How do you look?

Image courtesy of Octavia Rosca and Unsplash

No, not your face. Your perspective. Do you look backward or forwards? Is the operating context of your life, your organization, your family, your city, your country focused on a compelling picture of the future or the sentimental memories of the past? I’ve come to believe that any human entity, from the individual known as you to the collective known as your motherland, is either looking forward or looking back. And if it’s not obvious, no entity can get ahead by looking behind. For starters, you can’t see where you are going.

My birth family looks backward. I love them but they look backward. They spend more time talking about way back when then they do about the way out there. Elon Musk looks forward. Obviously. Google really looks forward. I am beginning to wonder if Apple does too anymore. As success becomes the norm and your cash reserves cross the $250 billion mark is it possible your perspective changes? Institutions tend to look backward for wholly different reasons, which is maybe why they’re called institutions. Most liberal arts colleges are effectively bundled packages of backward-looking approaches. Which is probably why a recent Moody’s report suggests that scores of liberal arts schools are going to go out of business in the next 20 years.

Some cities and countries look backward, some look forward. I was in Dubai a few weeks ago. Dubai, one of the seven United Arab Emirates, the pretty much-fabricated city on the edge of the Arabian Gulf that was founded in 1833 but really founded when the UAE formed in 1971. Since then the city has grown from an oil-dependent hamlet of locals to a cosmopolitan metropolis of 4 million people, 90% of whom are ex-pats representing over 160 nationalities. A metropolis that has an incredibly diverse economic base, a growing innovation sector, and a commitment to being at the leading edge of pretty much everything. How did they get there? Buckets of oil money helped for sure. But I think an equally powerful factor was the simple fact that the ruler of Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum is fixated on looking forward and painting bold, compelling pictures that motivate his citizenry to look and move forward too.

During his time as the ruler of Dubai and the vice president of the UAE the Sheikh has launched a number of future-facing initiatives but none are bolder than something called Area 2071. It’s a centennial vision that is supported by a long-range, multi-faceted government plan that according to a recent article in Gulf News “…encompasses a national strategy to strengthen the country’s reputation and soft power; ensure that government revenue is diversified, relying less on oil; introduce education programmes focused on advanced Information Technology and engineering and consistently build Emirati values and ethics for future generations. Enhancing the productivity of the national economy and enhancing community cohesion are also important aspects of the project.”

The real point here is this: Area 2071 is a compelling, cohesive picture that anyone who cares a whit about the sustainable future health of the UAE generally and Dubai, in particular, can buy into, can get excited by. And that’s powerful juju.

And it’s juju that is missing in a lot of places, but particularly in the United States right now.

Let’s start with the phrase “Make America Great Again” that I suppose is as close to a Trump doctrine as we will ever get. Forward-looking? I think not. Revisionist at best. A not so subtle effort to turn back time to the days of Ozzie and Harriet and chickens in every pot. Can anyone answer what other picture the current administration has in mind? What kind of future society are they after and is that view a bold and motivating one for most of us? My sense is there is no picture other than looking backward. And that’s a recipe for, well, going backward.

Without a compelling, future-oriented holistic picture it is virtually impossible to bring the masses together, unite the political parties, to get public and private sector players partnering, to create a scenario where the whole stands a chance of being greater than the sum of the parts. A motivating, shared picture of our desired future is worth a thousand words, and potentially trillions of dollars in economic growth. No picture, no real progress, no good.

The leaders are letting us down. But it’s not just them, it’s us too. Too many of us are not asking for a forward-looking path and bold picture. We are too comfortable kvetching about the need for improvements in discrete areas. Sure we need better schools. Sure we need more accessible health care. Sure we should fix our bridges. Sure economic inequality is a problem. And of course, racism and racial inequality must be addressed. And let’s not forget the horror of the opioid epidemic. If we want to fix all of that we need to demand a bold, maybe even radical picture of the whole, a future destination of an integrated, mutually beneficial system, where all the players are on the same page, where the individual problems are recognized as connected and where the bold solutions address or take advantage of that fact.

The city of Montreal gets it. Their Strategic Plan 2020 is a motivating view of what they want the city to become, a view that includes investing heavily in building capacity and infrastructure to do a better job of moving people, employing people, attracting people and fundamentally leaving people loving Montreal. Even if it’s absurdly cold. It’s a plan that acknowledges the need for a comprehensive, connected set of really bold initiatives that literally and figuratively move the city forward. One tiny example: they invested millions in fiber optic infrastructure in a five-block radius to make it easy for visiting arts and entertainment organizations to put on events. Does your city do that?

