Where Do We Want To Go As Individuals and As a Human Species In the 21st Century?

Almost seventy years ago, on 03 April, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed into the law the European Recovery Program — known more popularly as the “Marshall Plan” — passed by both the Senate and House of the 80th United States Congress earlier that year. The Marshall Plan committed over $13 billion in U.S. dollars (worth over $140 billion nowadays) in economic assistance to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War II.

The Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe and changed what had been an adversarial relationship into future Allies. The Marshall Plan quite possibly prevented a future World War III (so far) as well.

Later this year I’ll have the opportunity to be a Marshall Memorial Fellow — 70 years after the Marshall Plan commenced — and travel to Brussels, London, Podgorica, Warsaw, and Berlin to meet with public and private sector leaders in each country to obtain their perspectives on the state of the Transatlantic Relationship between the United States and Europe.

I’ll be traveling in my capacity as Executive Director for the People-Centered Internet co-founded by Vint Cerf and Mei Lin Fung and will be specifically interested in the rise of subnationalism, populism, concerns about misinformation, and the pending impacts of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) since all these trends relate to the future of the internet.

A few weeks ago, I was asked by a good friend to provide my perspective, in a non-partisan capacity, about the current state of the world and where we all might be going?

My reply was my best attempt to avoid any short-term political issues and to respect that the great collective of all of us on the internet far exceeds any one person. I answered that for the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world we are facing a question of:

Where do we want to go as individuals and a human species in the 21st century?

Quo Vadis?

Back in 1989, Francis Fukuyama first penned “The End of History”, and later expanded this into book form in 1992, claiming the triumph of Western liberal democracies and the arrival of the post-ideological world. Apparently that was an significant over-simplification of what the next 25 years had in store for us all.

That said, despite the events of 9/11, of Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, cyber-related conflicts and other global turmoil — as well as all of the conflicts and wars after 1946 — the last 70 years have been, according to several historians, one of the most peaceful in human history in terms of the percentage of people impacted by those conflicts. This has been one of the longest periods of relative peace too. This era of “relative peace” came about in part due to an artificially after WWII, namely the U.S. (and Canada) were not the piles of rubble that Europe, the Soviet Union, Japan, and China were.

Which brings us back to the importance of the Marshall Plan back 1948. Back then, the plan focused on modernizing industry and business practices, removing trade barriers, and most importantly rebuilding war-torn regions.

After World War II ended, in part through the Marshall Plan as well as through other activities, the United States created global institutions that were modeled after U.S. ideals for the world — with the specific goal that another World War should be avoided at all costs. This included U.S. military and national security which to this day are unparalleled in their ability to respond to nation state conflicts and prevent escalation of issues to a World War.

The challenge is, the world we now face (not just the U.S.; rather all of us on the planet) is not 1948 any more.

Efforts to adjust such institutions to meet the challenges of terrorism or other cyber-resiliency related concerns have been band-aids and duct tape at best. Trying to apply laws by geography are challenging for the internet era, not to mention the accelerating speed at which technologies change and produce social impacts globally.

Cumulatively, the era of relative peace may be ending, potentially to be replaced with a different period (ideally another one of peace) heretofore undefined.

Yet nowadays most U.S. institutions and the laws associated with them are poorly primed to respond with the necessary agility needed for the global issues of 2018. Modernization is needed, not just of the technology and capabilities, but also of the focus and purpose of these institutions — the challenge is that how to do this often gets caught in short-term political debates. Short-term thinking misses the chance to look at both the last 70 years and the potential next 30 years ahead.

Looking Through a Non-Partisan Lens

In the past I have written about the importance of positive #ChangeAgents. I like to suggest that #ChangeAgents adopt a lens of considering both:

(1) what are the movements on the dance floor (i.e., what events are we seeing) and then walk the metaphorical stairs up to the balcony to consider

(2) why those movements are occurring (and what are the global impacts these overall movements may be having)?

As a Marshall Memorial Fellow traveling to Europe in 2018, I would like to provide my best effort to provide a non-partisan lens on what the future might have in store for the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world.

Please note that while I reference the United States and Europe specifically, I certainly would be remiss if I didn’t also reference the leadership and influential role of Asia, South America, Africa, and several other regions.

We are much more interconnected as a world than ever in the past. Some of these others regions I may address in future articles, and I have already written several posts about Taiwan and Australia and how their national strategies regarding technology adoption may impact other parts of the world.

Over the last decade, some political sides have labelled the U.S. federal government as being guilty of excessive largesse and have emphasized a need to reduce its size without doing the more appropriate work of refocusing purposes and missions of these institutions. Yet any business facing challenges of a “new marketplace” would not simply shrink it’s size without also thinking through what refocused scope and business strategy it needs to pursue to thrive.

Yes, there definitely is a need to think about refocusing purposes and missions of U.S. federal government institutions, yet all to often we face potential or actual government shutdowns for the United States and there are many years in the last decade where the government goes for months without an actual approved budget, and broad percent cuts with no descoping strategy.

