Kelly, Eamonn

Eamonn KellyEamonn Kelly is CEO of Global Business Network, the renowned California-based, future-oriented consulting firm, and a partner of the Monitor Group. He has consulted to dozens of the world's leading corporations, public agencies, and philanthropic foundations. For more than a decade he has been at the forefront of exploring the emergence and the consequences of a new economy.

Prior to joining GBN, Eamonn was head of strategy at Scottish Enterprise, where he led the creation of effective strategies for economic and social development. He studied drama, sociology, and economics at the University of Glasgow, and holds an MBA from Strathclyde University. He is coauthor of What's Next: Exploring the New Terrain for Business and The Future of the Knowledge Economy. His new book, Powerful Times: Rising to the Challenge of Our Uncertain World, was launched in September 2005.

powerfultimes.gif asks …

Eamonn, why have you written this book?

EK: The reason was actually based in my work 20 years ago in Scotland, where I worked with communities that had been left behind by industrial restructuring. When the steel mills, shipbuilding, and coal mining moved from their area to other parts of the world, these communities lost their purpose.

I was working with people who were waiting for the past to come back. They had a huge nostalgia for the past, but they needed to start believing that the world had actually changed—and that this wasn’t a disaster. They needed to realize they could create a new future, a new world that wasn’t going backwards.

As a futures-oriented business consultant working with great corporations, government agencies, and philanthropic institutes, I’ve come to see that the whole of the developed world is, in some ways, in the same position those communities in Scotland were in 20 years ago, which is looking backwards, waiting for the past to come back, hoping that the challenges and uncertainties and disruptions that are breaking all around us at the moment will somehow settle down and we’ll go back to the old ways. And I don’t think it’s going to go back to the old ways.

We need to give up the nostalgia for the past and adopt a new attachment to the future. It should be based on really understanding what’s happening today, really understanding the nature of the challenges, but with a sense of opportunity, a sense of optimism, and a sense that we can seize and create a new future without being terribly troubled about letting go of what has been, for the West in particular, a pretty good run of superiority. But superiority in the future isn’t guaranteed, and it’s not a disaster if other major players enter the scene and start to become full participants too.

That does raise a certain level of anxiety, at least from U.S.-centric point of view. I’m 50 years old, and throughout my lifetime, we’ve been the most powerful nation. On the one hand I think to myself that we don’t need to be. But on the other hand, it stirs up some anxiety to wonder what it looks like if we’re not. Actually, I think just reading your book causes a lot of anxiety.

EK: I would hold that my book creates two emotions. It creates enough anxiety to make you pay attention, and it also gives a sense that there are opportunities as well, and real cause for optimism. There are quite profound challenges, particularly related to the climate and the environment, but those challenges can be addressed. We’re a very ingenious species, and when we get our act together and pay attention, we can make a big difference.

Right. Though it seems, at times, that we need to be pushed to the brink before we actually apply our ingenuity.

EK: Yes, I think that’s true. We need either a catastrophic event or an overwhelming series of smaller events that create an indisputable perception of change before we embrace the fact that things have moved on. We’re hardwired that way. Our perception is largely based on our past experience, and it’s always hard to anticipate discontinuity. Even when you anticipate it, it’s still hard to really believe it. Herman Kahn wrote On Thermonuclear War: Thinking the Unthinkable about 40 years ago. I know we’ve gotten much better since then at thinking the unthinkable, but what we have to do now is get better at believing the unbelievable, because it’s going to happen. In New Orleans, for example, people had thought the unthinkable. The scenarios of a category 4 or 5 hurricane coming in and the levees being breached had been considered. It wasn’t that this was completely unforeseen; we had thought the unthinkable, but we hadn’t believed the unbelievable.

So I think part of the call in Powerful Times is, “Start believing these unbelievable things because they’re true.” We’re living in a world now in which the emergence of China and India is a hugely important future shaper of the global economy. Fifteen years ago we looked at China as a great place for cheap, reasonably skilled labor, and we wanted to put our manufacturing over there. Then we started to realize, “Hey, there’s an emergent middle class that can buy things.” So we started to treat them as a market.

