It's the classic dilemma of both foresight and environmental consulting: how do you get the people with the power to act to pay attention? Political leaders rarely pay sufficient attention to issues of systemic sustainability and planning for long-term processes, at least before events reach a crisis. There are numerous reasons why this might be, ranging from election cycles to crisis "triage" to politicians not wanting to institute programs for which they won't be around to take credit. It's nearly as difficult to get leaders to pay attention to complex systems, with superficially different but deeply-connected issue areas. If you were to try to bring together political, business and community leaders for a day-long discussion of, say, what life might be like at the midpoint of this century, with a focus on environmental sustainability coupled with economic, cultural and demographic demands, how much support do you think you'd get?
In Hawaii, over 500 leaders showed up on Saturday the 26th for just such an event, including numerous state legislators and former Hawaii governor George Ariyoshi. Legislative support for the Hawaii 2050 Sustainability project was so great, in fact, that funding for the project received a near-unanimous override of the current governor's veto. The meeting hall was filled to capacity, and the buzz of excitement from the participants grew throughout the day. They could tell: this was the start of something transformative.
The Hawaii 2050 Sustainability project is remarkably ambitious, seeking to create, over the course of the next 18 months, an entirely new planning strategy for the state's next half-century. This strategy will shape how the state handles a tourist economy, a swelling population, friction between cultures and, most importantly, an increasingly dangerous climate and environment.
Saturday's event kicked off the process, mixing a variety of traditional presentations on Hawaii's major dilemmas with four immersive scenarios created by Dr. Jim Dator, Jake Dunagan and Stuart Candy at the University of Hawaii's Graduate Research Center for Future Studies. (Jake and Stuart, of course, invited me to Hawaii this last week to talk to some of the grad students and to attend the Hawaii 2050 event; I got a chance to meet and converse with Dr. Dator, as well.) The four scenarios represented a diverse array of possible futures for the state, and included a high-growth world, a limited-growth outcome, a collapse scenario, and a near-Singularity possibility. Participants each stepped into two of the four, and had an opportunity to discuss and evaluate one of the two they saw.
The goal of the scenario presentations was to illustrate different possible outcomes, giving the participants a context in which to think about their present-day issues around sustainability. This can be a powerful technique, as it reminds us that choices have consequences, but that sometimes events outside of our control can shape how our choices play out. Scenarios remind us of the complexity of history, by showing how that complexity can evolve in the days and years to come.
The two scenarios I encountered were the near-Singularity world and the collapse world. In the first, nanotechnology, biotechnology and a broad enthusiasm for human and social enhancement technologies allowed widespread radical longevity, thriving colonies on the Moon and Mars, and near-complete management of geophysical processes on Earth. With one minor exception (the existence of point-to-point teleportation), this was, if anything, a fairly conservative take on the Singularity scenario, but the near-universal reaction I witnessed from participants was fear and displeasure. Few of the participants wanted the kinds of enhancement technologies offered in the scenario dramatization, and all lamented the decline of the "natural" world and local culture. I noted at the time that I was the youngest person in my sub-group(!), and easily in the youngest 10% of the conference as a whole; I do wonder what the reaction to this scenario would have been from a larger younger-person contingent.
The near-Singularity scenario was presented in a fairly tongue-in-cheek fashion, and even those who found the world unsettling left the room in relatively good humor. This carried over to the second world my group saw, the collapse scenario, positing an independent, militarized, and resurgent royalist Hawaii struggling to deal with a peak-oil energy collapse, climate disaster, and global economic meltdown. One person stated quite vocally that he found the conceit offensive, but most participants accepted the scenario's elements -- it may have been a dangerous, depressing world, but it was more familiar than one with rejuvenation biotechnology, nanofabbers and Mars colonies!
I'm told, however, that those who entered the collapse scenario first were fairly traumatized by the presentation (attendees were treated as newly-arrived refugees), and this shock carried through when they swapped over to the near-Singularity world.
The main caution I have about the set of scenarios is the translation from "this is a world of tomorrow" to "these are choices you'll have to make about tomorrow." The collapse world had a clearer pathway from the present than did the near-Singularity world -- and in some ways, that makes sense -- but all would have been better-served with a minimal set of bullet-point-style summaries outlining which choices and dilemmas today lead to or militate against the various scenarios. It's too easy for participants, when confronted by future stories that are too disturbing, to wave them off as impossible or "silly" if they don't have explicit links to the present.
But even without the easy-mode handouts, this was a remarkable event. Think about it: community, political and economic leaders of an American state spending a day living in different futures, all with the goal of figuring out sustainable pathways. Imagine doing the same thing for California or New York, or even a national government. What would it take for leaders outside of Hawaii to start thinking about the future in terms of systems and sustainability?
Hawaii had a secret advantage. 36 years ago, the state convened the Hawaii 2000 project (PDF), helping the decision-makers of 1970 to think about their choices and planning strategies. Futurists from Alvin Toffler to Arthur C. Clarke attended, as well as some of the people -- such as Jim Dator -- still working on Hawaiian futures. The set of scenarios about the state's condition in the distant future of 2000 ranged from paradise to commercial near-disaster. Dator tells me that the general consensus, unfortunately, is that the subsequent legislatures ignored the project's recommendations, and that the real world Hawaii of today best matches the near-disaster world feared in 1970.
Such a combination of accurate projection and dismally wrong choices arguably made the Hawaii 2050 project possible, as the earlier project demonstrated both how relevant foresight workshops can be and what happens when their results are discarded. Hawaii 2050 is the state's chance to make up for what happened to Hawaii 2000.
I'm cautiously optimistic about this process. The argument that Hawaii ignored the last scenario project to its own detriment dovetails nicely with the growing prominence of the "Inconvenient Truth" memeplex. More and more people in positions of civic responsibility are realizing the existential risks associated with climate collapse, but in Hawaii, they've had the tools for figuring out strategies for success in their kit for over three decades. I have no doubt that more than one attendee at Saturday's conference realized that, if Hawaii becomes a leader in the field of local and regional environmental response, it has the potential to be an economic dynamo in the years to come.
I hope that Hawaii's project becomes more visible. If Hawaii hadn't experimented with a futurist project 36 years ago, it's unlikely that the state would have even considered such an oddity today. If Hawaii is successful with the 2050 Sustainability endeavor, however, it could in turn serve as a role model for other political entities looking for a proven set of techniques for grappling with uncertainty.
A great deal is riding on the shoulders of this project, even more than its supporters might suspect.