Other political sides will claim the U.S. government is too focused on defense and national security, and press for more civilian programs without recognizing the growing weight of entitlement programs that are squeezing the entire federal budget’ s remaining discretionary budget.

Yes, there definitely is a need for such debates and considerations, yet until actual entitlement reform is done we as a nation will always be stuck in short-term politics with not long-term strategy for the health of the nation and it’s trajectory.

Lastly, some political sides, will look at the lumbering U.S. ship of state and try to create new “startups” for the federal government — which unfortunately often pursue short-term shiny objectives and avoid any long-term substantial objectives because they are hard, might not always work out as planned, and often take longer than the political tenure of any political official backing the effort.

Yes, while startup mindsets and entrepreneurial cultures are needed to help transform how the U.S. federal government operates, startup culture in the government needs to be different because commercial sector business startups don’t have to operate in existing legacy frameworks, while government startups do. This includes the Constitution, the Congress, Supreme Court, Office of the Presidency, and other legacy mechanisms that date back more than 230 years.

Efforts to reform government through startup cultures requires significant amounts of organizational empathy and change management.

Without empathy and intentional change management, such efforts risk creating more friction and pursuing only short-term objectives, at the expense of more integrated and long-term lasting change. A while lot of precious oxygen can be consumed by these brief birthday candles before they fade away and the massive battleship continues its trajectory unchanged aside from the introduction of “change fatigue” to the staff.

Cumulatively, all sides miss that the world has changed and the rate of changes continues to accelerate both technologically and socially as a result of increasing globalization, broader adoption of internet and social technologies, and past successes of global public health at reducing child mortality around the world — with the consequence of massive “youth bulges” in developing nations. The good news is the world is more connected than ever. The challenging news is we lack a guidebook for us all to thrive in this area.

Where Do We Want To Go?

On a good news front: The world is more healthy, less impoverished, and more connected than it has ever been before (though much more work still needs to be done).

On a challenging news front: We cannot go back to the state of the world as it was right after World War II, when the United States was one of the few major powers not in a state of significant disrepair after that conflict.

In fact, I am not sure we really would want to go back to 1948 anyway because even then there were significant challenges with racism, sexism, and other forms of freedom that today continue to move forward ideally around the world. We still have work to do.

Here in the United States, any attempt at false nostalgia of the past helps no one, false nostalgia deprives us of the necessary wake-call that the world is changing and we — as a nation — may need to rethink where we want to go?

The second Iraq War and Afghanistan proved that trying to do nation-building in attempts to bring democracy to turbulent places was probably not a great idea. I was in Afghanistan in 2009 and saw the challenges.

For most of the current decade there has been an absence of strategy across the entire U.S. federal government and with our allies for what should come next in terms of goals for the era ahead.

So where do we want to go?

Isolationism is bad idea. If we (the U.S.) withdraw from the world stage, the world will continue to become more connected and threats half-a-world away increasingly will be able to reach us and increasingly be affordable to small nations and super-empowered individuals who mean to do harm or sow chaos.

Technology solely for tech sake is also a bad idea. Several folks in Silicon Valley have waved the flag for social media and internet tech as the future — however without a People-Centered focus, such technologies paradoxically risk increasing unrest, misinformation, distrust, and disengagement in open societies. There also are some that wave the flag of outer space as the future, yet miss that space is very unforgiving on the human body and probably initial space ventures with be much more easily done with autonomous astronauts that “aren’t bags of mostly water” that respond adversely to radiation.

Following the disruptions of 9/11, there are nations around the world that would like to greatly influence what the future world pursues. Will it be a future of more freedoms for individuals (which would be my leaning, however I come from a Western pluralistic society) — or will it be a future that places more of an emphasis of centralized planning in the name of regional stability at the risk of such freedoms?

The United States significantly shaped the last 70 years of our planet — however there is no guarantee we will shape the next 30.

In fact, we in the United States seem to currently be abdicating any responsibility to engage other nations in conversations about this future. Internally, the U.S. appears to be in-fighting among itself, discouraging anyone from wanting to serve in federal government and help the nation.

Collectively we are distracted from any long-term strategy. If we don’t lift our eyes back up from our smartphones to the long-term horizon, we may be surprised to find ourselves in a multi-car pile up or (worse) skidding out of control. We need to have broader discussions now that result in a refocusing of institutions and activities towards the rapidly approaching future. This cannot be done with band-aids or short-term thinking.

We need a vision and shared dream for the future. A vision that is large enough for different individuals and different views to be included. Thoughts, ideas, and opinions all welcomed (bring data ideally too).

As I get ready to head to Europe for my Marshall Memorial Fellowship, I look forward to listening, learning, and synthesizing the different perspectives I hear from different people on what they think should be the future for the next 30 years ahead? Your thoughts are welcomed!

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