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The economy needs people and businesses of the future

Why the economy needs people and businesses with one foot in the future
It is time for transformational change – and that means aiming higher and acting over significantly extended time frames

To get fit for the future, we need to breathe deeply, keep our energy up and look forward.

In difficult times, one of the first things to suffer is often the future. As uncertainty grows, we focus on what worked in the past, but try to do more of it, faster. Like unfit people, we breathe more shallowly. We lower our targets. Our time horizons become significantly shorter. And you know where this is going.

In The Future Quotient, a new report by Volans and global ad agency JWT, we conclude that it is time for transformational (not incremental) change – and that the way forward involves scanning wider, diving deeper into the emergent realities, aiming higher and thinking and acting over significantly extended timescales.

An old economic and political order is coming apart; a new one – for better or worse – is self-assembling. A couple of years back in The Phoenix Economy report we argued that we were seeing not just a great recession but the beginning of an era of creative destruction. History tells us that when these periods happen, those who are ill prepared and unwilling to adapt or reinvent themselves go to the wall. Current evidence suggests that both the EU and the US are ill prepared and, worse, that they are in deep denial. So where will we find the leaders with a will to reinvent?

This is a question for business as much as for politics and governments. Most fundamentally, for example, we expect to see a shift in understanding about the requirements of what constitutes a going concern, as required by

generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). We need new methods for asset capitalisation, depreciation, and amortisation. Currently, a going concern is considered likely to exist into the distant future – which may prove a wildly optimistic assumption in the context of the building economic and ecological storms.

Do we trust to luck and allow a new economic order to emerge wherever and however it chooses, or do we seize the opportunity to create and shape the new order? Scanning the economic and political landscape, whether it is America's downgrade, the EU's fumbling of the euro or China blowing property bubbles, it is uncomfortably evident that many leaders are defaulting to the first option.

So where would you look for new styles of leadership, better suited for the coming decades? This was our overarching question in developing The Future Quotient – and a key section of the final report identifies 50 pioneers in what we call seriously long-term innovation.

But during a brainstorming session with JWT around the subject of the future, the thought suddenly struck me that we should be trying to develop a new set of measures that – as IQ, emotional quotient or ecological intelligence do with other areas of our brains and thinking – could measure how we engage time, and the future in particular.

Thinking up the idea was one thing, but developing a workable method in the time (and with the resources) we had was quite another. But then on a new social network called Next Edge, I stumbled across an interesting tool developed by a Californian company, MindTime Technologies. I contacted its CEO, John Furey, and our teams set to work to develop a hybrid process, testing the time orientation of an individual, team or organisation, and then linking it to their take on some central sustainability issues.

The beta version of that test is now live. It's quick, free and provides nearly instantaneous feedback. Over time, we plan to build an open-source database of the results, as a way of bringing sustainability's intergenerational timescales back into the spotlight.

All of this comes with a public health warning, however. The current approach is a first experiment and should not be seen as a measure of anyone's future quotient. A wealth of future-oriented thinkers does not necessarily guarantee a high-FQ team, for example.

So let's take a quick look at how each of the three time frames (past, present, future) potentially works.

Past thinking

A team or organisation weighted to past thinking will tend to evolve a cultural time frame that seeks to leverage the past. The team's thinking strategies mine the past to avoid risk and increase certainty. As a collective, the team will research what is known, accessing individual and collective experiences and knowledge from beyond the team. They will seek to understand the fundamentals and measure and weigh all evidence carefully before coming to any conclusions, even tentative ones.

Present thinking

A team or organisation dominated by present thinking will tend to evolve a cultural time frame that is near-term. They will focus on current trends driving the present towards a predetermined or desired goal. They will be highly organised, with changes in plans seen as disruptions to continuity, the end game of present thinkers. The future is not something to be explored and exploited; it is something to be navigated. Present thinkers try to get the job done, on time and on budget.

Future thinking

A team or organisation weighted towards future thinking focuses on what's next. They move towards areas of chaos and uncertainty where new ideas and possibilities emerge, the end game of future thinkers. Quick to change course and adapt. Highly tolerant to risk and ambiguity, a future-thinking team will engage in speculation and be driven by challenges. They will pursue possibility, often with little more than their intuition to guide them.

Each of these thinking styles also comes with weaknesses, obviously, but these potentially now fade into relative insignificance in terms of the economic context in which we find ourselves. The recession is having a profound impact on the time orientation of businesses and governments alike.

As several CEOs told us during the course of the Future Quotient project, recessionary pressures and wider uncertainties in the system have encouraged short-termism to proliferate, with even pension funds becoming

increasingly myopic in their investing. True leaders, again, will encourage and persuade us to go wider, deeper, higher and longer. The evolving future quotient is unlikely to work immediate miracles, but our hope is that those using the tool will find themselves immersed in thought-trains and discussions that might otherwise not have happened – and which better prepare them for what's coming.

The author thanks his co-authors on the report, Charmian Love of Volans and Alastair Morton of JWT. He also thanks four partner organizations: Atkins, The Dow Chemical Company, MindTime Technologies and The Shell Foundation.

John Elkington is executive chairman of Volans and co-founder of SustainAbility

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