Category Archives: Futures Research

Comments related to the art and science of long range forecasting and trend analysis.

. . . but a whimper

T. S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men (1925) ends with the following stanza:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

We collectively seem to be striving toward Eliot’s end as we fail time after time to change our momentum toward heat death. Although weather is not the same as climate, are we warm enough these day? Naysayers about climate change, who crowed about its fraudulent predictions last winter, are strangely silent this summer. Even in coastal California where, until the past few days, the summer was day after day of fog and gloom, temperatures below normal. Now it’s in the upper 90s (mid-30s Celsius). But last winter and this summer are just the vagaries of the weather, right? The same goes for the floods in Pakistan, China and Tennessee and the drought and fires in Russia. Just a series of flukes.

Continue reading . . . but a whimper

Wow! 40 years! An autobiographical note

It seems like yesterday that we watched the first men to actually walk on the moon. When I was a freshman in Lawrence College (now University), an avid science fiction fan, the woman sitting next to me in Physics 101 asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated. My answer was: “Put man on the moon!” Thus continued the steps I took to become a “rocket scientist” (at age 15 I was the youngest member of the American Rocket Society). Although my post-BA career mostly wound through the military space program I was able to help NASA decide on the cameras to use for surveying the Moon in order to pick suitable landing sites.

And now it’s 40 years later. In the words of Walter Cronkite on the grand occasion of the first landing; “Whew!” What a magnificent sight! Yet much has happened—and failed to happen—since that day.

Continue reading Wow! 40 years! An autobiographical note

Telework and totalitarianism

Here’s the last paragraph in Chapter 9 of my book Exploring the World of the Personal Computer, published in 1982.

A totalitarian government wishing to ensure that its citizens continue to toe the line and obey all government policies had better also ensure that encryption technologies are not made available to individual citizens and that existing computers not be allowed to communicate with each other.
The danger of that occurring in the United States is extremely remote, but should never be considered to be impossible. Communicating personal computers can provide another safeguard for ensuring that the popular
wishes are reflected in the actions of the government, and all that that implies. One view of political systems is that of an inverted U. Totalitarianism is the bottom of one leg of the U, anarchy at the other. Here we sit somewhere around the top in a precarious and unstable equilibrium. Information technologies keep adding grease to our roller skates.

Now here’s a quote from the 26 June 2009 edition of the Washington Times.

Iranians seeking to share videos and other eyewitness accounts of the demonstrations that have roiled their country since disputed elections two weeks ago are using an Internet encryption program originally developed by and for the U.S. Navy.

Continue reading Telework and totalitarianism

Apathy and the wolf

Over the past several weeks one of the favorite topics in the press has been the latest fad in pandemics: swine flu. This has been brought about by a series of ominous pronouncements by the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO indeed? More recently WHO has begun to rethink its hazard announcement policies for fear of the dreaded Wolf syndrome.

Surely you remember the old fable about the boy WHO cried Wolf! After the first Wolf! shout the people in the boy’s village rushed about in preparation for defense against the vicious Wolf. When the Wolf! failed to appear, the boy’s wolf-forecasting credibility dropped a few notches. After the second outcome-free Wolf! alert reliance on the boy’s ability dropped another few notches. And so on to the point where no one paid any attention one day to another Wolf! cry.

Continue reading Apathy and the wolf

The future is back

Twenty-odd years ago the Center for Futures Research (CFR) at the University of Southern  California folded. The reason was lack of interest in the future on the part of the business community. Since the CFR was supported entirely by donations and grants rather than the university’s endowment, that was the end of the line. The almost universal mantra of senior executives in American corporations at that time—and since—was to keep one’s eyes firmly focused on the next quarter. Worry about ten or twenty years from now? Ridiculous!

How times have changed.

Continue reading The future is back

On the future of evanescent organizations

Over the years I have been asked repeatedly about how telework can affect the structure of organizations or even allow new organizational forms. Given the widening turmoil in the global economy, together with the rapid expansion of information technology even in developing countries, it is worthwhile to examine some alternative organization forms. Specifically, evanescent organizations and their future, the focus of this essay. (If you are interested in some of my earlier thoughts the topic is covered in a few pages in Chapter 11 of my book Managing Telework.)

Evanescent organizations (EOs) comprise a set of interconnected organizational resources and components that collectively operate as a coherent functional whole. The interconnections, in my definition, mostly are telecommunications links of various sorts. Think of a “normal” organization in which the key elements are scattered around the countryside, or the globe, instead of in some central location. Furthermore, the organizations are problem- or product-specific; once the problem is solved, or the desired product is produced, the organization breaks up, perhaps to merge into an earlier, more traditional form or to reassemble itself with different components in order to address a new challenge. It’s the ad hoc nature of the organization that is its central feature. By their nature, EOs tend to be small and flexible, such as “tiger teams” that are formed even in large organizations to respond to a disaster or to some passing market opportunity. But EOs can also be large and far-flung themselves, like a campaign or political action committee in the recent US presidential campaigns [the use of EOs by the Democrats was decisive in the outcome]. But one thing is certain: modern information technology provides a much broader spectrum of opportunities for EOs than was possible a mere decade ago.

So, how are EOs likely to evolve in the 21st century?

Continue reading On the future of evanescent organizations

It’s the dynamics, stupid!

Here’s one of the key problems in the debate about energy and global warming. Many, if not most, of the commentators are ignoring the dynamics of global change. The fundamental issue is that global climate change and global energy use are massive, huge, enormous–whatever ultimate adjectives you can think of. And what is a prime characteristic of massive, huge, enormous things?

It is very hard to change their courses. They have enormous inertia. As Isaac Newton said in the 17th century about the dynamics of motion (Newton’s First Law):  Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it. In the case of global warming the human race has steadily been forcing the atmosphere to change since the Industrial Revolution. The warming force is the heat retained as a result of the CO2 and methane we have been pouring into the air all those years. As we are beginning to notice, the atmosphere is now moving right along, heatwise. Atmospheric change now has substantial momentum, according to most knowledgeable environmental scientists, although they differ on the extent of human influence.

As Paul Krugman put in in his New York Times column on 1 August 2008:

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

Now here’s the dilemma: Continue reading It’s the dynamics, stupid!

…nothing to lose but their chains

Although the title of this piece derives from the antepenultimate sentence of The Communist Manifesto, it is a phrase that has long occupied the back of my mind when thinking about the future of telework. Specifically, what would happen to the growth rate of telework if all workers had portable health care and pension plans?

I suspect that the numbers of teleworkers—particularly telecommuters—would quickly show a major increase. If your are dissatisfied with your job, and you have marketable skills and experience, what is holding you back from changing it? Continue reading …nothing to lose but their chains

UNAIMIT lives!

Roughly two decades ago, when I was still in charge of the Information Technology Program of the Center for Futures Research at the University of Southern California, my associate, Omar El Sawy, and I cooked up a seminar for prospective entrepreneurs. Omar called the seminar project UNAIMIT, an acronym whose meaning I have forgotten. The idea was to engage the seminar attendees into developing a plan for a new technology-based business. We decided that the fledgling business would be a custom, high tech shoe factory.

The technology twist was that there would be a small laser scanner that would develop a 3 dimensional computer model of the prospective shoe purchaser’s feet. This model would then be sent to another computer that would select the shoe components, shapes, colors and sizes in accordance with the model and the customer’s fashion decisions. An automated, customized, guaranteed-to-fit pair of shoes would be produced at an affordable price! The engineering details would be handled after the seminar.

Continue reading UNAIMIT lives!