Becoming the Engines of Future Change: the Economic Manifesto of Steven Kotler’s Abundance and the I3 Summit

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Most of the books I read in my childhood came from weekend excursions to used bookstores with my mother and siblings. We spent hours roaming the racks, stretching out on the ground to test read potential additions to our home bookshelves. My mother set a budget for each of us, and so the best strategy was to read as much as we could for as long as we were allowed to stay in the bookstore, and then snag as many inexpensive titles as we could find.  As a result, our bookshelves soon became filled with dog eared paperbacks with missing covers, as well as exotic and unwanted hardcovers that others likely would have only used as doorstops. It turned out that going to used book stores was a far less expensive option than the library with its fines for late returns and penalties for damaging books, both inevitabilities in a household where the children reigned over their private stash of books like petty dictators, launching sneak attacks to steal, and then hide, the spoils of their enemy’s literary treasuries.

As the youngest in my family, I never held onto my good books for long, and so had to learn non-attachment and speed reading, as well as how to take pleasure in the literary castoffs of my siblings. I enjoyed flipping through the encyclopedias and the atlas, but my favorite book was an antiquated hardcover filled with pictures that predicted what the future would be like. Written in the late 70’s, it cast bold predictions for the way the world would be in the year 2000. There would be cities on the moon and trips to Mars, electric cars and helpful robots, and computers no bigger than a briefcase that you could plug your phone into and that could communicate in minutes with any other computer in the world through the telephone lines.

The book presented a glorious dream of the way the world could be, and I always wondered why so few of the visions it presented ended up matching with reality. I would go back to the book time and again, reading these amazing promises for the future, feeling a little bit sadder each time. Somehow, somewhere, we had failed to reach that promise, and had failed to see the magnitude of the possibilities in other avenues. But why? And what did that mean about the dreams and fears that filled our headlines now?

A computer generated image of a vertical farm.

I was reminded of those questions from my childhood when, on November 2nd, Steven Kotler, a New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize nominee, headlined the I3 Forum hosted by the Tippie School of Management. While current headlines obsess over the looming “fiscal cliff,” pundits get airtime for yet another gloomy forecast of global warming and the death of the planet, and hipsters languish apathetically in their kingdoms of kitsch, Steven Kotler is a strident voice of hope. The future he foresees in his book Abundance isn’t one of war and despair, but one where our current geometric rate of technological advancement provides the answer to all the world’s problems. Solar panels are expected to reach 40% efficiency within the next five years, becoming a viable alternative to coal power, and creating an economic model that propels the adoption of solar power in all aspects of our lives. That new, clean energy then becomes the fuel source that makes vertical farms and laboratory cultivated “test-tube” meat a reality, ensuring that we can feed the world easily and safely. This radical shift then answers the big problems of global warming by allowing more of the world to return to a wild state, enabling the biodiversity of this planet the space necessary to heal the planet. In simple terms, by changing what fuels the world, we can change everything for the better.

It’s an exciting, intoxicating vision. The night before his talk, though, several members of the Tippie MBA program met with Steven Kotler over dinner and asked him how plausible his vision really was, and what we, as future business leaders, could do to help make that vision a reality.

“Funding,” he said simply. “We need a venture capital model that can look long-term, that doesn’t need a three year return on investment. Governments can’t fund this alone. We need financial and marketing visionaries who can sell this vision to the world.”

It suddenly struck me. In my youth, I had picked up a book about the future and I had allowed it to fuel my daydreams. That had been good, and powerful, and had driven me to learn as much as I could about the world. But if I did the same thing now, I would be making a terrible mistake, the same mistake that many others continued to make. Steven Kotler had presented a magical vision, but it would be too easy to sit back and daydream again, or, conversely, look for holes in his vision so that I could pick apart the dream and settle into the stupor of apathy. No, the challenge for me, for those around me in the Tippie program, was clear.

We have to be the engines of change. We have been given a vision of the future, and, yes, it is full of risk and uncertainty. Do nothing, and we will surely bankrupt our world. Or we can risk and do more than just dream. We can try, and in trying, create the change we need.

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