Welcome to the future!

Welcome to the future!
by Nelson S. Lima (Science Writer)

The Future of Foresight under Obama

By IAF V.P. for Business Development and Futurist Eric Meade

The Democratic Party described the presidential election of 2008 as a choice between the past and the future, and at least generationally, that is true. More significantly, however, the election of Obama suggests a marked change in the way our government and society will think about the future.

Commenting on the Russia-Georgia conflict during the October 7th "town hall" debate with John McCain, President-elect Obama said, "The other thing we have to do, though, is we've got to see around the corners. We've got to anticipate some of these problems ahead of time...We haven't been doing enough of that."

Futurists see around the corners by trying to anticipate major shifts or conflicts ahead of time.
As a new administration comes into office under President Obama, there is tremendous opportunity to return active foresight to the top levels of government.

During the 1970's, many foresight programs existed at various levels of government. Examples include Congress' Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) and Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future as well as several projects in "anticipatory democracy," such as Gov. Jimmy Carter's "Goals for Georgia" and Gov. Dan Evans' "Alternatives for Washington."

In 1974, the House Select Committee on Committees stipulated that each standing committee "shall review and study on a continuing basis undertake futures research and forecasting on matters within its jurisdiction," a rarely observed requirement that remains on the books to this day.An Obama administration is likely to revive this tradition of government foresight. Several members of Obama's team, including Daniel Kammen, an energy and public policy professor at the University of California (Berkley), are long-range thinkers with experience with futures work or with long-term strategy projects. The transition team has also expressed interest in several projects focused on long-term futures, including the Project for National Security Reform.

In fact, the election of Obama and the re-emergence of a general interest in foresight are things a futurist might have foreseen, even in early 2007 when pundits were predicting a grueling death-match between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. First, the passing of the leadership torch from the Boomers to Generation X has profound implications, freeing Boomers to play a visionary elder role while the more pragmatic crisis-responders of Gen X take the reins of power.

In his Martin Luther King, Jr. Day speech, Obama said:
And that is what is at stake in the great political debate we are having today. The changes that are needed are not just a matter of tinkering at the edges, and they will not come if politicians simply tell us what we want to hear. All of us will be called upon to make some sacrifice. None of us will be exempt from responsibility.

By articulating the depth of the challenges ahead, Obama has unleashed the energy of the younger "Millennials," for whom civic engagement is much more important than for any other generation since the G.I.'s of World War II.

Second, Obama has frequently spoken to issues many futurists have suggested will become dominant themes of the 21st century, such as holistic problem-solving, a collective rather than self-centered disposition, and renewed interest in the Common Good. The emergence of a collective and holistic view of the world, of which Obama's election may be more evidence than cause, would initiate a profound reorganization of our economy around new priorities and values.

Regardless of what specific values emerge during the next four years or beyond, it is clear that the U.S. is ready for a new approach to the future that envisions and creates the type of world we would like to give to our children. The crises we face in the economy, health care, and the environment reach down to the foundations of our worldview and the lifestyle it suggests. Obama's embrace of foresight as a means to tackle these crises suggests that - by envisioning the future we prefer - we will have a better chance to create it.