THE BLOG
10/21/2013 11:01 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Future Is Now

The Nobel Laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman once talked about how we perceive our future as "anticipated memories." We observe our future, he noted, through the lens of our past experiences. In essence, we drive forward with our eyes on the rear-view mirror.

The average person reading this article is far richer than their great-grandfather; much less likely to die of the ailments that have plagued mankind previously; and has more leisure time, and more opportunity. These are miraculous advances. Yet the 21st century is also unique in the scale and complexity of the challenges we face. The world is recovering from a wide-ranging financial crisis. The stable economy where people had a job for life is over; the future is more unpredictable than ever, and it makes our rear-view based perception of the world something we must question. We can no longer build for yesterday.

Over the past year, I have been a member of the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations. Chaired by Pascal Lamy, the former Director-General of the WTO, we have just published our report, Now for the Long Term. In it, we urge decision-makers around the world to tackle our problems from a more long-term perspective. We must ensure that the decisions we make today do not compromise our future.

In the report, we identify global megatrends that have huge implications. Demographically, the world is ageing quickly; India is an outlier with its young population. Worldwide, we have become extremely mobile: we have shallow roots, ready to shift cities and jobs much faster than ever before. The information revolution is creating opportunity and jobs in new areas, as well as threatening business and employment in others. We are seeing a growing middle class as well as increasing inequality. Globally, we are threatened with resource crunches in food, energy, environment and water.

The Commission was diverse, but the issues that we identified have implications for us all. It is very clear that effective governance today requires a dual vision: a commitment to address current, urgent needs and battle-test our policies for the years ahead. Thinking for the long-term is difficult. There is an immediacy to our news cycle and political conversations today, and politicians and voters alike respond to decisions that seem successful in the short term. We need to take concrete steps to reorient ourselves for the future, in our decisions and our public debates. Countries are already taking steps to ensure that their policies are resistant to 'future shock'. Nations like France, Argentina and South Africa include provisions for 'future generations' in their constitutions. These take into account the financial and environmental burdens we are passing on to coming generations, so that citizens are well aware of the total costs that policies incur.

An important step we can take is to encourage financial institutions to look beyond the next reporting cycle. Implementing the G30's recommendation to create financial institutions with a long-term investment mandate, which are funded by surpluses from national savings, would go a long way. The private sector remains the strongest source of growth and jobs, creating nine of every ten jobs in the developing world. In the short term, we must create an environment that enables our businesses to function effectively and create jobs, and also ensure effective laws for transparency, efficient use of resources and preventing pollution. At the same time, our firms should be independently assessed for their long-term value creation, financially and otherwise. Spotlighting this could help build a long-term focus into their DNA.

We need to also invest in and engage with young people. Everywhere, including India, unemployment and underemployment are creeping up. Approximately 75 million young people are out of work globally. And the gender divide is strong; women are performing 66% of the world's work and earning just 10% of the income. Our investments in education and health infrastructure must be closely examined. We must think about how we can take scarce health resources to a much bigger population. One way we can do this is by investing in action-focused, global networks that bring the best knowledge worldwide towards fighting disease, spreading accurate information, and implementing initiatives for better health.

We are already witnessing the power of technology in improving access. In India, we are also seeing its potential in increasing accountability with Aadhaar, a tool for governments to deliver public services, reduce fraud, and give poorer communities access to basic identity rights. The Indian government is already implementing Aadhaar to transfer LPG subsidies in the form of a direct benefit. We must deepen this technology infrastructure, giving people the tools to respond to government services, educate themselves on issues and give feedback.

Above all else, we need dialogue. We need far more voices, and far more diverse voices, in our policy process. We must ensure that on a national and global level, different communities are heard and taken into account. We talk constantly of the need for greater cooperation in our policy decisions. But achieving such a goal has never been easy; our first response is to always observe the differences between us rather than the similarities. The right solutions require us to work together, and a platform for these dialogues will help us do that, and find common cause.

We have a responsibility today. The beams of the torches we carry illuminate a long distance; the work that we do today will endure. The decisions we make now are the foundation for the decisions of the future. We should not forget this responsibility. We cannot condemn the citizens that follow us to problems they cannot solve. The sky under which we live will envelop future generations too. They should be able to look up, and be glad for their forefathers; for the decisions we made, even when they were hard ones.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, in conjunction with the release of the latter's report, Now for the Long Term, published by the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. The report's recommendations aim to break the gridlock that undermines attempts to address the world's biggest challenges; to bridge the gap between knowledge and action; and to redress the balance between short-term political pressures and a need to secure a sustainable, inclusive and resilient future. To see all the posts in the series, click here. For more information on the report, click here.

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