector of the economy. That's one of the 21 ideas in this package (page 90).

How about computers that utilize bizarre quantum effects to solve problems with the equivalent of a roll of the dice (page 160)? Or this: Should you drum math and science into your kid's resisting brain when, in a mere 20 years, she will be fitted with embedded chips that make her far smarter than Stephen Hawking, or be able to pop a pill to achieve the same effect? (gatefold after page 116).

These 21 ideas are not all high-percentage shots. There may never be 2,000 nations, as we speculate (page 86). High schools may not wither away after all. Giant utilities may remain the energy suppliers of choice (page 84). And after experimenting with management by teams (page 88), leaderless corporations may decide that what they really want are iron-fisted CEOs.

Even our tone--generally upbeat--could be off. BT Laboratories Futurologist Ian Pearson, usually a technology cheerleader, has a comical rendition of high technology run amok: It's a world in which people on telephones try to make customer representatives angry because it's the only way to tell that they're people and not computers. ''The fridge has time locks on the door and a video camera watching what you take out,'' he writes on the British telephone company's Web site. ''It won't allow the microwave to cook it because it contains too many calories. Kitchen rage is becoming a major social problem.''

O.K., let's say you have a thousand disparate visions of the future jangling in your mind--for your family, your career, the company you run. The temptation is to fix on one plausible scenario and run with it. Don't. Smart managers acknowledge their own myopia. They pursue several paths at once, knowing that some won't pay off. They fund research projects aimed at exploiting mutually exclusive visions of the future. They're willing to be wrong frequently, and quit when they're behind.

The more unsettled things are and the faster they change, the more valuable it is to keep multiple options alive. ''Volatility is not your enemy,'' says John H. Holland, computer scientist and thinker at the University of Michigan and the Santa Fe Institute. English essayist Francis Bacon figured this out nearly 400 years ago. ''If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts,'' he wrote. ''But if he will be content to begin with doubts he shall end in certainties.''

For investors, too, scenario planning can be illuminating. The Internet may be the single dominant theme in stock investing today. But tomorrow's hottest trends could be in the biosciences, nanotechnology, or--who knows?--industrial enzymes derived from life on Mars (page 114).

Building scenarios and managing multiplicity can be a tough exercise. People crave certainty and hate revisiting decisions. That's why companies so often throw good money after bad, and fire people who abandon a project--even when giving up is the right thing to do. But in the 21st century, we'll all have to emulate a football player returning a kickoff. He revisits decisions second by second, cutting back and forth across the field in search of daylight, unembarrassed that he had to reverse field when circumstances changed.

The eve of the year 2000 is a good time to think about reversing field. True, you could argue that the new century and millennium really don't begin until 2001. But the calendar we live by is a social artifact anyway. A thousand years ago, most of the world cared nothing for the Western calendar. And one thousand years from now, if most people aren't even living on this planet, the notion of an earth year will seem antique.

We're not looking 1,000 years ahead. But we are daring to look 100 years ahead, peering into a future that appears fuzzy and flickering, like the first shots of Neil Armstrong on the moon. Our rationale: If you envision multiple versions of the future and think through their implications, you will be better prepared for whatever ends up happening. In effect, you won't be seeing the future for the first time. You'll be remembering it. The alternative won't cut it: Those who cannot remember the future are condemned to be taken by surprise.

By Peter Coy and Neil Gross

To read a letter to the editor about this story, click here.

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