Back to the Future for California

I wanted to report back from my experience presenting as top-five contestant in the Institute for the Future’s California Dreams Contest in Palo Alto this past Tuesday, May 3rd. It was great fun mixing with fellow idealists and California dreamers, and discussing potential future paths for the state of California. Several themes really seemed to emerge, including green tech and green living, arts and culture, and local food and communities.

As contest participants and event presenters, our task was to imagine California in five to ten years’ time. This was an interesting thought experiment that couldn’t occur without considering our current dire economic circumstances. All was not sturm und drang, though, since this was a contest after all. In fact, the high point for many of us was the grand prize winning idea (and remarkably accomplished installation) of a three-story-tall carbon scrubber “beanstalk,” as conceived by Mike Minadeo. It was my only regret as a contestant that I did not have the opportunity to explore all of the other presentations.

My entry, called “The Power of Less,” (no relationship to the book of this title, which I learned about after submitting my entry) reflected on the topic of constraint and our ability to turn the limitations of a slower economy into investments toward better quality-of-life for us all. The premise was that in spite of a severe state budget crisis and a national recession, California has enormous untapped wealth, including unacknowledged resources that are unique to our current condition. Tapping these resources will lead to unanticipated benefits, though the results may not be proven in the short term.

We’re all aware of the oft-trumpeted assets of California, such as our incredible human capital, including cultural diversity and a highly educated workforce, as well as intellectual property rights and a vast array of natural resources. And all of this is without mentioning the innovative optimism and can-do attitude so inherent to the classic Californian character. Any of these elements could translate into opportunities unimagined. And yet, there is one resource that rises above all of the others.

As I see it, as the economy continues to stall, more workers will experience the distress of layoffs and scaled-back working hours. In the midst of such change, however, we will tap a new and unfamiliar asset…spare time. Like it or not, time may be our greatest trump card. Pushed out of the workforce and forced to scale back in unanticipated ways, many Californians will gain more hours for themselves, and achieve the opportunity to invest in personal growth, education, and arts and crafts. Even more importantly, many Californians will find the time to focus more attention on their families and communities. These kinds of investments pay off in the long-term, as the benefits extend far beyond the occasional bump in productivity.

It is my belief that a slower economy may ultimately lead to a renaissance in three areas: community, efficiency, and green living. This renaissance will develop as Californians come to terms with the unfamiliar ethic of “less-is-more.” With an ever-present concern about finances, Californians will attempt a more efficient use of limited assets, while finding themselves compelled toward a more astute assessment of their goals (personal, professional, and environmental).  Ultimately, I believe this effort will result in an orientation toward a healthier and more humane lifestyle for us all.

And so, my prediction for the future California is a “stepping back” to a slower, simpler time, with a resulting benefit to our personal relationships and local communities. Simultaneously, I believe we will leverage our innovative strength and thought-leadership to advance the production of more efficient and ecological products and services.

Many artists find that their greatest creative achievements occur within the context of limitations and constraint. Making more with less becomes a challenge that pushes them beyond default thought-patterns and stale assumptions. In doing so, they can often achieve a more disciplined execution of their inspired concepts, sometimes even surprising themselves with the result. Under similar restrictions, we, the people of California, may yet rise to the occasion and imagine a better way of living. And in doing so, we might reinvent ourselves and the California experience, yet one more time.

You can read more about the contest and our presentations on the IFTF blog of Lisa Mumbach, and you can participate in the California Dreams experience by joining the Facebook Group and contributing your own signal representing how you imagine the future of California will be.

Live well and prosper, right?

Institute for the Future