I experience the wisdom and essential truth of this post’s title almost daily on my way to work when I pass through New York City’s Central Park. The park is, in its way, a testament to the value of foresight. It’s not easy to get something right, but we must always keep trying.
In the 1840s, Frederick Law Olmsted led a group of local visionaries to carve out a space in the middle of Manhattan for a natural park, one that would survive in perpetuity. Its 843 acres represents a significant chunk of a rather small island holding some of the most valuable real estate in the world. That no one questions the arrangement speaks to the foresight of Olmsted and others in planning it.
The 1870s saw a big, beautiful new apartment building erected at today’s 72nd Street and Central Park West (back then still in the middle of nowhere!). It was humorously nicknamed The Dakota because it seemed so far out West.
Wow, has that part of the world changed! I know. I live there.
It is hard to imagine NYC today without the Park. In the main, most New York residents and visitors pretty much take for granted the grace and beauty of the Park and the full impact of that on the life of the City.
To dramatize the importance of foresight or lack of it, consider the following story: in the 1890s a man in the Southeast was offering business people in Savannah, Georgia an opportunity to invest in 80,000 acres of North Florida land covered with very valuable yellow pine. The offer was declined with a question/statement: “but there is no rail road.” Consider that Central Park is a mere 843 acres. What a lost opportunity to those folks in Savannah for failing to foresee that demand for that valuable yellow pine would surely bring the railroad in short order.
It is still gushing yellow pine 100 years later.
Other great examples of foresight:
- Bill Gates recognizing that personal computers would become a dominant technological and economic force in the late 20th century;
- Steve Jobs knowing what people needed and wanted before they did;
- Jeff Bezos using the internet to revolutionize commerce;
- Google reinventing search; and
- Elon Musk understanding that the age of fossil fuels is inevitably ending and our concept of both automobiles and travel more broadly must be rethought.
There are always more reasons NOT to accept a vision for the future than to embrace one. Thus, visionaries have to be stubborn and have very powerful imaginations.
What are some of today’s challenges that cry out for new visions? Here are my top three:
- How can democracies improve democratic processes and institutions to bring all their citizens together peacefully and productively?
- How can nation states resolve economic and military conflicts short of mass killings?
- How can the uncomfortable bunching of masses of people into complex cities be reversed with more people reverting to less dense populations without sacrificing much of what they seek in large cities.
Those three questions are the proverbial tip of a large iceberg we might just call ‘the future’.
The future of the USA and NYC in the 1840s had to be just as obscure then as it appears today.
If there are visible and important differences today, they are the more unconventional and smart people today and more tools at hand to imagine the future and how to improve it.
Three cheers for good old Central Park!
How about a Center Party for our national politics?