The problem with the future is there are so many of them. In one future,
we spent $10 billion on flood control in the Mississippi delta and avoided
hundreds of billions in economic losses and thousands of tragic deaths.
In another, the Y2K problem remained undetected, and for three months
in the early winter of the new century, the U.S. power grid went down
unexpectedly, killing thousands. Rogue
asteroids will be deflected from hitting Earth -- or maybe not. Terrorist
attacks on Las Vegas, or was that Dallas? Rotting infrastructure, tsunamis
in Los Angeles, melting ice caps, and more future scenarios than time,
money, or probability can ever rank in order. It's overwhelming.
before the inevitable distortions of politics.
is limited by memory, and the future by imagination. But if we simply
remember the past, we're likely to fight the last war over and over
again. And if we imagine every possible future, we risk betting on scenarios
which never materialize.
unfortunately makes clear, we have to confront the central question
facing our nation: How to manage boundless uncertainty with finite resources?
Fortunately, such challenges aren't unique to the political sphere --
they're encountered every day in business. Perhaps the approach businesses
rely on to manage risk could work equally well for government.
is to turn the problem inside out -- and concentrate on identifying
solutions, instead of stack-ranking risks. Remarkably, one size sometimes
does fit all. As used by venture capitalists, the concept is called
a "platform technology." Rather than relying on "point
solutions -- betting the ranch on a single theory of the future -- savvy
investors often reduce risk and increase returns by seeking flexibility
when the future is unclear.
platforms enable a single core technology to solve a multitude of problems
-- often problems one can only dimly envisage ahead of time. A classic
platform technology is plastic molding. Ever since The Graduate made
"plastics" a one line Haiku, the ability of plastics-molding
technology to produce an infinite variety of shapes at low cost and
in high volume has created tremendous value.
this platform took patient investment and many hands, but in the end,
it efficiently displaced one point solution after another. An entrepreneur
in the 1960s would have been wise not to buy lathes to make steel gears,
glass-blowing equipment to make soda bottles, or leather cutting and
sewing equipment to make suitcase handles. Instead, smart entrepreneurs
investing in a plastic-molding platform were able to serve all these
markets simultaneously, displacing older technologies as the opportunity
have to time the market, and they could share the capital expense of
one machine across multiple -- previously disparate -- applications.
These farsighted entrepreneurs molded a new future without needing a
is an example of another platform technology -- in this case, a common
nexus for everything from communications and news to logistics and voyeurism.
People who bet on point solutions like single-purpose data networks
or proprietary image formats, quickly found themselves outmaneuvered
and outnumbered by Internet platform adherents
this concept relate to America's disaster planning? Like our mythical
entrepreneur, we don't know exactly where and when our next catastrophe
will arise. Mere point solutions, no matter how well executed, will
always fall short. Higher levees in New Orleans, for example, would
not have spared Biloxi from total devastation. And stronger cockpit
doors won't prevent a truck-bomb attack.
to cluster important future scenarios into groups sharing related solutions,
and in doing so, dilute the risk of choosing poorly.
this is, admittedly, an unscientific list of examples, my whole career
has been spent reducing large, complex problems into actionable insights.
In that spirit, here are three potential "platform technologies"
in which America should vigorously invest:
Population Haven. Today -- as we just experienced with Katrina
-- there's no reliable system in place to quickly relocate large numbers
of people. Such a system would address multiple scenarios: everything
from tsunamis to a nuclear attack to cities made uninhabitable by
would include a clear chain of command, decentralized stockpiles of
food and shelter, staging areas, robust communications, and enabling
laws. Simultaneously, we need to rethink the role and mission of the
National Guard and the possible organization of a civilian volunteer
corps. But it requires no imagination to believe mass relocations
will be necessary in the coming years -- even if the timing and cause
Energy Cushion. In light of current geopolitical threats and worst-case
natural disasters, we would be foolish not to maintain a two-year
energy cushion from dependence on the rest of the world. That compares
to our current 40 days worth of oil in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
the Saudi oil fields could be destroyed, or volcanic clouds could
block the sun and double the need for heating oil. Our most immediate
priority should be to expand the SPR by at least a factor of 10, and,
simultaneously, to institute a national plan for emergency energy
conservation. Longer term, we should work to decentralize our energy
reserves to produce and store energy near consumers, rather than under
a few salt domes vulnerable to attack or isolation.
this solution, hospitals and other critical emergency-response centers
could tap into local energy sources even if a large central power
station had been put out of commission by a tornado or terrorism.
In other words, our emergency-ready energy network would, like the
Internet, have the ability to repair itself.
Disease Containment. This is one problem that, if we don't take
action immediately, may lead to an unrecoverable disaster that cannot
be solved retroactively with money and good intentions. Today, we
have no way to quickly detect the presence of disease, to track its
progress, treat the ill, protect the healthy, and contain the threat.
if someone poisoned the milk supply with salmonella? What if someone
made New York City uninhabitable by spreading anthrax? What if the
next plane from Hong Kong carried two passengers ill with a virulent
mutation of avian flu? The answer, obviously, is an out-of-control
disaster, if we didn't respond quickly and knowledgeably (see BW,
9/19/05, "A Hot Zone In The Heartland").
a multilayered solution, starting with detectors at all stages of
our air, water, and food supplies. Only such a system allows us to
clamp down on an outbreak before it becomes dangerous. Recent studies
suggest that one extra day's notice about a communicable disease can
make all the difference between a minor inconvenience and a true disaster.
the power of networks. Infecting one node in a network means you've
lost all the spokes. Software is essential here, too. We need the
ability to track people's medical histories via networked databases
and a more accessible national medical system.
don't have to be drags on the economy -- there are sound economic offsets
cross-subsidizing many of these investments. For example, the same system
that locates an outbreak of disease could provide key epidemiological
insights to help cure cancer. And we could shift materials and supplies
reserved for helping Americans after a disaster into the foreign-aid
supply line, before they expire.
one of the beauties of effective platforms is that they often encourage
individual initiative. Perhaps decentralizing energy distribution might
encourage municipalities to look for alternate sources of energy --
like methane from garbage dumps or solar power -- that today are difficult
must face the fact that critical programs require immediate investment.
Without them, we're doomed to incur far greater, more painful expenses
later on. Think of these platforms as insurance policies, which have
to be paid every year. Think of them as capital expenses, for which
all sound businesses accrue yearly. General solutions -- that is, platform
technologies -- represent by far, our best hope to greet the future