5 Questions For Rick Smyre And Neil Richardson About America's Political Future And 'Preparing For A World That Doesn't Exist - Yet'

As we head into convention season, it has become apparent that something is broken in America's federal politics. Gridlock has ground much of government to a halt and the process of choosing presidential candidates has never been so drawn out, expensive, and for many, disheartening. According to a recent Gallop poll, Party affiliation has dropped to a new low. People are asking: Is the Federal system failing its citizens?

Rick Smyre and Neil Richardson are futurists who have seen the growing dysfunction of government coming for some time. Their book, Preparing for a World that Doesn't Exist - Yet, offers some surprisingly optimistic pathways for a more vibrant and more resilient future in politics, economics, community development, education and healthcare. The book's launch takes place Saturday, July 23rd at the 50th World Futures Conference in Washington D.C. This falls right in between the Republican and Democratic Conventions - as if they are two slices of bread, and the book launch is the sandwich filling. I decided to interview Smyre and Richardson about the book, with a focus on what needs to change in our political process:

Question 1: Why do you think the federal political system is in trouble, and what do we need to do to fix it?

Answer: The federal system is broken. It no longer works as it did 200 or 50 years ago, perhaps even 20 years ago. All systems evolve and transform over time to be able to adapt to constant change. A key problem with the political system in the United States is that fundamentally it is the same system as it was when George Washington was president. It was designed to slow down decision-making to insure that the principle of "sovereignty of the people" limited the power of government. When mass communication and the Internet emerged, it created a context of real time, exponential change. As a result, our representative system of government began to struggle to deal with complexities of the society that did not previously exist. Added to this concern is that Americans do not see themselves represented by either of the major parties and, therefore, hold a high level of distrust for elected officials who, too often, have replaced rampant self-interest for the common good.

We believe that we are in transition from an industrial society to an ecological one in which deep collaboration and interdependency increasingly will be required. Until recently leaders searched for and believed that there was "one best answer" to every problem. This reflected the Industrial Age's emphasis on efficiency and standardization. As the pace of the society and economy grew faster and faster due to the impacts of emerging radical technologies, faster travel and real-time communication, the interaction of multiple factors now predominates. Yet we are not prepared for a time that is increasingly fast-paced, interconnected and complex. All citizens are searching for new ways to feel that they can make an impact as traditional forms and methods are increasingly obsolete.

We believe that Americans want to have access to the right information at the right times in order to make informed choices. There is a strong sense that interest groups, lobbyists and the wealthy have too much influence. We propose that elected officials and citizens work together to reconceptualize how to design a system of broader and effective citizen involvement in an ongoing "futures generative dialog" that uses the power of transformational thinking and the web to co-create and birth of a new concept of the common good for the 21st century.

Question 2: In America's first elections, the population of the nation was around three million people; less than 2% of them could vote - only white, male property owners. Today, in a population of roughly three hundred million, over two hundred million can vote. This increases the gap between people and their politicians, and makes responsive democracy seem out of reach. What's the way forward?

Answer: We believe that in order to reenergize our democracy, we need to rethink how to close the gap between citizens and their elected officials. Although not necessarily advocating for direct or referendum focused democracy , we do believe that new systems of decision making will need to emerge over time in order to balance the needs of adapting to constant change, co-creating new ideas, and insuring the ability to make appropriate real time decisions as fast as possible.

For example, many, if not most politicians, base their policy initiatives on polling data. It's been our experience that policy that is driven and created from back and forth dialog is the best way to come to consensus and set the stage for decision making. For issues that are extremely complex we recommend something we call Future's Generative Dialog that builds capacities for transformation over time by seeding new ways of thinking and acting in the short-run.

The next step in democracy is Polycentric Democracy that connects networks and allows for free thinking groups to come up with original solutions. In a Polycentric Democracy, instead of networks of lobbyists and single-issue interest groups working on specific, predetermined goals, we see interlocking networks and ecosystems of diverse people and groups coming together to work on emerging issues that will be increasingly complex.

Question 3: What do you see as the role of local community governments in the future?

Answer: Local government has a responsibility to be the first responders to public challenges. It is our view that local elected officials should also be held accountable for sensing, anticipating and preparing new ways to deal with emerging issues within a "futures context", not just reacting to existing, full blown problems.

At the local and the national level, we foresee self-organizing groups of citizens forming together to dialog about and recommend imaginative approaches to deal with emerging issues. At the local level especially, we see amazing opportunities for elected officials to tap into the desire of citizens to undertake research and development and create a "citizen's congress of the future" to identify the most important issues of concern for today as well as the emerging future.

Locally elected leaders need to be facilitators and bridge builders more than they need to be autocrats or generals leading a charge. The more brains involved in parallel decision-making processes for current issues and future capacities for transformation, the better.

Question 4: At the local level, what skills will future leaders need?

Answer: Future leaders at the local and the national level are going to need to develop the abilities and skills we call "master capacity builders," such as: how to identify "weak signals" before they become trends; how to seed new ways of transformational thinking and action; how to design a system of parallel processes where "capacities for transformation" are created.

A society that is evolving from a structure of hierarchies, standard answers and predictability to one that is based on interlocking networks, multiple outcomes and a comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty, will increasingly demand thinker who can process diverse and often opposing information and make sense of it, as well as facilitators of transformational change able to connect disparate ideas, people and processes.

Also, leaders will need to be able develop the skills and techniques of "adaptive planning" when tangible strategic planning is not possible, and understand the role of networks whose connections lead to multiple outcomes and truths. Effective decision making in the future will take into account as many perspectives as possible.

Question 5: How do we get from here to there?

Answer: Our society and our economy are both changing too fast to be able to determine where "there" is more than one year out in most cases. And people are ready for change. They know the current political system of checks and balances, factional and ideological conflict is not working. We believe, more than any other time in American history people are fed up with elected officials and the network of lobbyists and wealthy special interest groups who have an outsized influence on politics.

It is time to let democracy evolve and acknowledge that ordinary residents have amazing access to information and can be engaged to help solve the most complex issues. For too long information was the ultimate powerbroker. Now with a few clicks on a search engine, one can learn and share thoughtful original research, and can dialog with neighbors near and far. It's essential we connect this creative activity with our government's decision-making processes. This will promote insight and innovation to our design of our collective future.

We see this transformation leading to a new emerging civilization, an ecological civilization. Not one defined by hierarchies and bureaucracies, but one that is interconnected, informed, imaginative, and in which all citizens are working to co-create their future.

Some things that we see happening are increasingly elegant ways that government is bringing people together to deal with increased complexity, whether using large-scale citizen input processes as was done focusing the vision on how to rebuild the World Trade Center complex, renew New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or redesign parallel processes to rethink the future of education that is happening at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, NC.

We are working with local government leaders in Washington DC and elsewhere on how to engage people authentically in the very beginning of campaigns and how to keep them engaged over time. Of special interest is helping smaller communities learn how to prepare for a different kind of future.


Neil Richardson is a strategist and public servant who specializes in smart government advocacy and integral thinking. He has worked across the United States, West Africa and in Washington, DC catalyzing democratic processes, strategic planning & civic engagement. He is currently Director of Continuing Education, Partnerships & Advancement at the University of the District of Columbia & Community College and a co-leader in the Communities of the Future network.

Rick Smyre is an internationally recognized futurist specializing in the area of building "capacities for community transformation" in local communities. A graduate of Davidson College and NC State University, he is President of the Center for Communities of the Future (COTF), an international network of colleagues and organizations in forty-seven states and thirteen countries that is based in North Carolina.

Tim Ward is the co-owner of Intermedia Communications Training and co-author of The Master Communicator's Handbook - a resource for experts and thought leaders seeking to create meaningful change.