Why longtermism is one of the most important trends of the moment
Longtermism, long term thinking, expanding your time horizons or Day After Tomorrow thinking: whatever you like to call this mindset, it’s truly back with a vengeance. It’s great to see that an increasing amount of decision makers seems to understand that, in these turbulent times, they will need to learn to think and act beyond short term gains and install a (very) long term strategy as well.
Actually organizations need both, of course, because of some sort of cynical cycle created in what many are calling the Anthropocene. Companies (ok, not just companies but statistically, they had the biggest impact) and governments around the world have caused many of the wicked problems we are now suffering the consequences of: climate change, an energy crisis, a materials crisis, the pandemic (a result of ecosystem problems caused by deforestation etc.), polarization, migration etc. It took a while, but today companies are finally feeling the impact of these evolutions. Just think of the Chinese factories that had to shut down because of the drought this summer (hydropower generation in China was affected as water levels behind dams were hit) or how shipping was affected in the German Rhine river of which the levels were at an all-time low.
Problems like these do require short term problem solving and resilience from companies. But at the same time, they have to think about ways that they can help prevent these types of situations from ever happening again, adapting their processes, supply chains, energy consumption transportation while at the same time thinking about products and services that can help fix these problems. And that requires long term thinking.
Longtermism is not a new trend, of course. Peter Schwartz wrote The Art of the Long View in 1991. Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation has been around since 1996.
And Peter Hinssen’s classic book The Day After Tomorrow dates from 2017. The latter describes how companies need to look beyond Today and Tomorrow and invest time, budget, resources and talent in the long term Day After Tomorrow because that is where the most value lies.
So yes, this is not new, but the attention paid to longevity these days is expanding and I believe that these 2 reasons are playing an important role here:
1. The value of human longevity for healthcare: According to Aubrey De Grey, one of the most respected voices in the human longevity industry, “aging is just a disease”, and one that he believes can be cured. Well, the pandemic has made us realize how fragile our health and healthcare system is and how we need to invest in it to make it more anti-fragile. That’s one. But though society’s interest in healthcare and longevity was boosted by the pandemic, the interest of big (tech) companies - like Walmart, Amazon, Apple, Ping An etc. - in it had been going on for quite a while. Because if you combine healthcare with digital solutions, well, then you end up with very valuable data, both for the user and the company.
2. Wicked problems that push the need for a broader - systems ànd long term thinking - view: As stated above, long term thinking has been advocated for quite a while now in business and society but the complex, highly interconnected and systemic wicked problems we are currently dealing with are really forcing us to rethink our strategies for the longer term, while remaining agile in their execution in the short term.
A useful tool to understand this need for a long term horizon when it comes to systemic problems, is Amy Webb’s time cone. The more uncertainty and the less data and evidence there is – which is the fact with some of the huge environmental, social, personal and organizational challenges we are currently facing (true, we have a lot of data about climate change etc. but the issue is so complex that the uncertainty level is still very high) – the longer your time frame should be.
The quest for human longevity - stopping and even reversing the process of ageing to ensure lives that are not only longer but more qualitative too - seems to be on fire lately. In fact, once you start noticing it (if you haven’t already), you’ll see it appear everywhere in true “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon” style from now on. In fact, longevity expert Aubrey De Grey stated that “The funding situation is totally unrecognizable relative to even a few years ago”.
Here are just a few examples of the most recent longevity events and investments:
- Altos Labs - a new anti-ageing start-up that hopes to prolong human life - drew billions of dollars of investment, including from Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner.
- Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging.
- New York–based Life Extension Ventures is a new $100 million fund that claims it will focus on “longevity for people and planet.” The aim is to back founders who are accelerating the science around longevity.
- BioAge Labs, a biotech company developing therapeutics that target the molecular causes of aging to extend healthy human lifespan, announced a partnership with Age Labs, a diagnostic company that develops tests for the early detection of age-related diseases.
- This year in September, Dublin will host a “Longevity Summit” for the first time ever.
- Scientists from the Universidad de Oviedo in Spain say they found the genes that makes immortal jellyfish immortal.
Long term mindset
As stated above, advocating a long term or “Day After Tomorrow” mindset is not new, but - among other events – climate change and a pandemic have forced us to zoom our view out, from our own (time) context to that of the planet, and of future generations. It’s about “expanding our time horizons” as Stewart Brand from The Long Now Foundation would call it.
