Rethinking the Future

My grandson, Caleb, is the sixth generation of our family in Gastonia. During the ‘70s and ‘80s I had the honor and pleasure of active involvement in many ways in Gaston County. Ours is a wonderful community. I also experienced the early stages of the transition from a textile economy to a more diversified economy…one that is still emerging and not fully defined.

It was in the late ‘70s to early ‘80s before our textile plants were sold to Carolina Mills that I began to realize that I was not asking the right questions, either about our industry or about the future of our county. This was driven home to me at a Christmas social event in the ‘80s when my good friend Grier Beam, founder of Carolina Freight, said to me that he and the commissioners had made a great mistake over his 26 years as Chairman. Before I could say what a good job he had done over the years, he made a very direct and insightful comment…”Rick, our only focus was on holding taxes down. We should have provided the kind of leadership that would have helped set a vision for Gaston County.” If Grier were alive today, I think he would also have the opinion that no one group, whether the commissioners or any other, has enough foresight in this time of immense change to set vision for our county as was done in the past. This is also true, in my opinion, for any local area. We are all individually overwhelmed, and need to get as many people as possible involved in thinking about the future. For example, things now move too fast for traditional strategic planning methods to be very effective. Soon, “adaptive planning” will become the norm.

Since ’89 my focus has been on thinking about the future in new ways, and working with many others throughout the U.S. in collaboration to try to determine how we need to prepare our local communities for a different kind of future…one that will be increasingly fast-paced, interconnected and complex. It is my opinion that we spend too much time trying to make old ideas efficient in a society and world that is not just changing, but transforming from the Industrial Age to what we call the Connected Age.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned in the past twenty-five years in my profession as a “futurist” involved with our Communities of the Future Network is the need to be open to new ideas, especially ones that challenge my traditional set of strong beliefs. I used to think I had the truth. I now connect with others to search for the right questions. In working with many visionary leaders throughout the U.S. and Canada, I have come to believe that we are in nothing less that a transition of history, and that we will need to collaborate at a deeper level to identify emerging “weak signals” (new ideas and discoveries) that will transform how we educate/learn, how we do economic development, how we lead, how we govern, even how we think….especially how we think. As a result, all of our COTF work is community “research and development.”

Recently, I have begun to reconnect with old friends and colleagues in Gaston County. When they learn what I have been doing for the last twenty-five years, a question is often asked….”what does Gaston County need to do to have a vital and sustainable future?” My answer is simple….”there is no one thing, no silver bullet, that will prepare our county, or any other local community, for a different kind of future that is emerging. However, in my opinion, if many leaders and citizens are not willing to take the time to learn how our society is transforming, and develop and test new skills and knowledge that is aligned with the future, we will wonder why our quality of life and economy is not improving.

I have always thought Gaston County is a special place with many special people. It is my hope that we will be inspired to take risks together to rethink the future for the good of our grandchildren like Caleb. It will not be easy or quick…yet, nothing could have more meaning than to help each other be successful in this time of immense change.

When speaking at conferences, or recently to the leaders of Aiken, SC, I usually end with what I call a “futurist’s benediction”….it reflects my Presbyterian background:

“May you always search for new ideas,
May the winds of change be at your back, and
May the warmth of your smile encourage someone who is afraid of the future,
The courage to take that first step.”

Rick Smyre, Futurist
Communities of the Future

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