What we don’t know to miss (yet) about the federal government

So let me tell you the story about how I came to work for IBM as a futurist. In the summer of 2005, some folks in the Supply Chain practice of IBM’s Global Business Services were asked to help the Army logistics planners anticipate disruptive technologies. And, like any group of whip-smart MBAs, IBM consultants went off and produced a well-researched market and strategic analysis. The Army yawned. They had already thought of all that stuff. They wanted to look farther, wider, deeper. They wanted to know about the stuff that nobody knew about yet — way more “high woo-woo” than IBM was used to thinking.

So, ultimately, IBM contacted a few members of a loose network of futurists I was a part of with a very intriguing proposition. Help dream up new technologies that could revolutionize military logistics in the next four decades or so (which is FOREVER in technology years) and (here’s the kicker) NOTHING was too far out. NOTHING.

Clients never say that. Every futurist has scenarios we just share with other futurists because every futurist knows to dial it back with actual paying clients because they tend to get, well, a bit freaked out. The Army was asking us to freak them out.

And so we did. And it was a freaking blast! I can’t go into any details, or even into any categories of details, but let’s just say that I was contemplating a tin-foil hat by the time we got done with the ideation phase of that project. But the real work was the research. Start with what was basically science fiction and work backward. What was impossible? Why was it impossible? What breakthroughs, enabling technologies, research initiatives would be needed to make these technologies happen? What are the current states of the technologies, how fast were the various technology progress indicators moving, etc.

The project was just sooo cool. And apparently so successful that they hired three of us futurists to offer that service — anticipating technological possibilities — to their other clients.

But that was the problem. IBM’s customers were mostly corporations. Thinking 30 years into the future is a hard sell to a corporation focused on the bottom line. Thinking 30 years into the future is necessarily messy, impractical, and expensive. Sorting though the forest of potential possibilities over a long time horizon is not a profitable activity.

This is the big thing that government does that the market cannot — solve problems that are not profitable to solve and anticipate problems that don’t exist yet.

To create markets for a technology that is not profitable (yet), someone has to dream it, nurture it, and seed it with investment and infrastructure. That’s what America does so well. We turn inventions into global industries.

I had a hand in the early part of the process of nurturing several technologies I may not get to see in my lifetime. I betcha anything that there was a similar group a few decades ago that was tasked with envisioning new communications technologies, like a “headless” global computer network that was self-routing, that could not be taken out by a single strike, that would enable robust communications in times of disaster or war. The technologies that ended up being what we call the internet.

The revolutionary technologies we love today started out as impractical, crackpot, back of the napkin ideas. Then they became clunky prototypes. The first computers that used  desktop “windows” OS were awkward. They failed. Anyone remember the Xerox Alto? The Apple Lisa? Yeah, me neither. The road to tech revolution is littered with the corpses of initial efforts toward good ideas.

Along the way to profitability, we need people who encourage the development of fledgling ideas. They are government people, because the government is supposed to have the long view in mind, independent of a profit motive.

At some point, when the technology is mature enough, the government can hand it off to the private enterprise folks to run with. I get the privilege of helping NASA to do that with the technology of Low-Earth Orbit Human Spaceflight. It’s exciting to me, this mind-numbing, painstaking work of doing the same thing only with fewer resources so it has a chance of being done profitably by the private sector in the future. It’s gotta be done, but it’s work that only government can afford to do.

So, we won’t miss that function for a few weeks, months, or maybe even years. Until the Scandinavians, Brazilians, Chinese, Indians, or whatever become the drivers of global innovation and the United States of America becomes the new Taiwan, feeding American talent and resources into the new global engines of innovation located elsewhere.

That silence you hear, the hush of America not crashing down immediately because of the federal government shutdown, is troubling to me. To me the silence is eerie. To me it is the sound of the planners, the visionaries, and the solvers of not yet profitable problems, doing nothing.

2 thoughts on “What we don’t know to miss (yet) about the federal government

  1. I have no argument with your argument but would simply remind you that a bankrupt Government or worse a bankrupt nation will not be able to invest in its future because its future would have already been spent. The best solution to having a future is to keep our fiscal house in order. If asked to predict the future to today i would have to suggest that there may not be one, as least not one anyone would want it live in.

  2. I have no argument with your reminder either. My post was in response to the remarks like “See? The government shut down and the world hasn’t ended! Maybe we can do without it!” I also take issue with anyone who thinks this serial brinksmanship results in anything more than short-sighted fiscal policy. The last brinksmanship ended in mindless, anti-Keynesian cuts in discretionary spending, leaving the real looming problems untouched. I’m afraid the deals that get struck this time will end up in a feel-good, fig leaf solution that still doesn’t address the hard stuff of entitlement reform. If Ted Cruz wants to be a hero, he needs to hold the government hostage until we have a long-term approach to entitlement reform. Forget about Obamacare. It’s the old entitlements that will eat our lunch if we ignore them.

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