As a sign of the times, quite a few recent books have been published on the matter over the last 5 years. Here are some examples:
- Peter Hinssen: The Day After Tomorrow (2017)
- Jonas and Jonathan Salk: A New Reality (2018)
- Roman Kznaric: The Good Ancestor (2021)
- Dorie Clark: The Long Game (2021)
- William MacAskill: What We Owe the Future (2022)
- Ari Wallach: Becoming the Great Ancestors Our Future Needs – An Antidote for Short-Termism (2022)
It’s also great to see how governments all over the world are tapping into this long term perspective. Sweden has a Ministry of the Future, Scotland has a Future Generations Commissioner and the United Arab Emirates made a similar commitment to future generations. We’re definitely not there yet, but it’s good to see progress. Perhaps the most poetic and beautiful argument I heard for longtermism comes from Vox’ Sigal Samuel: "future people matter morally just as much as people alive today”.
A long term existence is obviously also the holy grail for companies. In these times of accelerating change and uncertainty, that becomes an increasing challenge. Just to compare: a study by McKinsey found that the average life-span of companies listed in Standard & Poor’s 500 was 61 years in 1958. Today, it is less than 18 years. Having successful long lived companies is not just beneficial for its stakeholders, it also is for environment and society. Because the shorter the time horizon of companies, the shorter-term their strategies and approaches will be. More than ever, we need companies with long term horizons. Bob Chapek, for instance, CEO of Walt Disney Co, has recently announced future plans to enhance storytelling for the next 100 years, including adopting blockchain technology and the metaverse.
I also love The Long Now’s The Organizational Continuity Project which studies long-lived institutions in the hope of discovering the lessons behind these long-lived organizations and gaining insights that will help contemporary institutions, companies, and governments develop into robust, long-lasting structures. One of the patterns revealed by their research into long-lived organizations is a key individual - which they call "keeper of the fabric" - who tells stories, ensures continuity of information and connects the generations within the company. I really loved that concept, and I highly recommend this clip where Alexander Rose explains it.
Longevity of technology
A lot of technology has been ‘built to fail’: companies design a product with an artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design, so that it becomes obsolete after a certain pre-determined period of time. This strategy is called ‘planned obsolescence’ and it’s what happens when your smartphone’s older version is no longer compatible with its latest OS. Or when a perfectly fine printer stops functioning. Or when a battery is glued into a product and cannot be replaced. The result is that consumers have to replace their devices more often than necessary, for reasons that are not exactly morally sound.
So we see an increasing number of people advocating for longevity in hardware. Not just because they want to protect the consumer from this type of unjust practice, but also because of the huge social and environmental cost of hardware. You can find more about the impact of mining the raw materials necessary to build modern devices here if you want to know more.
Another concern of the overproduction and short-termism of devices is how many of these critical raw materials are found in (often) geopolitically unstable environments like China, Russia, South America and Africa. Which is actually a great opportunity for circular economy models, where these types of precious metals are recycled as much as possible, instead of mined.
Here are for instance the countries accounting for largest share of EU supply of critical raw materials:
Some governments have been installing laws to counter planned obsolescence strategies, like the Digital Fair Repair Act (NY) and the Right To Repair Act (EU). And the result is that companies like Apple - notorious for designing products that are hard and expensive to fix – has been launching home repair kits for their products, while AppleCare Plus now covers “unlimited repairs for accidental damage protection”.
A solution could also be to move from ownership models to subscription models, not just of software (see also above) but of hardware. Because when people “rent” products instead of buying them, the priorities of companies shift. If the latter sell a product, it is unfortunately in their best interest that the product breaks down as soon as possible (without pissing off the customer) so they can sell again. If they rent products to customers, it is of course in their best interest that this product works as long as possible. You may think that renting physical products as a service is ridiculous, but Philips Lightning is offering Light-as-a-Service while Michelin has been offering Tires-as-a-Service. So why not introduce this model more in the hardware area?
For many companies, this shift towards the long term will be quite a stretch because many of their incentives, processes, systems and approaches are all built around short term gain. But if we consider value - not just shareholder value but stakeholder value, societal value and environmental value in the long term - then there is no other way but to adapt here.
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