Now we’re in the next phase, where they’ve become our competitor for product markets, corporate control, and natural resources. A lot of people attribute the steady rise in oil prices to Chinese demand.

Fairly soon, we will see China becoming an important competitor for talent, especially for the people they call the “sea turtles”—those who left and are coming back to work in Chinese businesses. I can imagine China as quite an attractive place for talented young leaders and managers to practice their skills and probably assume higher levels of responsibility than they might get elsewhere. They could be part of an incredibly energizing, dynamic business environment. So I think the competition for talent is going to be bigger.

For me, the big mindset shift is that China is going to become an innovator fairly soon, and we’re not ready for that. In the West, we’ve not had to be importers of innovations very much in the last 500 years. Tom Friedman writes that the world is flat today.* If you look around in the year 1500, it was a pretty flat world. Whether you were a peasant in Europe or China or a tribesman in Africa or living in the New World, you had pretty much the same basic standard of living and wealth.

In fact, if you look to where innovation has come from historically, many of the really great inventions—gunpowder, printing, paper, etc.—all came out of China. Science was driven primarily from the Islamic countries; Islam was the center of the creation of math experimentation. What happened was that Europe picked up the mantle of innovation, adopted those scientific methodologies, and became this incredible powerhouse of scientific breakthrough and technical innovation that started in Europe and eventually moved to America.

We’ve gotten into a mindset of assuming that all innovation is driven by us and that we export innovation, whether it be technological or philosophical. I think we’re going to see other parts of the world—and China is a clear example—become innovators in all of those areas. And we’re going to have to learn how to import innovation as well as export it. It’s a huge challenge for us.

When you’re faced with the shifting of balance of power, I think the default reaction is to resist it. I’m a British citizen, currently happily residing in the United States, and I know that it was painful to Britain when its empire went into decline and its power and authority passed over to America. It’s not that I believe America is in some kind of permanent decline; I think there are more actors now. Rather than see everything through the lens of competition, I think we have to increasingly see things through the lens of collaboration. Let’s learn to dance with China, not just compete with it.

Right. Which does seem a huge mind shift. When electricity came on the scene, the gas companies devoted a lot of energy to innovation because they didn’t realize it meant the end of their dominance. Not that I’m equating the U.S. and China in that way, but I think that’s somewhat the reaction here in the United States. It’s a very challenging idea, that all of the sudden we are not going to be the innovators of record. I think the initial reaction would be this collective thought of, “We’re going to show them,” which comes from that strictly competitive part of our nature.

EK: I think that’s right. This kind of rise triggers that instinctive competitive reaction. And that’s not entirely wrong. But we have to stop thinking in absolutes. It’s not that we’re no longer the innovator; it’s just that we’re not the sole innovator.

There’s a whole other way of thinking about this. Think about China and India. Not that long ago we were agonizing in the West about the plight of India and how to overcome this desperate poverty and inability to get any kind of economic traction. Now we’re worried because India is taking our jobs. This should be a cause for celebration. We’re at a point in history where opportunities are opening up for other parts of the world.

We in the West are very good at arguing that economic growth is not a zero-sum game; that’s been our argument through globalization for the last 30 years or so. The problem is that when we see other people really getting into their stride and establishing their power in the world, we start to default to thinking that it is a zero-sum game. They’ll take our jobs; they’ll own our businesses; they’ll consume the resources we had earmarked. So suddenly we go from “It’s not a zero-sum game” to “Uh-oh, there are other real players here and it is a zero-sum game.” We’ve got to remember that we were right the first time: it’s not a zero-sum game.

That reminds me of a year or so ago when outsourcing was on people’s minds and in the media so much. And yet now it doesn’t seem to be that big in the news, or am I just not paying attention?

EK: It’s certainly not as big in the news as it was. We were almost obsessive on this topic a year ago. You’re exactly right. I think the conversation has moved on for a number of reasons, but I’m not convinced it moved on in a particularly healthy way. I think we’re getting into a place of even greater concern and anxiety, particularly in the case of China, looking at this new competitor as all threat and all downside, and that’s just not the case.

In many ways, I think the business world is ahead of the world of governments on this, because business already takes a truly global view. Business understands the other areas lighting up and becoming part of this whole global economic and cultural system. It’s a huge opportunity and something to celebrate, because it does take a genuinely global perspective.

Governments tend to take a more narrowly defined view of “we.” Since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, we in the West have had the notion that the nation state is the supreme level of governance, that it’s a natural level at which we ought to govern our affairs. Yet if you look at what matters in the world today—whether it’s economics or internet communications or terrorism or pandemics or weather events—whatever it is you look at, almost nothing conforms any longer to national boundaries.

Take the environment, for example. I read recently that, on some days, something like 25 percent of the particulates in the air in L.A. actually originated in China. In other words, industrial activity in China is creating a quarter of the pollution in Los Angeles. Very little that really matters conforms to national boundaries any more.

So you really have to question where we will get better and bigger ideas about how to govern ourselves as a species. For me, part of the answer is that human beings have been on a millions of years long journey of moving towards a bigger sense of “we.” We’ve managed to scale it up from me, my family, my tribe, my community, through my city, my region, my country, my continent. And I think we’re now at the point where the pressure is on—environmental pressure, technological pressure, economic pressure—and we really have to go to the next logical step, which is a sense of a global “we.” We have to understand that the narrow pursuit of national interest ultimately isn’t sustainable in a world in which everything is interdependent. We need to scale our sense of “we” and think about the issues and challenges ahead of us as a global species rather than as a series of individual national entities.

But how do we begin that? In a way, it’s already begun—with the internet, for instance. All of a sudden anyone in the world can communicate with anyone else. And then you’ve got Thomas Friedman saying the world is flat. We all see it as happening and we all say globalization 10 or 20 times a day, but I’m reminded of your quote from Petrucci, Lord of Sienna, that the times are more powerful than our brains. That seems in a way more true, at least for us as individuals.

As soon as the world is wide open to us, as you say, there’s this part of our nature that wants to go deeper into our own house and snuggle up in a down comforter. We’re always constantly pulled. Maybe that’s why you’ve set up the structure of your book with these dynamic tensions, as the plus and the minus sides of what’s happening.

EK: Yes, it is. The idea of a global “we” doesn’t mean that we give up our family-based, community-based, personality-based, individual-based sense of identity. Quite the opposite. I think these identities can coexist very comfortably. At the end of the day we live in our local communities, and those communities can globalize as well and are doing so. My son, for example, enjoys playing Xbox Live online, and he will quite often be playing with people he’s gotten to know on Xbox who are coming from all continents. It’s natural to him; he doesn’t think anything of it that he’s playing with a kid from Australia. These 13-, 14-, 15-year-old kids are working out time zone differences so they can all get together and nobody has to do it at three o’clock in the morning.

That is impressive.

EK: Some of this sense of the global “we” is happening already. I don’t think it’s incompatible with living the local life and satisfying the basic human needs for physical direct connection and communication. But I also think that the emergence of—it sounds a little soppy to say it—the emergence of a global consciousness is happening. People are increasingly recognizing that there is an enormous interdependence of humanity.

One thing I’ve been struck by lately is the extent to which the evangelical Christian right has increasingly been embracing issues of poverty in Africa, things that were historically associated much more with a liberal idealistic agenda.

Speaking of which, I just saw a headline this morning that the evangelical right is now getting involved in lowering carbon dioxide emissions.

EK: You’re definitely going to see this sort of thing. One of the themes in Powerful Times is that you’ve got to expect to see the spiritual world merge with the environmental world. You’re going to see people coming from a more spiritual perspective increasingly looking at environmental problems and acknowledging that the way we are destroying our God-given planet is an affront to nature and to their own religious beliefs.

You have statistics that show that 59 percent of Americans say that religion plays an important role in their lives. We can’t always necessarily equate religion with spirituality, but I guess for purposes of this discussion we can.

EK: Well I do consider religion and spirituality together in the book, when I talk about the seven dynamic tensions. The dynamic tensions are paradoxical and somewhat contradictory pairs of forces that are driving change in the world. One of them is secular and sacred. I use “sacred” to describe both a very religious—and increasingly fundamentalist—set of beliefs and a more inclusive spirituality, almost a make-it-up-yourself combination of practices from meditation to holistic health to self-improvement. There’s a range of fields and disciplines on the spiritual side emerging today.

