Bina Venkataraman
2,398,408 views • 13:10

So in the winter of 2012, I went to visit my grandmother's house in South India, a place, by the way, where the mosquitos have a special taste for the blood of the American-born.

(Laughter)

No joke.

When I was there, I got an unexpected gift. It was this antique instrument made more than a century ago, hand-carved from a rare wood, inlaid with pearls and with dozens of metal strings. It's a family heirloom, a link between my past, the country where my parents were born, and the future, the unknown places I'll take it.

I didn't actually realize it at the time I got it, but it would later become a powerful metaphor for my work.

We all know the saying, "There's no time like the present." But nowadays, it can feel like there's no time but the present. What's immediate and ephemeral seems to dominate our lives, our economy and our politics. It's so easy to get caught up in the number of steps we took today or the latest tweet from a high-profile figure. It's easy for businesses to get caught up in making immediate profits and neglect what's good for future invention. And it's far too easy for governments to stand by while fisheries and farmland are depleted instead of conserved to feed future generations. I have a feeling that, at this rate, it's going to be hard for our generation to be remembered as good ancestors. If you think about it, our species evolved to think ahead, to chart the stars, dream of the afterlife, sow seeds for later harvest. Some scientists call this superpower that we have "mental time travel," and it's responsible for pretty much everything we call human civilization, from farming to the Magna Carta to the internet — all first conjured in the minds of humans.

But let's get real: if we look around us today, we don't exactly seem to be using this superpower quite enough, and that begs the question: Why not? What's wrong is how our communities, businesses and institutions are designed. They're designed in a way that's impairing our foresight. I want to talk to you about the three key mistakes that I think we're making.

The first mistake is what we measure. When we look at the quarterly profits of a company or its near-term stock price, that's often not a great measure of whether that company is going to grow its market share or be inventive in the long run. When we glue ourselves to the test scores that kids bring back from school, that's not necessarily what's great for those kids' learning and curiosity in the long run. We're not measuring what really matters in the future.

The second mistake we're making that impairs our foresight is what we reward. When we celebrate a political leader or a business leader for the disaster she just cleaned up or the announcement she just made, we're not motivating that leader to invest in preventing those disasters in the first place, or to put down payments on the future by protecting communities from floods or fighting inequality or investing in research and education.

The third mistake that impairs our foresight is what we fail to imagine. Now, when we do think about the future, we tend to focus on predicting exactly what's next, whether we're using horoscopes or algorithms to do that. But we spend a lot less time imagining all the possibilities the future holds. When the Ebola outbreak emerged in 2014 in West Africa, public health officials around the world had early warning signs and predictive tools that showed how that outbreak might spread, but they failed to fathom that it would, and they failed to act in time to intervene, and the epidemic grew to kill more than 11,000 people. When people with lots of resources and good forecasts don't prepare for deadly hurricanes, they're often failing to imagine how dangerous they can be.

Now, none of these mistakes that I've described, as dismal as they might sound, are inevitable. In fact, they're all avoidable. What we need to make better decisions about the future are tools that can aid our foresight, tools that can help us think ahead. Think of these as something like the telescopes that ship captains of yore used when they scanned the horizon. Only instead of for looking across distance and the ocean, these tools are for looking across time to the future. I want to share with you a few of the tools that I've found in my research that I think can help us with foresight.

The first tool I want to share with you I think of as making the long game pay now. This is Wes Jackson, a farmer I spent some time with in Kansas. And Jackson knows that the way that most crops are grown around the world today is stripping the earth of the fertile topsoil we need to feed future generations. He got together with a group of scientists, and they bred perennial grain crops which have deep roots that anchor the fertile topsoil of a farm, preventing erosion and protecting future harvests. But they also knew that in order to get farmers to grow these crops in the short run, they needed to boost the annual yields of the crops and find companies willing to make cereal and beer using the grains so that farmers could reap profits today by doing what's good for tomorrow.

And this is a tried-and-true strategy. In fact, it was used by George Washington Carver in the South of the United States after the Civil War in the early 20th century. A lot of people have probably heard of Carver's 300 uses for the peanut, the products and recipes that he came up with that made the peanut so popular. But not everyone knows why Carver did that. He was trying to help poor Alabama sharecroppers whose cotton yields were declining, and he knew that planting peanuts in their fields would replenish those soils so that their cotton yields would be better a few years later. But he also knew it needed to be lucrative for them in the short run.

Alright, so let's talk about another tool for foresight. This one I like to think of as keeping the memory of the past alive to help us imagine the future. So I went to Fukushima, Japan on the sixth anniversary of the nuclear reactor disaster there that followed the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011. When I was there, I learned about the Onagawa Nuclear Power Station, which was even closer to the epicenter of that earthquake than the infamous Fukushima Daiichi that we all know about. In Onagawa, people in the city actually fled to the nuclear power plant as a place of refuge. It was that safe. It was spared by the tsunamis. It was the foresight of just one engineer, Yanosuke Hirai, that made that happen. In the 1960s, he fought to build that power plant farther back from the coast at higher elevation and with a higher sea wall. He knew the story of his hometown shrine, which had flooded in the year 869 after a tsunami. It was his knowledge of history that allowed him to imagine what others could not.

OK, one more tool of foresight. This one I think of as creating shared heirlooms. These are lobster fishermen on the Pacific coast of Mexico, and they're the ones who taught me this. They have protected their lobster harvest there for nearly a century, and they've done that by treating it as a shared resource that they're passing on to their collected children and grandchildren. They carefully measure what they catch so that they're not taking the breeding lobster out of the ocean. Across North America, there are more than 30 fisheries that are doing something vaguely similar to this. They're creating long-term stakes in the fisheries known as catch shares which get fishermen to be motivated not just in taking whatever they can from the ocean today but in its long-term survival.

Now there are many, many more tools of foresight I would love to share with you, and they come from all kinds of places: investment firms that look beyond near-term stock prices, states that have freed their elections from the immediate interests of campaign financiers. And we're going to need to marshal as many of these tools as we can if we want to rethink what we measure, change what we reward and be brave enough to imagine what lies ahead.

Not all this is going to be easy, as you can imagine. Some of these tools we can pick up in our own lives, some we're going to need to do in businesses or in communities, and some we need to do as a society. The future is worth this effort.

My own inspiration to keep up this effort is the instrument I shared with you. It's called a dilruba, and it was custom-made for my great-grandfather. He was a well-known music and art critic in India in the early 20th century. My great-grandfather had the foresight to protect this instrument at a time when my great-grandmother was pawning off all their belongings, but that's another story. He protected it by giving it to the next generation, by giving it to my grandmother, and she gave it to me.

When I first heard the sound of this instrument, it haunted me. It felt like hearing a wanderer in the Himalayan fog. It felt like hearing a voice from the past.

(Music)

(Music ends)

That's my friend Simran Singh playing the dilruba. When I play it, it sounds like a cat's dying somewhere, so you're welcome.

(Laughter)

This instrument is in my home today, but it doesn't actually belong to me. It's my role to shepherd it in time, and that feels more meaningful to me than just owning it for today. This instrument positions me as both a descendant and an ancestor. It makes me feel part of a story bigger than my own.

And this, I believe, is the single most powerful way we can reclaim foresight: by seeing ourselves as the good ancestors we long to be, ancestors not just to our own children but to all humanity. Whatever your heirloom is, however big or small, protect it and know that its music can resonate for generations.

Thank you.

(Applause)