Long-term thinking is our best weapon against the permacrisis

In the grip of a permacrisis, it’s easy to be seduced by short-term thinking. We need to resist its lure, and fix our eyes again on the long-term horizon.

You might not want to hear this, but it’s time to stop fire-fighting and start planning again. We need urgently to reclaim long-term thinking — but that’s going to be harder than it sounds. Oh, it’s easy to think in the long term when our present is relatively stable. We can look at existing technology, and then we can extrapolate outwards from there. In some ways, that process defined the first decade of both NEXT conference, and this blog.

The pandemic changed all that. All of a sudden, predicting five years ahead seemed impossibly foolish. When we were dealing with genuinely unprecedented changes in the way we live (in our lifetimes, at least), and just knowing what would be happening in three months seemed implausible.

Looking back, some of the futures we started exploring on the site seem very rooted in the age. Toying with automated temperature checking in offices? Very much a pandemic-era idea, when we had no idea how long it would persist. It is natural, when things change suddenly, to focus on surviving the moment, not on working out what it means for the long term. So none of us should chide ourselves for that.

But we should challenge ourselves to get out of crisis mode.

From pandemic to permacrisis

The major part of the pandemic’s impact on our lives is now over. So, why aren’t we truly back to long-term thinking? Well, sadly, crisis became permacrisis. Even as the worst of the pandemic wound down, the sudden outbreak of war in Europe and its impact on supply chains and energy supply kept us focusing on the now. We had a new problem to manage, a new crisis to resolve.

It kept us reactive.

And, in some ways, we’ve had a couple of decades that have celebrated short-term disruption: “move fast and break things” and the general hustle culture. They were the cultural touchpoints of the start-up era. But they can’t define everything, and we need our long-term thinkers, too. Those who can hug the system and slowly shape it to great effect. And we have examples.

Wildly successful investor Warren Buffett is reputed to have told Jeff Bezos over lunch that his secret was steady planning, which was what made him different. “Nobody wants to get rich slowly,” he said.

No politician wants to be thanked for investments that only pay off 20 years after they leave office. No manager wants to be carpeted by the board for spending their time on a project that will pay off in a decade, when this quarter’s profits are looking shaky.

The hidden benefits of long-term thinking

And yet, the world’s most successful consumer good — the iPhone — was actually a spin-off from a long-term project at Apple: the touch tablet. Or, as we know it today, the iPad. No wonder that Apple has spent years investigating self-driving cars and mixed reality headsets without releasing products. They know that long-term investigation can pay off in the most surprising ways.

We could stand to learn from that. Even in a state of permacrisis, we need to keep ourselves, as individuals, as companies, and as societies, focused on where we want to be. Only then do we have a chance of exiting the permacrisis for something more stable.

Humans are, however, remarkably bad at thinking about the long term. We have built both financial and political systems for ourselves that reward short-term profit and political expediency, over long-term investment and strategic planning.

The clear costs of the short-term approach

For example, the UK is currently paying the price of failing to build long-term thinking into its water infrastructure. Britain’s rivers and beaches are increasingly filled with raw, untreated sewage, released by the water companies at times of peak capacity. Why? Because the investment in infrastructure has failed to keep up with the growth in demand:

Sewage pipes are being replaced so slowly by water companies that it will take 2,000 years to renew the whole network at the current rate, according to analysis of industry data.

The problem was highlighted by the pandemic-driven growth in the wild swimming movement, and the greater awareness of the problems of sewage pollution that come with it.

Many countries across Europe found themselves in a similar bind when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made gas supplies problematic. The solution is a (relatively) simple one, and something we knew we had to do anyway: switch to locally produced renewable energy. But our failure to move where we wanted to go fast enough left us dangerously exposed at the worst possible time.

Again, long-term planning for resilience instead of short-term focus on financial savings would have saved a whole load of medium-term pain.

Finding new long-term visions

And so, three years after the pandemic pushed us to find quick, short-term fixes for major issues, we need to find the time, focus, and strength to reset our long-term vision. Given what we know now about energy insecurity, supply chain fragility and pandemic risk, how do we plan the next decades of our countries? How do our products and our companies fit into that?

We’ve already explored this in some areas: our urban planning needs both short-term and long-term rethinking in the aftermath of both the pandemic and the rise of remote working.

One of the pieces of wisdom that David Mattin has shared with us over the years is that times change, but people don’t. However much the problems we face change, and the technology we have at our disposal increases, we remain the same evolved apes we’ve always been. We long for status, for connection, for the physical closeness of others.

Our humanity, and the needs that come with that, are the static point that changes revolve around. We need to stop focusing on mere survival and think about how we meet these fundamental needs as we reshape our world. Because, the climate crisis is the elephant in the room of any permacrisis discussion. We can respond tactically, or we can respond strategically.

If we’d been a little more strategic a decade ago, perhaps we could have escaped the energy crisis of the last winter. Perhaps a version of Putin who wasn’t propped up by our dependence on gas would have been less inclined to get bellicose. What future crisis can we swerve by resetting our brains to focus on the long term?

Let’s find out.

Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash.