In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon asked China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, for his assessment of the French Revolution, 183 years after the revolution’s conclusion. Zhou’s response: "It is too early to say."
Although we believe that the democracy that resulted from the French Revolution can be judged a success, the jury’s still out on some of the major challenges we still face. We are experiencing a major paradox: While problems and issues, like the global-warming crisis and the energy-water nexus, become more complex and require longer time frames to solve, the West is becoming increasingly shortsighted. China’s main competitive advantage over Europe and the United States may be its broader perception of time. Even the present financial crisis could have been avoided had we been looking at century-long cycles rather than four-year political periods.
Part of the problem is that the quickening pace of, well, just about everything is deemed a benefit. Over time, our political attention spans have adjusted to short electoral terms, the time it takes to market products is shrinking, and myopic quarterly reports set the business horizon. Just think: Computerized flash-trading practices recognize movements in market sentiment in split seconds.
Since hairsplitting shortsightedness is driven by technological and cultural changes, the trend will be hard to circumvent. But here are three suggestions to help the West develop a longer, healthier view of time:
In most companies, it’s common to reward people with bonuses once a year. This could easily be postponed. Stocks and stock options with long expiration dates are a step in the right direction. But what if we took the Chinese perspective and civil-servant approach? We would reward people decades after they were employed. We could even let historians help figure out how to distribute bonuses. Why not let pensions be determined by a person’s long-term contribution to a company or to society as a whole?
Most fashion, technology, and consumer-goods companies deliberately shorten the lives of their products. As the design expert Peter Fiell says: "Designers fail when they act irresponsibly at a time when we need to make less of everything and make products last longer." In austere times, there is an opportunity to promote the long-term value—let’s call it the price per year of a product. Creating products that endure and maybe even become more valuable as they age, as well as finding new ways of doing business that would make such a model profitable, is an innovation challenge worth pursuing for long-term-thinking entrepreneurs and designers.
In 1961, John F. Kennedy announced the goal of sending an American to the Moon before the end of the decade. Such an outlandish aim is the benchmark for innovators all over the globe: They decide on an ambitious target and, with a strong vision, set out to reach it. Putting a man on the Moon is celebrated as an isolated event today. Kennedy had guts—what responsible politician would declare a 10-year goal?—and the West "won" the space race, but it doesn’t matter in the long run. The survival of our species does.
In retrospect, Kennedy’s goal was perhaps too nearsighted. Space experts argue that by focusing all American (and German) expertise on one symbolic goal, the big picture got lost. In the meantime, more advanced means of propulsion could have been developed to enable us to colonize remote corners of space, and crucial geoengineering experiments could have been conducted. Even more marginal space trips, like the manned exploration of Mars, were left behind in the debris.
In other words, let’s think bolder and further into the future. Let’s, for example, bet on reaching Gliese 581c, or one of the most viably habitable exoplanets by the end of this century. This might sound far-out, but not long ago, many Western countries had a similar long-term perspective. A few years ago, the Danish secretary of defense received a letter from a forester named Lars Toksvig informing him that the oak timber Denmark had ordered in 1807 to secure the fleet was ready for delivery. Today, this type of planning sounds preposterous. But perhaps that ability to project very, very far into the future is exactly what we need to relearn.
Written by Jens Martin Skibsted and Rasmus Bech Hansen.
Rasmus Bech Hansen is London-based strategy director at Venturethree, a global brand consultancy. He writes on how brands can do well by doing good and has helped to relaunch the United Nations Global Compact brand, the world’s most successful CSR initiative.