The power to think ahead in a reckless age | Bina Venkataraman

The power to think ahead in a reckless age | Bina Venkataraman

So in the winter of 2012, I went to visit my grandmother’s house in South India, a place, by the way, where the mosquitos have a special taste
for the blood of the American-born. (Laughter) No joke. When I was there,
I got an unexpected gift. It was this antique instrument made more than a century ago, hand-carved from a rare wood, inlaid with pearls and with dozens of metal strings. It’s a family heirloom, a link between my past, the country where my parents were born, and the future, the unknown places I’ll take it. I didn’t actually realize it
at the time I got it, but it would later become
a powerful metaphor for my work. We all know the saying, “There’s no time like the present.” But nowadays, it can feel
like there’s no time but the present. What’s immediate and ephemeral
seems to dominate our lives, our economy and our politics. It’s so easy to get caught up
in the number of steps we took today or the latest tweet
from a high-profile figure. It’s easy for businesses to get caught up
in making immediate profits and neglect what’s good
for future invention. And it’s far too easy
for governments to stand by while fisheries and farmland are depleted instead of conserved
to feed future generations. I have a feeling that, at this rate, it’s going to be hard for our generation
to be remembered as good ancestors. If you think about it,
our species evolved to think ahead, to chart the stars, dream of the afterlife, sow seeds for later harvest. Some scientists call this superpower
that we have “mental time travel,” and it’s responsible for pretty much
everything we call human civilization, from farming to the Magna Carta to the internet — all first conjured in the minds of humans. But let’s get real: if we look around us today, we don’t exactly seem to be
using this superpower quite enough, and that begs the question: Why not? What’s wrong is how our communities,
businesses and institutions are designed. They’re designed in a way
that’s impairing our foresight. I want to talk to you
about the three key mistakes that I think we’re making. The first mistake is what we measure. When we look at the quarterly
profits of a company or its near-term stock price, that’s often not a great measure of whether that company
is going to grow its market share or be inventive in the long run. When we glue ourselves to the test scores
that kids bring back from school, that’s not necessarily
what’s great for those kids’ learning and curiosity in the long run. We’re not measuring
what really matters in the future. The second mistake we’re making
that impairs our foresight is what we reward. When we celebrate a political leader
or a business leader for the disaster she just cleaned up or the announcement she just made, we’re not motivating that leader to invest in preventing
those disasters in the first place, or to put down payments on the future
by protecting communities from floods or fighting inequality or investing in research and education. The third mistake
that impairs our foresight is what we fail to imagine. Now, when we do think about the future, we tend to focus
on predicting exactly what’s next, whether we’re using horoscopes
or algorithms to do that. But we spend a lot less time imagining
all the possibilities the future holds. When the Ebola outbreak
emerged in 2014 in West Africa, public health officials around the world
had early warning signs and predictive tools that showed how
that outbreak might spread, but they failed to fathom that it would, and they failed to act
in time to intervene, and the epidemic grew
to kill more than 11,000 people. When people with lots of resources
and good forecasts don’t prepare for deadly hurricanes, they’re often failing to imagine
how dangerous they can be. Now, none of these mistakes
that I’ve described, as dismal as they might sound, are inevitable. In fact, they’re all avoidable. What we need to make
better decisions about the future are tools that can aid our foresight, tools that can help us think ahead. Think of these as something
like the telescopes that ship captains of yore used
when they scanned the horizon. Only instead of for looking
across distance and the ocean, these tools are for looking
across time to the future. I want to share with you a
few of the tools that I’ve found in my research that I think can help us with foresight. The first tool I want to share with you I think of as making
the long game pay now. This is Wes Jackson, a farmer
I spent some time with in Kansas. And Jackson knows that the way that most crops
are grown around the world today is stripping the earth
of the fertile topsoil we need to feed future generations. He got together
with a group of scientists, and they bred perennial grain crops
which have deep roots that anchor the fertile topsoil of a farm, preventing erosion
and protecting future harvests. But they also knew that in order to get farmers
to grow these crops in the short run, they needed to boost
the annual yields of the crops and find companies willing
to make cereal and beer using the grains so that farmers could reap profits today
by doing what’s good for tomorrow. And this is a tried-and-true strategy. In fact, it was used
by George Washington Carver in the South of the United States
after the Civil War in the early 20th century. A lot of people have probably heard
of Carver’s 300 uses for the peanut, the products and recipes
that he came up with that made the peanut so popular. But not everyone knows
why Carver did that. He was trying to help
poor Alabama sharecroppers whose cotton yields were declining, and he knew that planting
peanuts in their fields would replenish those soils so that their cotton yields
would be better a few years later. But he also knew it needed
to be lucrative for them in the short run. Alright, so let’s talk
about another tool for foresight. This one I like to think of
as keeping the memory of the past alive to help us imagine the future. So I went to Fukushima, Japan on the sixth anniversary
of the nuclear reactor disaster there that followed the Tohoku earthquake
and tsunami of 2011. When I was there, I learned
about the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station, which was even closer
to the epicenter of that earthquake than the infamous Fukushima Daiichi
that we all know about. In Onagawa, people in the city
actually fled to the nuclear power plant as a place of refuge. It was that safe. It was spared by the tsunamis. It was the foresight of just one engineer, Yanosuke Hirai, that made that happen. In the 1960s, he fought
to build that power plant farther back from the coast at higher elevation
and with a higher sea wall. He knew the story of his hometown shrine, which had flooded
in the year 869 after a tsunami. It was his knowledge of history
that allowed him to imagine what others could not. OK, one more tool of foresight. This one I think of
as creating shared heirlooms. These are lobster fishermen
on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and they’re the ones who taught me this. They have protected
their lobster harvest there for nearly a century, and they’ve done that
by treating it as a shared resource that they’re passing on to their collected
children and grandchildren. They carefully measure what they catch so that they’re not taking
the breeding lobster out of the ocean. Across North America,
there are more than 30 fisheries that are doing something
vaguely similar to this. They’re creating long-term stakes
in the fisheries known as catch shares which get fishermen to be motivated not just in taking whatever they can
from the ocean today but in its long-term survival. Now there are many,
many more tools of foresight I would love to share with you, and they come from all kinds of places: investment firms that look
beyond near-term stock prices, states that have freed their elections from the immediate interests
of campaign financiers. And we’re going to need to marshal
as many of these tools as we can if we want to rethink what we measure, change what we reward and be brave enough
to imagine what lies ahead. Not all this is going to be easy,
as you can imagine. Some of these tools
we can pick up in our own lives, some we’re going to need to do
in businesses or in communities, and some we need to do as a society. The future is worth this effort. My own inspiration to keep up this effort
is the instrument I shared with you. It’s called a dilruba, and it was custom-made
for my great-grandfather. He was a well-known
music and art critic in India in the early 20th century. My great-grandfather had the foresight
to protect this instrument at a time when my great-grandmother
was pawning off all their belongings, but that’s another story. He protected it by giving it
to the next generation, by giving it to my grandmother, and she gave it to me. When I first heard
the sound of this instrument, it haunted me. It felt like hearing a wanderer
in the Himalayan fog. It felt like hearing
a voice from the past. (Music) (Music ends) That’s my friend Simran Singh
playing the dilruba. When I play it, it sounds
like a cat’s dying somewhere, so you’re welcome. (Laughter) This instrument is in my home today, but it doesn’t actually belong to me. It’s my role to shepherd it in time, and that feels more meaningful to me
than just owning it for today. This instrument positions me
as both a descendant and an ancestor. It makes me feel part of a story
bigger than my own. And this, I believe, is the single most powerful way
we can reclaim foresight: by seeing ourselves
as the good ancestors we long to be, ancestors not just to our own children but to all humanity. Whatever your heirloom is, however big or small, protect it and know that its music
can resonate for generations. Thank you. (Applause)


  1. We wont change, we cant change. We have fabricated our own device of defeat with almost every aspect of our modern society. Democracy, Capitalism, the entitled modern concept of freedom. All of those things are so detrimental to our progress, so divisive, so toxic, that they will ultimately destroy us. The simple fact that hardly anyone can see the dangers of things like Democracy and the nonsense ideology of freedom we hold today proves that we are hopeless to save ourselves.

    Progressing complex machines requires control, period. Without absolute control you dont progress, you simply fly off in random directions. Eventually sure you may get thrown in the direction you want, but before that happens you will go thousands of places you dont want. Modern society is a failure, the state of our species and our societies is proof of that.

  2. My foresight is My Motto (Hope for the Best,But Prepare for the Worst of everything)
    Knowing your going to fail or fall
    Hurts a lot less than an unexpected one
    GO GRÊÊN 💚😀💯%

  3. Oh the irony of this lecture with a lecture hall of people who traveled vast distances at Great expense of energy to be present. If you really cared about the future, you'd insist that this be an online-only presentation with no one outside of 10 miles allowed to come.

  4. 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻🧘🏻‍♀️🎖

  5. Sorry for posting this here, maybe you could help me?

    Is there anyone who is willing to help me? I wanted to start a gofundme campaign to help me get out of the PTSD, depression and severe health problems. I can't do it from my country, I am no longer abroad, so the only way is to ask someone if he or she could set up the campaign for me. If you are willing to help me, please let me know, we can connect through my official facebook account. This is an honest message, not any scam, just desperate asking for help, which is not easy for me. Thank you.

    Or if you have any other idea or a suggestion for me, let me know. 🙂

  6. “Do you understand? Man needs entertainment simply to hide his madness. If he was perfectly sane, he would not need entertainment. He could just sit and watch this bamboo grow. He does not really need entertainment.”
    ―     Sadhguru,   Mystic's Musings

  7. It's so an unfortunate that you introduced your Ancestors place so badly in the opening remarks and end the show with care of being Ancestor to all ! What lessons are your resonating ?

