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What could your home be in 150 years?

Experts are bad at predictions. Together we can see the future. It's time to take a longer view, and a new Technical.ly initiative is helping regions do just that.

AI-powered Midjourney’s interpretation of the prompt: "Philadelphia skyline in the future with solar panel, robotics and futuristic elements." (Image by Chris Wink via Midjourney)

Three days before the 1929 Wall Street crash, economist Irving Fisher predicted that “stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” In 1968, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted that unchecked population growth would lead to mass starvation. In 1995, Ethernet co-inventor Robert Metcalfe predicted the internet would “catastrophically collapse” within a year.

Experts are rotten at predicting the future in their field of expertise. Pundits are about as good as random chance at picking political outcomes.

Expertise does have its place — interpreting the past, navigating the present and preparing questions for the future. Just don’t trust their predictions. This may seem counterintuitive, but gobs of research confirms it: Deep experts are the proverbial hammer in pursuit of a nail, yet the future is shaped by many tools. That’s what underpins Wharton professor Philip Tetlock’s “superforecasting:” The best predictions come from non-experts trained in probabilities and given well-rounded briefings.

That informs a new effort from Technical.ly to imagine a long-term future for local communities. What could your home look like in 150 years? It feels only natural for this discussion to include the cross-disciplinary future thinking around technology, but we’re intentionally including a wide-range of perspectives.

This spun out from Thriving, a yearlong reporting project focused on the obstacles and opportunities for communities to economically thrive. After deep-dive features and focus groups centered on 10 persona groups plus an audio documentary following one Philadelphian from each of those groups for a year, we kept returning to a big question: Who is considering the longest-time horizons in a local context? We hope to work with regions across the country.

We take inspiration from the famous Seventh Generation Principle credited to the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, people. Today’s decisions should contribute righteousness, justice and health to descendents seven generations hence. A similar lesson can be drawn from “cathedral thinking,” in which the artisan who lays down the first stone of a grand medieval structure would never live to see its completion. Last year, the book “What We Owe The Future” was a surprise breakout from Scottish ethicist William MacAskill, who argued for longtermism, or the idea that the well-being of future generations is a moral necessity.

If we care about people hundreds or thousands of miles away, we ought to care about people hundreds or thousands of years away.

As he and others argue: If we care about people hundreds or thousands of miles away, we ought to care about people hundreds or thousands of years away.

Thriving started with listening to hundreds of people over the course of a year. As the project wore on, we began including questions about the longer future.

One focus group participant chided with a rhetorical push: “We’re trying to eat today. You leaders are supposed to make sure we eat tomorrow.”

Communities are full of leaders of different forms, but fair enough. It was time to bring the question to those whose jobs included planning. A couple weeks back, Technical.ly gathered 30 cross-disciplinary community, civic, private and public stakeholders for our first longview workshop. We started in Philadelphia, though many of the lessons go far beyond.

Though a limitless array of factors could be considered, we simplified by asking our attendees to consider three mega-trends: climate change, population shifts and artificial intelligence. All participants came with professional experience, and we gave them a rudimentary briefing before we led them through a series of prompts and group discussions one afternoon. We served margaritas.

A few big-picture themes came out on the timeline of 150 years:

  • If climate change results in mass migration and extreme weather patterns, inland geographies with good infrastructure (including housing, training, fresh water and food production) and the culture to welcome, accommodate and support the development of new residents will thrive. This will require collaborative regionalism across political boundaries.
  • If global population declines, certain resource-rich communities that balance future investments with fiscal prudence will attract migrants from struggling locations.
  • If neither the most optimistic nor most pessimistic views of artificial intelligence emerge, our relationship to work and place could advance to create happier, healthier and more fulfilled residents.

Even simpler still, climate preparedness could lead to a growing region within a declining global population which could leverage artificial intelligence.

This group being from Philadelphia, the overall consensus wasn’t so cheery. Participants focused on how the crises of the pandemic era exacerbated many long-standing challenges. Gun violence is elevated and deep poverty remains entrenched. It’s easy to think nothing is working. That is alluring but unproductive. Hopelessness will only trap us in crisis.

To dislodge ourselves, guide today’s decisions with a far longer-term vision — acknowledging that each generation will adapt to exogenous changes. Humbly, here’s a first pass for one region:

In a world of changed climate, widespread artificial intelligence and declining global population 150 years from now, Philadelphia leads a cohort of mid-sized, pro-immigration international cities that are standout hubs for culture and research. Its geography remains an asset: inland from the worst of extreme weather and still in the middle of one of the world’s most dynamic, best transited and culturally significant urban clusters. The city is proximal to both climate-adaptive, super-efficient agriculture and the robust green energy sources that were successfully funded by Pennsylvania’s Shale Revolution. The racial-wealth and gender-pay gaps have been closed; gun violence is rare and the streets are clean and secure. We still have weaknesses, but we have faced our past and our truth. We invest in learning, ideas and health. Everyone has a home.

Philadelphia’s neighborhoods are famous for their people-created public art, and its infrastructure allows for flourishing multi-generational communities of varying abilities and means. A culture of entrepreneurship, innovation and advanced research ensure it both exports ideas and imports jobs. Technologies have once again transformed what work is, and the city is at the vanguard of helping residents adapt. World leaders in fields as varied as AI-powered health research, food and music and the establishment of a multi-planetary species all call Philadelphia home. The city’s debt load has been responsibly stewarded and its investments in education and invention have ensured it can navigate the falling world population. Inequalities persist but once again clever children can expect a higher quality of life than their parents. Most have more leisure time than their predecessors 150 years before. Philadelphians are happier and healthier. Philadelphia still has personality: We create arts and culture. We will still boo you.

This is not to say that this is or even should be Philadelphia’s grand vision, but it is a start. It’s work we hope to do in more places, too. More of us make better predictions than fewer of us.

Companies: Technical.ly
Series: Thriving

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