Our Longpath future?
Forget short-termism: it’s time to think longpath
When Abbot John de Sais laid the first stone of a church in a tiny central England town in 1118, he set in motion a construction project that would culminate in 1237 with the completion of Peterborough Cathedral — the grandest structure in England at the time and a harbinger of the Gothic style that came to define British architecture for the next 500 years.
De Sais was long dead before the project was complete, but that didn’t stop him.
Fast-forward to the US housing bubble of 2008. Developers built McMansions for speculation. Brokers bundled house values into mortgage-backed securities that they could trade in a nanosecond. Sprawl ensued and build quality was poor. Eventually the bubble burst, prices declined, and now we are left with foreclosed homes that nobody wants. So what changed in western culture between 1118 and 2008? How did we go from building grand cathedrals to McMansions?
We lost track of time. Talk to any leading thinker and they’ll repeat the same refrain: it’s all about the big. We are in an era that needs to ask big questions, tackle big issues, make use of big data. Big problem, though: big is not big enough. To tackle the challenges of our day we must (re)introduce another dimension — time as well as space — and plot these big problems and their solutions along a broader time horizon.
It’s a simple idea, but implementing long-term global strategy is a profound challenge. Take climate change. Every scientist will tell you that the actions of individual citizens are not enough to stem rising global temperatures. The proponents of big are right: only large institutions with their vast supply chains and carbon footprint can make an impact.
However, there are significant time-based institutional obstacles that stand in the way of tackling climate change. A politician who reduces the proportion of coal energy on the grid will face the wrath of the coal lobby and the labour unions when campaigning for re-election. A CEO who seeks to implement zero-energy operations might hurt profits over the next handful of business cycles and meet the vengeance of seething stockholders when quarterly earnings are announced.
Imagine De Sais pitching his 100-year construction project to a contemporary board of directors. Does anyone think it would get built? Too often, the price for long-term vision is short-term ruin. And what’s worse: most people can’t stomach the risk. So we continue to think big, but end up acting short.
We need a framework for long-term strategy — one that is visionary yet goal-oriented. Without organising principles, it will be impossible to corral the corporations and capitals of the globe to tackle our significant long-term challenges.
To this end, I suggest “longpath”. It’s a term that connotes long-term and goal-oriented strategies. It can help leaders navigate the balance between short-term gain and long-term ruin. A CEO might say: “That may be good for the bottom line, but it poses significant risks to our longpath.”
Hopefully, the recent trend of big will herald the emergence of a longpath mentality, as leaders begin to recognise that the big challenges are also the long ones. We need a new mechanism, and in fact thesis, that will allow us to build our metaphorical cathedrals. We need a mantra that can serve as a course corrector. Let’s call that mantra longpath.