  8. i just was preparing for IELTS and looking for some great ideas or stories. The gift that she has took from her grandmother has very long and magnificently story behind it. And that made me think about memory of me. What may leave after i will die? Maby there will be something or not. I really got depressed, lmao. But i am only 15 years-old and there is a lot of time to think about it. I liked the video and your speech, Bina. Nice job and nice jokes 😉

  9. Learn that if your poor you most likely to think in the moment. Such why poor family won’t past on the knowledge. Yet family that doing decent or good. End teaching there kids knowledge they gained in life.

  10. To many young adult parents leads to less thinking ahead in life. Cause the young parents most likely not past on life knowledge. Yet older more mature adults will teach there children Financial, Mentalawareness, and there life’s past mistakes.

  11. In my book, this all started in the 70s'
    the start of…de-intellectualization of the American people…to Dummy down…
    and it started with the dropping of Civics in high school.
    This is the pay-off…they got what they wanted…
    sorry to say but I happy that I'll not have to live thru all that means…

  12. We have tools for foresight — great tools, tools that allow us not only anticipate what the future can be, but allow us to anticipate many ways things can go wrong and how to get back on the path to futures we want to pass on to our descendants. I know something about those tools: I have a MS in Studies of the Future, and I learned both theory and methodology about understanding and communicating future possibilities.  

    What we truly lack is a social construction of time and equity that values the future as something we create in the present for people who will live or die by the decisions we make in the present. Our current mutually constructed social reality values the present and treats all other times as unreal. In this social construction, the past doesn't matter because it's done and can't be undone. In this social construction, the future is not real in that it doesn't yet exist and is beyond our control. Neither of these is true. We are constantly learning new things about the past that change how we think of our present. More importantly, what we learn of our pasts — individually and collectively — makes us more conscious of our connections to things beyond our control that make us who we are today. We desperately need those connections, because without them, we will unconsciously pass on the structural inequalities in our collective present to future generations.

    We also need to conceive of the future (actually, our futures — note the plural!) as being as real as our present. We are creating the futures our descendants will live in, and the changes we make now will not easily be undone — just as the changes we inherited from previous generations cannot be easily undone. We live with and continue to build around what we were left, be it physical or social infrastructure. We don't create the future as if it were a blank sheet of paper: the futures we create have to fit around what already exists — unless we have plans for clearing the path of what's already there.

    All this means we have to reconstruct our ideas about how the futures we hand down come to pass. We need to seriously talk about the ways we talk about our futures. We need to dig up the assumptions about the future buried beneath our ideas about how our futures play out, and we need to deeply challenge those assumptions. We need to do this work soon. If we fail to think about and change the ways we act toward the futures we're creating, we may leave no agency for those who follow us to chart their own futures. Moreover, we may take away the very things that allow them to make meaning of the lives they live. After we've severed their connections to the past and dialed the future focus we leave them down to "now", what will they have as the basis for making sense of their lives?

    We are creatures who thrive on meaning: we die from lack of it. And if we leave future people nothing with which to make sense of their lives, how will they live?

  13. Amazing talk!!! Only truth!!! We must focus on what future we are preparing for all humanity ahead!!!
    Over population No1 issue being the reason for Over polluting, Over harvesting this planet!!!
    The Only World we have to live happily and the only great Legacy we have for all future humanity!!!

  14. Overpopulation where poverty breeds poverty (and crime ) , the major factor of today's misery . Yet no one seems to bother . Think ahead ???? (sic).

  15. What I learned today:

    – We are measuring success in short-term, short-sighted ways like quarterly reports and test scores. They aren't accurate predictors of long-term success
    – We shouldn't be rewarding politicians for cleaning up disasters when we should be incentivizing them to put down payments on preventing them in the first place
    – We fail to imagine since we try to predict binary outcomes.

  16. In the future, when we are no longer needed, we will be exterminated by the rich through disease or war and history will say it was an accident.

  17. A truly beautiful talk with a beautiful message. We are all but shepherds to the world around us. Nothing can be taken along when we leave, and the following generations will only know us by what we left behind.

  18. Our reform like a nation at risk act has obviously failed our kids and took away far to much from the future.
    We can look back and see what worked and dont but instead we try to reforn the reforms building mistakes .
    As far as what is in our power we are limited by tech. No matter how much money yoh through at science it doesnt advance any faster .this has plenty of proof to look up.
    40% of all food is thrown away. Thats 40% of land, labor ,transportation,refridgeration and disposel plus greehouse gases all for nothing wasted.This can be addressed. instead of socialist trying to radically change what we cant fix work on this. free food gov controled agriculture.
    Left wimg socialist could tackle this with conservatives support. aceint civs fed people why cant we?
    This is within our control and our tech. abilty.

  19. Excellent talk with great insights. "Those that do not know history….", further to the Japanese gentleman's wisdom that did not build his nuke plant on the coast.
    Much of what she is saying is indicating the society's loss of common sense, relying to much on technical wizardry when not appropriate.

  20. Foresight and the hope that acts positively are what we need to overcome division in politics, and enable us to work together to prevent climate change from becoming the ultimate disaster.

  21. Just another way of saying that Capitalism and Market is not the way to go. Ofc, saying that will get you called as a communist by those who bathe in money. They claim that they 'working hard'.

    Note that I alluded the not well known fact that Capitalism and Markets are not the same.

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