Part of the reason for this emergence is a reaction to extreme materialism, secular modernity, and the notion that humanity trumps nature. I think a lot of people are finding that an unsatisfactory place to be. In the ’60s we said that God is dead and religion is finished, but it’s proven to be fundamentally untrue. The sacred perspective is back very powerfully, and it’s not just fundamentalism and evangelicalism. It’s also the emergence of a deep spirituality that is becoming increasingly aligned to environmentalism, too. I think we’ll see much more of that in the years ahead.

That’s great news for the planet, I think.

EK: I do, too. There are lots of reasons to be cheerful about the increasing sense of a global “we,” that there is only one human species and it’s us. I once heard somebody say that we should change the name of our planet. We should call it Earthland and think of it as just one big country. We are all citizens of Earthland.

Somebody came up at the end of a talk I gave, and said, “I’d love to know what you would choose if you could change one little thing that would make a difference.” When you’re confronted with a question like that, there’s only one smart thing to do, and that’s to say, “Hmm, let me think about that. But while I do so, why don’t you tell me what yours would be.” And this person actually had one that I found very intriguing. He said, “I would like to have solid scientific proof tomorrow that when we die, every single one of us is reincarnated immediately, but on a different continent. I think that if all of us rich white folks in the West knew that when we die, there’s a very good chance we’re going to show up again in rural India or Africa, we would have a whole different investment in addressing the world’s problems.”

Maybe somebody ought to write that book. It would be an interesting study, and certainly useful for, as you say, us rich Westerners.

EK: Absolutely.

Well, we seem to have gotten into some of the dynamic tensions from the book without really discussing what led you to that structure for the book. Could you explain that?

EK: Of course. One of the things I feel very strongly is that we’re not just living through an age of change. We’ve been using that language for 30 years, and frankly I don’t really know what it means, since we’re always in an age of change. In my opinion, we’re living right now through a change of age. That’s where a lot of our anchor points shift, and a lot of things we hold to be fundamental, self-evident truths move from under our feet. That’s what I think is happening just now. It’s not the first change of age, but these don’t happen often.

I think tectonic changes are happening around us in the fields of technology, the environment, climate, what it means to be human, etc. Huge changes in terms of the players who have influence in the world, the speed at which things are moving, the emergence of China and India, possibly later Brazil, as almost unimaginably large and powerful countries. And all of this is happening at the same time. There are so many ways in which we are challenged by this set of realities.

One of the things we do is to go into very polarized perspectives of what’s really happening, and we get into arguments about what’s good and what’s bad, what’s real and what’s not real. One of the things that motivated me to write the book was a trip two or three years ago to a bookstore in Manhattan. I was looking at the “politics and current affairs” shelf, and there were these books that were radically polarized perspectives on U.S. domestic politics. One category of books claimed all conservatives are liars, and the other category claimed all liberals are traitors. I could look at the various facts in those books and say, “There’s a lot of truth in this and there’s a lot of truth in that.” These are not either/or propositions, but they’re being polarized in ridiculous ways in a strident, angry debate with no common ground.

Instead of “either/or,” there’s this incredible need for a “both/and” way of thinking. So part of what I wanted to do with this book was to acknowledge that the world is characterized today by paradox and contradiction, and it doesn’t mean that one set of things is true and another set of things is untrue. It means that both can be true at the same time. We are seeing profound truths that are somewhat in competition with each other.

So I set out the seven dynamic tensions that I think are most important in the world today. One I’d like to say a few words about is what I describe as clarity and craziness.

We’ve got this extraordinary array of technologies—sensors, computer connectivity, communication systems, data interrogation systems—that tell us so much about what’s happening in the world. A few years ago the Japanese built what was at the time the largest computer in the world. It was called the Earth Simulator, and its purpose was essentially to model the earth’s climate. Well, that thing has been chugging away trying to figure out the pattern. It’s a very, very complex system obviously. But we’re now gathering all this data with sensors in the ocean. We’ve got satellite surveillance of what’s happening to the climate. We’ve got air sensors everywhere gathering lots of data, with the computer modeling understanding it. I think in five or ten years our understanding of climate is going to be extraordinarily well developed compared to what it is just now. That’s an example of the clarity story.

Think of Google, which enables this extraordinary kind of access to information.

Yes. I can go online and look at a satellite picture of my house. That’s pretty freaky.

EK: Exactly. And Google is about to go into the real estate business because it can create the clarity of satellite images and help people search for places they may have some interest in. There are companies like Scorecard, which helps make companies’ behaviors and pollutions, etc., more transparent. We’ve got data mining that enables Wal*Mart, for example, to know that people go out and buy Strawberry Pop-Tarts before a hurricane strikes. Who would have thought that?

That was my favorite little factoid from your book.

EK: So we’ve got all this incredible opportunity for clarity. There’s clearly some downside to that clarity that will increasingly intrude in our lives, which is, “Do we have any privacy left?” I would argue that increasingly we will not. It’s a little bit like having relatives stay at your house: everybody starts to behave a little bit better. That may well be one of the implications of this.

But the other side of the story is craziness. The more data you generate, the more that data will enable different versions of reality to seem plausible. As people try to make sense of this complex, scary world, they’re increasingly drawn to some quite wild notions. I think one of the things we’ll see in the next decade is an explosion of fairly widely believed conspiracy theories. If you spend any time, as I did when I was researching the book, going on conspiracy websites—9/11 being an event particularly surrounded with conspiracy theories—what you realize after a few hours is how well put together the information is. Even though you’re in there for research purposes, and you know that the conspiracy theories are false, the data is so well put together, the stories so compellingly told, that even a rational researcher will start to get a flicker of doubt. You realize you just have to switch the machine off.

That’s powerful stuff.

EK: It’s because these stories can be very well told with lots of data, lots of images—it’s multimedia.

I think we’ll see these conspiracy theories being targeted on businesses. Six months ago, one of the top six conspiracy theories was that Starbucks had refused to provide coffee for the troops in Iraq. It wasn’t true, but it became pretty widely believed, and people were going around dissing Starbucks because of it.

Another weird one came up when the tsunami hit in the Indian Ocean in December of ’04. There was a U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia that wasn’t affected. Well, a theory developed that somehow the U.S. had triggered this tsunami by testing weapons underwater. It wasn’t just the crazies talking about this; the BBC’s website asked people for their thoughts on it. Rational, reliable news sources are raising these types of issues as questions.

Then you’ve got the ways in which governments are able to spin stories. Another example I use in the book is the Jessica Lynch story, which was initially quite a distinctly spun version of reality, and only gradually did the other stories arrive.

There’s a lot of research into cognition that demonstrates two things that are very important for businesses to understand. The first one is that if you take people into focus groups and ask them to comment on, for example, two political campaign ads, where one is positive and upbeat and the other is an attack ad, everybody in the focus group will tell you they prefer the positive upbeat ad. But if you ask them a week later what they remember, the one that stuck is the attack ad.

Studies have demonstrated that once people get a story in the media, an astonishing number of them will continue to believe it’s true even if they know it was later proven to be false.

What this means, in terms of the clarity and craziness theme, is that you’ve got to understand that people are going to know everything you do. If you’re polluting, for example, local people are going to know about it. You’ve got to assume that people are going to question your integrity, and that trustworthiness will become a “need to have” factor. You’ve got to have authenticity and integrity that’s absolutely unassailable, or you’re going to be vulnerable.

But on the other hand, even if you are that too-good-to-be-true person, somebody can spin a story anyway. And, as you say, the first story out has the most long-lasting effect, whether it’s true or not.

EK: Well, you’re right, and that’s the challenge. The evidence of people who continue to believe things after they’ve been disproved tends to demonstrate that those are people who want to believe it, because it fits their preexisting belief system. This is why you must have a trustworthy character, so that people are not willing to believe the worst of you straight out of the box.

Obviously this is especially applicable in politics.

EK: Yes, I think a big part of the malaise in today’s political process is due to the fact that politics has largely become about spin. People don’t know what to believe any longer, and they will believe some really bad things. Some of them may be true, but a lot of them won’t be true. They’ll believe bad, bad things of their politicians because there’s been too much use of negative campaigning, disinformation, and spinning. When that happens, the thing that gets lost is trust. In a world in which you can find all kinds of data to back up any representation of reality that you want to project, trust is a glue that holds it all together.

So businesses, for example, have got to stop running Astroturf campaigns, which are these supposed grassroots groups that are actually synthetic and fabricated on behalf of a corporation. They’ve got to stop doing that kind of stuff.

Yes. Blogs can provide a good example of that. People tend to believe what they read on blogs because they think it’s coming from an individual instead of a corporate hype-meister. So, of course, the hype-meisters come in and buy some individual bloggers. You just knew it would happen. I guess I’m being cynical, but that’s just the way things work. This whole discussion makes me think about education, and how important critical thought is when we are so deluged by information. I mean, what is true? How do we sort through the data to find the best possible information to inform our decisions?

EK: That’s a great question. I think a big piece of it is letting go of your biases and getting rid of some of your filters, particularly your ideological filters. At the beginning of Powerful Times, I set out two very short stories of how you might interpret the world today. One is a gloom and doom and everything is going to hell in a handbasket sort of story, and the other one is a highly optimistic, sunny, everything is wonderful story. And I argue they’re both true. Every single fact I’ve put in each of these stories is absolutely true.

Now, if you’re fundamentally wedded to the first story, you’re going to pick up all the terrible things going on in the world, and that’s all you’re ever going to see. If you’re wedded to the second story, you’re never going to see the problems and the downsides until it’s too late. So a willingness to develop a more open-minded perspective is the first thing.

You were talking about blogs. Have you heard of “splogs”? Splogs are a cross between spam and a blog, with spammers creating millions of completely artificial blogs that are really just advertising. So it’s called splogging.

We know all of that’s nonsense. It’s the same thing as the phishing that’s going on in identity theft. The first couple of times you get that email that purports to be from eBay telling you you’ve got to do something on your account, you’re poised to follow the instructions and then you get suspicious and you don’t do it. But the fifth and the sixth and tenth and the twentieth time you just delete the thing and you don’t even look at it. It’s rubbish and you know that.

You know, an interesting thing on those lines just happened to me. Somehow I knew that all that eBay stuff was crap, and I was getting bogus spam from PayPal three times a day.

But then I got something from Amazon and, even though I knew about all those other things, I thought it was legitimate because I believed Amazon had better control. I’ve since gone back in and changed the password, but I was initially suckered in.

EK: This is exactly why we have to stay alert.

I know we’ve gone off in some different directions here, but I’d like to hear a bit about the scenarios for the future you present in the book.

EK: I’d be delighted. Basically, the scenarios are alternative stories of the future that are different but equally plausible. Doing scenarios is basically our bread and butter at Global Business Network. We help organizations look at truly different, but possible, futures that would require very different strategies if they unfolded. So we tell these stories, based on understanding the most critical uncertainties we’re facing as we look forward.

In this book, I offer three scenarios. Typically the future is some kind of combination of all of your scenarios, and I think there will be elements of all three of these. However, it’s very helpful to think about them in the pure form so that (a) if we end up moving more towards one than the others, you can have some sense of how the world is unfolding, and (b) you can really understand how to deal with those elements of that future that do indeed come true.

The three scenarios are based on two big uncertainties. First, does the hierarchical, centralized, top-down model for leadership, innovation, and decision-making endure and hold over the next 15 or 20 years? Or are we going to see the emergence and empowerment of more bottom-up, networked, collaborative systems make a difference in the world? Which holds true?

Second, does the United States continue to enjoy its high level of influence in the world, not just in economic terms, but also in rule-setting and politics and its ability to essentially set the agenda for the rest of the world? Does that hold, or does that diminish?

So let’s imagine that the top-down does hold and that the U.S. does sustain its influence in the world. That’s a scenario that I think is quite credible, and I call it New American Century. It’s a world that’s not all about America, but in which America and American values—love of innovation, autonomy and independence, freedom and democracy, the American form of somewhat open-ended capitalism—continue to prevail.