Mine does not. I live in Boston. We do not tend to look forward, we prefer the rear view mirror. We revel in our past, we love our history, and we still refer to ourselves as the Hub, a term coined in 1858 by Oliver Wendell Holmes. But wait you say, what about all the innovation in Life Sciences, in the startup scene, and the fact that we have more educational firepower than arguably any major city in the world? You’re right, we do have that. But what we don’t have is a future picture of 21st century Boston that most of us have bought into and are marching towards. When the potential of hosting the Olympics 2024 appeared several years back the pro-faction jumped on the opportunity, claiming it would jumpstart our push into the future. The lead activist, a young man named Corey Dinopoulos wrote Mayor Marty Walsh with these words:

“It’s time for our city to welcome the Olympic torch and live up to its nickname as The Hub of the Universe in 2024!”

No small irony there. Put the historic future facing view aside, hosting would require investments in infrastructure, fixing our aging transportation system, and getting heretofore competitors to become collaborators around a shared task, creating a world-class city. The against-faction won the battle on the back of the argument that it would cost the taxpayers a lot of money. So does that mean we will never invest in our future really, because it will cost us money?

Now there is something called Imagine Boston 2030 crafted by our current mayor and his team. Well-intended, my issue with the plan is that it is incremental in its approach, it uses the word “encourage” way too many times, and lacks any kind of bold initiatives that say we’re going after a big-time future. Oh, and there is zero mention of Boston’s place in the world today and the place we want to get to tomorrow. What’s wrong with looking at the truly forward looking cities around the world and borrowing some of their ideas? But even if the plan were an amazing plan there’s still a big miss on the part of the city’s leadership. They rarely refer to it. And if it is the plan, every move should be made declaring it as the context. And the majority of the citizenry should get that. And embrace it. Like Dubai. Well our mayor just won re-election. He made no mention of the Imagine Boston 2030 plan in his acceptance speech. Not a peep.

Can a city (or country) move from backward-looking to forward fixated? You bet, if it feels enough heat and has the leadership guts. Funnily enough, I think France is a good example. Most of us would argue that France has always been a backward-looking country, reveling in its history, its culture, its perennial position as tastemakers and creators of all things good-looking, gold and delicious. And if you weren’t French, or at least French-speaking, you were pretty much less than. Remember those days? Well, those days are changing. On a visit to Paris this past June I met with a number of city leaders and members of the innovation and startup ecosystem. I came away with a resounding “mon Dieu” and a realization that much of the country is double downing on the future of France as Europe’s center of innovation across every industry, from aerospace to the arts. No vertical is exempt and they understand that a rising tide lifts all boats. They are looking forward with little hesitation. 

So what does it take for a city, state or nation to look forward?  First and foremost motivation. The leaders and populace have got to care mightily and believe without equivocation that if you don’t look forward with steely conviction you’re pretty much screwed. The Sheikh gets that. The second ingredient is courage. If you don’t go big, you might as well stay home. Big ideas get people’s attention, big ideas get people excited, and big ideas solve big problems. Small ideas solve small problems. The third ingredient, assuming we’re talking about an entity that includes more than you, is a semi-lateral consensus. In order to bring together the varying views, different disciplines, and sometimes conflicting set of motivations to craft one picture, one motivating context for all actions you need agreement. But if you go after deep agreement on every front you will end up with vanilla. The process will erode the big ideas down into wee ones. That’s part of the Imagine Boston 2030 plan’s problem. It was built on the back of interviews with 15,000 Boston residents. There’s good in that. Listening to your customer. There’s bad in that. No one ever got to a brilliant, bold outcome on the back of a committee. If everyone likes something it’s probably good, not great. And we need great plans to solve the problems that we face.

So go after semi-lateral consensus. Not unilateral because that will necessarily require the watering down of the biggest ideas.  And while the power of the combined picture once rendered will get the gang further on board you need a smaller body of brains to serve up the boldness. And it needs to be bold if you want any chance of the damn thing resonating. The reason why Mayor Walsh didn’t mention the Imagine Boston 2030 plan in his re-election acceptance speech is likely because it does not really resonate with him. He forgot about it.

So how about your city, state or nation?  Are any of these entities so critical to the quality of your life looking forward? Has their leadership painted a compelling picture that you and those around you are excited about? Is it a picture that combines practical aspirations like fixing things with pure aspirations, ideas that simply would render a more dynamic outcome for all? Is a plan that you can hold up and hold on to, that you can recite from the heart and share with consistent abandon. If not, that’s their responsibility and your opportunity. And the more of us who look forward, who demand and/or create compelling pictures and march towards them the greater the chance that the whole of our world, the whole of our country, will end up in a much better place. 

chris colbert