January 15, 2004

200 Times Better than a 5-Year Plan

ScienceDirect - Futures : Integrated 1000-year planning by Bruce E. Tonn, Futures Volume 36, Issue 1 , February 2004, Pages 91-108.

A paper describing integrated 1000-year planning as a tool for dealing with global issues such as the survival of humanity. While it has a can-do attitude that I admire, it seems utterly unrealistic. But still, there are some interesting long-range visions there if they could only be released from the prison of planning.

The basic problem is of course that planning only makes sense when you have enough data to predict the effects of your plan with some reasonable accuracy. That makes it hard enough over short timescales.

The real drive for a 1000-year scale is to broaden thinking, to actually challenge the assumptions of the present. But how well does the paper do it? Of the 11 elements mentioned (energy, land us, carbon management, oceans, biodiversity, nuclear and hazardous waste, water, human settlements, near-earth objects, space exploraiton and integration) most are very traditional, close to current discussions about sustainability. While space exploration merits its own element, the possibility that a sizeable part or most of humanity will be living offworld within a few centuries is not discussed - and that possibility totally transforms the meaning of the other elements in that case. Similarly changes in the human condition are not assumed, despite these changing the qualitative and qualitative situation enormously: life extension, modifications of human drives, human-AI symbiosis, uploading and new reproductive technologies are not mentioned.

This is natural, given the relatively small role given to technology in the treatment:

"Advances in technology should be considered in 1000-year plans. However, following the precautionary principle, plans should not be based on technologies that do not exist or are uncertain to come into existence within the time frame under consideration."

While this may avoid making plans that likely fail due to the assumption of certain technologies, the result is instead plans that make the certain mistake of ignoring transforming technologies. That we do not yet know these technologies is no reason not to consider them, just as the rest of the 1000-year plan idea does not abstain from trying to consider the sociology of the far future.

The problem here is of course the love of planning. It is mentioned that goal-directed R&D is behind the success of computing and biotechnology. But that is likely not true, both fields have rather demonstrated the strength of diverse and individual approaches working in parallel. Goal-directed R&D became possible only after the fundamental science and technology had been developed and still draw from this diverse bed. But from the perspective of someone at the School of Planning of course planning works and is a wonderful tool (just as I, a computational neuroscientist, see simulation and learning as the everything-is-a-nail hammer).

Perhaps the problem is that everything is phrased as planning and not vision. 'Vision' is often used too losely, merely a pleasant image of a desired future and no way of getting there, but it can also be something closer to the plans discussed in the text. Surprises will happen, compromises between different parts will have to be renegotiated. In that case the traditional plan breaks down, while a more flexible vision remains, adjusting itself to the new reality.

One area where I think the article has notably good points is the discussion of global risks and risk assessment. Here it would be interesting to combine it with the studies of existential risks.

Posted by Anders at January 15, 2004 05:57 PM

I think this is what happens when Sensory thinkers try to make grand visions.

Everyone knows that sort of stuff is best left for us intuitives - because we actually posses imagination.

But yes, love of planning is silly, silly, silly. Anyone who has read Clausewitz knows that no plan ever survives it's first contact with reality intact. Indeed if it survives it in an even vaguely recognisable form, you've done well.

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