Incidentally, I have a little survey on my website that asks people to vote on the scenarios. About a third of the people are voting for the New American Century.

In that scenario, I see the real players as being what I call the two M’s: Markets and Military. It’s about market power, and there’s a strong U.S. military presence in many places, but people need it for security reasons. Security is very highly valued in that world. American brands continue to do pretty well. You see growing Chinese influence in the world, but it comes within the context of American economic and political leadership.

But there’s another scenario that’s equally credible to me, which is that top-down prevails but U.S. influence starts to decline. You start to see alliances of different players become increasingly influential and equal in weight to the voice of America. In particular, I think we would see some interesting alliances between China and Europe.

That world is called Patchwork Powers. There are no fixed alliances there; it’s a fairly fluid set of evolving and morphing alliances and sources of influence. But there’s a quite deliberate and reasonably successful attempt to counterbalance the United States’ weight in the world. For example, China is building up a lot of relationships today with Africa and Latin America. We have interpreted these as strictly China’s efforts to get access to African and Latin American oil reserves, but that’s not the whole story. China recognizes that just as it has emerged into its full economic strength in the last couple of decades, so will Africa and Latin America. And it wants to have relationships with those parts of the world. So China is very systematically setting up those relationships as a counterweight to the United States. Europe is also looking towards China very explicitly as not just a trading partner but as a governance partner in how we think about the future of the planet.

So in that world I think it’s the two I’s that are prevalent: Institutions and Initiatives. It’s a world in which there is probably a little more multilateral governance, and initiatives like Kyoto become more empowered.

Then there’s a third scenario, which is that the top-down doesn’t really hold. Connective technologies and an increasingly global sense of identity and consciousness really start to create a world for which we’re very ill prepared. I call this one Emergence, and in it we see the two P’s prevailing: People and Passion. There’s a lot of bottom-up energy, and we see a lot of initiatives that are really about people creating new opportunities and sharing them rapidly across the world.

I recently met a woman in Scotland who has created a new form of crop-planting technology that can be either tractor-driven or mule-powered. It seems to be quite a breakthrough, and she’s starting to get a lot of interest from parts of Africa, from bits of the world where people desperately need help in preparing inhospitable ground for planting. So there’s a person whose passion is being connected and she’s emailed me and I’ve emailed her connections to other people. Who knows what will happen with that? Maybe nothing. But that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about: the spread of ideas and technologies and possibilities across networks of people where there’s a bottom-up energy to getting things done.

One example of this is in India, where huge centralized dams have been built by the World Bank at costs of tens of millions of dollars. But there’s another movement that will likely end up making a much bigger difference. It involves village-based initiatives of digging for wells and managing water flows in very particular ways. These much gentler, more localized approaches seem to be extremely effective, perhaps much more effective than these large, grand projects.

So you can imagine this world—which we haven’t seen before—in which you see ideas, passions, maybe even important political priorities being set by a much more bottom-up network.

Yes. It reminds me of the title of David Weinberger’s book about this whole emergent web and technology. It’s called Small Pieces Loosely Joined.

EK: Right, exactly.

It really describes what you’re talking about here, just a lot of small pieces. We’re all connected via email, and everybody knows what everyone else is doing, or they can know, anyway.

EK: Exactly. I like to think that the future will be some combination of those three scenarios, but being aware of those distinctly different possibilities is a very important way of tuning ourselves to a different future. Obviously, the one that is most familiar to us is New American Century, and that may well be the way the world unfolds. Maybe we will be able to rise to our challenges in ways that are somewhat more traditional, although they certainly will require in any case a huge ramping up of our commitment to them.

In the other scenarios, you see very different solution spaces emerging. I think that even in New American Century there will be pockets of these new solution spaces that are going to be tremendously important.

Yes. It’s a lot to digest.

EK: Well, no one said it was going to be easy. It’s only the future.

I think it’s very helpful reading. I think we get focused in on our own lives, and it’s important that we read a book like yours to reanimate our brains about the bigger global picture.

EK: Thank you.

So, thank you for your time, Eamonn.

EK: I enjoyed it.


*Reference is to The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman.