“The Global Business Network was founded in 1988 as a think tank to shape the future of the world. It’s succeeding.”
“Reality started turning to smoke, however, as I listened to the people on board bartering the globe. Those identifying themselves as Middle Easterners and Africans — controlling the world’s gold, oil, diamonds, and rare earths — quickly made deals that they said raised US$300 billion.”
“Sideshows abounded. The fool Brazilians cutting down the planet’s oxygen production, it was agreed, must be dealt with. So the wasteland of the Sahara would simply have to be forested. Africa’s Rwanda-like chaos-wars might even be damped by such a project, some felt.”
“In one dimension, this was all a game. A trivial little game really, conducted by an outfit that at one level is only a vanishingly tiny $4.5 million international consulting company — Global Business Network.
But that is only one layer of reality.”
“The GBN members who rehearsed the future on that boat hailed from the Singapore Ministry of Defense, the Australian department of taxation, the Mexican Stock Exchange, the London Stock Exchange, Volvo, Fiat, Petroleos de Venezuela, Allstate, DuPont, ARCO, Saatchi & Saatchi, the American Express Bank in London, and the Executive Council of the Club of Rome. And that scarcely begins to define the group. For spice, there were the likes of Jon McIntire, former manager of the Grateful Dead, and theoretical neurophysiologist William Calvin.”
Nor does that game and list of players delimit the group’s ambitions. The agenda for the next day was modestly labeled “The Restructuring of the World Economy.”
Toward the end of the boat trip, Jay Ogilvy, a co-founder of Global Business Network, reclined in a rattan deck chair of the style favored by those who, back in the ’40s, created our modern world.
“I like this,” he said, sipping his sauvignon blanc as he gazed at the bosom-like hills of Marin.
“I like it a lot.”
He was referring to the pleasures of lording like a potentate over a rented boat.
But once again, not entirely.
Ogilvy is one of five white men of a certain age who, in 1988, created a company/think tank/men’s club whose explicit purpose is to shape the future of the world.
It is succeeding.
The Joint Chiefs of staff, for example, hired Global Business Network to help figure out what the nature of military threats to the United States might be for the next 30 years. (The most challenging possibility: what would they do should they face decades of peace?)
How about the LA riots and the collapse of the California economy? GBN helped Pacific Gas and Electric Company anticipate the consequences of both, causing the utility company to put major and early emphasis on convincing industry not to leave Northern California.
Back when the Japanese stock market was flying and Japanese car companies seemed invulnerable, GBN helped Nissan North America Inc. imagine how it would stave off bankruptcy and where it might move its factories if, as actually came to pass this year, the unthinkable happened and the yen dropped below 100 to the dollar.
Back when AT&T thought of itself as a collection of telephone cables, GBN helped the company imagine the modern world in which mobile communication defines the future, and entertainment drives the system.
What happens when broadcast television collapses and the underpinnings of entire industries disappear? That was of interest to Leo Burnett Company, one of the world’s major advertising agencies; Universal, one of the world’s biggest producers of broadcast programming; and ABC, the television network – all clients of GBN who listen to its advice.
How will we handle the crisis when, as seems plausible later this decade, half of the US nuclear-power-generating capacity becomes too expensive to operate? GBN has thought about it.
What happens if computer shopping kills off every mall? A retailer with gross annual sales larger than the GNP of some European countries keenly wanted to know. They went to GBN for a hint.
Suppose the Asian economic miracle fails, brought down by regional wars and a bellicose China, and the whole territory begins to look like El Salvador in the ’80s?
GBN has profited from untangling concepts like “loyalty,” “altruism,” “community,” “honesty,” “individualism,” “justice,” and “fun” for Dentsu Inc., the Japanese advertising agency that is the largest in the world.
GBN is currently indirectly helping the White House plot a course for sustaining the planet should there come a world ecology crisis — a sudden shift in the Gulf Stream brought on by global warming, for example, coupled with the aforementioned nuclear crisis.
In the world of consulting, this is beyond all imagining. “Given GBN’s size, it’s an absolute miracle that I’ve even heard of it, much less that I have an image of it” as a world leader in futurism, said Melvyn Menezes, manager at Gemini Consulting, the $516 million Morristown, New Jersey-based firm which has offices around the world.
But then again, at only one plane of truth is GBN a consulting company. In its other, more mysterious guises, GBN pops up in the darnedest places.
When a very informal group of GBNers, as they call themselves, became interested in the future of money, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco was so impressed with the intellectual and financial power and connections of those who asked for the visit, it rolled out the chief operating officer. As he presided, woodenly, a rather more fluid woman staffer described her plans to have the Fed electronically dematerialize the world’s checks. An encryption hacker with a dastardly imagination brought along by the GBNers grilled her about the security of these trillions. As an aside, she discussed the resiliency of $100 greenbacks as the currency of choice in some 30 countries.
The day before, when Genentech Inc., one of the world’s leading biotech companies, had discovered GBN was coming, it was sufficiently awed that it rolled out its director of bio-organic chemistry, director of pharmaceutical R&D, director of business development, and several of its hottest, young, jeans-clad scientists. The primary thing the GBNers learned from this encounter was that when bioengineers create new forms of life, they rarely, if ever, discuss the ethics and societal implications of what they’re doing. “Just wait till this technology moves off-shore,” said GBN co-founder, Stewart Brand. “The developing countries’ corporate motto is gonna be” — he smirked and waved his hand — “Ahhhhh, Just Do It.”
A private computer bulletin board through which members stay in touch reveals why “Global” is this brotherhood’s first name. Members chew to boredom the technical vexations of reaching the Internet from the remote portions of extinct empires. It’s the kind of complaint that is really a subtle form of one-upmanship: it announces one’s arrival in, say, Tashkent, with an assignment important enough to require a laptop.
Indeed, GBN has influenced your life. The magazine you’re holding in your hands was co-founded by Executive Editor Kevin Kelly. Kelly is a member of the GBN cabal. To the cognoscenti, the GBN inspiration has been obvious — perhaps essential — in every issue of Wired.
The origins of Global Business Network, oddly enough, lie in the oil business. The reasons for its existence can be traced back to the ’60s, 20 years before GBN was founded.
The golden age of American stability — the ’50s — was breaking up on a number of sharp rocks: the Baby Boom, contraception, wars of national liberation, drugs, new technology, the rise of the Pacific Rim, and rock and roll.
It was abundantly clear to those who wished to think about it — markedly few of whom were in the Fortune 500 — that not only was change and upheaval upon them, but it was not going to stop. In fact, even change was changing — becoming unprecedented in magnitude and ever more impossible to prophesy.
This was not so obvious a proposition as one might think. The strategic planning of the time assumed one could project existing realities out in a more or less straight line and achieve satisfactory results. If General Motors was the world’s preeminent automobile manufacturer, it would continue to be so. If IBM based its business on mainframes, that would be OK forever. Rapid discontinuous change? Why plan for that? Hadn’t happened much in 25 years.
But one year, 1973, changed everything. The quadrupling of energy prices redrew the world’s power map and fundamentally rocked the industrial economies. Only one organization, Royal Dutch/Shell’s Group Planning, anticipated the energy crisis. Don’t take my word for this. The evidence is presented in Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power, the bestselling 1992 Pulitzer winner that gives Shell’s Group Planning the credit. (Yergin, too, is a member of GBN. Watch the wiring diagrams here. This fraternity is not called the Network for nothing.)
It is virtually impossible to overestimate the importance of foreseeing that radical discontinuous change in the world of oil prices back in the ’70s. The planners at Shell were not only pioneering a new way of thinking about the future; they had so much confidence in it as to go to comrades-in-arms and tell them to end their businesses. If the consumption of oil was going to crash because of soaring prices, the economic survival of Shell depended, for example, on stopping the building of supertankers immediately. This was thought by most to be insane. Everyone “knew” the oil industry to be invulnerable. Friendships terminated. Anguish ensued.
But Shell Group Planning, whose alumni would eventually found GBN, had it absolutely right: as a result, in 1990, Shell won its 70-year war with Exxon, passing it to become the largest oil company in the world. Group Planning was also right in predicting the second price shock in 1979, with its attendant upheavals, and the ultimate price collapse of the ’80s that led to, for example, the economic depressions of Houston and Denver.
For an encore, Group Planning also anticipated the rise of Gorbachev and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Thus, it is little surprise that in 1988, a year when Pentagon planners were saying that for the next 30 years, without question, the major threat facing the United States would be the Soviet Union, the very first sentence of the first scenario book that the newly formed Global Business Network wrote, was “The Cold War is over.”
Global Business Network was founded by Shell alumni such as Peter Schwartz and Napier Collyns to be a sort of Group Planning not just for one company, but for the world. Today, even the Pentagon is impressed, for GBN’s kind of thinking is becoming recognized as the cutting edge of “futurism.”
GBN’s renown is largely due to the work of a Frenchman, Pierre Wack (pronounced “Vack”), who as head of “business environment” research for Shell Group Planning in the ’70s, helped pioneer an utterly improbable idea.
Wack burned incense in his office and spoke in riddles and parables. His speeches were mesmerizing, like those of a stage magician. When he retired in 1981, it was to a medieval château in the south of France. He looks like Yoda.
Wack claimed that if the rules of the world were constantly changing, it was hopeless to get the “right” forecast. Hiring more or better forecasters to project existing realities in a straight line was pointless. The stakes were too high, the changes too widespread. Just look at the unexpected upheavals of feminism, to pick one example. Who would have guessed back in 1970 that women entering the workforce in America would help cause the number of cars on the road to double, and all-day traffic jams to become common?
The only stability, he argued, was in accepting uncertainty. Organizations would have to be systematically open to heresy.
Wack thus developed “scenario planning.”
Scenario planning is gracefully described in The Art of the Long View, by the man who in the ’80s held Wack’s old job at Shell — GBN co-founder Schwartz. Scenario planning is the methodical thinking of the unthinkable. It searches for wisdom in unusual places. It assumes that there will never be enough information on which to base a decision, if that decision requires certainty about the future. Therefore, it is important to prepare a wide range of possible decisions based on an entire range of possible futures. Never being wrong about the future is better than occasionally being exactly right.
In this view, the best way to deal with the possibility of falling over a cliff is to help people figure out in advance how tall and steep the cliff is. Also to calculate how many different kinds of cliffs there are. And how to recognize when a cliff is coming, and which kind it is.
This is not trivial. Not only must one know what possible futures exist, but one must know how to recognize into which previously anticipated future one is entering. For, as Cicero wrote, “It was ordained at the beginning of the world that certain signs should prefigure certain events.”
One astonishing example of scenario planning in action occurred in the early ’90s. At the invitation of a multiracial group of South Africans, Adam Kahane, a Global Business Network member and alumnus of Shell Group Planning, shouldered no less a task than seeing whether scenario planning could help turn that pariah nation into a multiracial democracy.
The Mont Fleur scenarios — as they became known, after the small town near Stellenbosch, South Africa, where, in 1991, they were first devised — were the first in the world to attempt the turnaround of an entire country.
These Mont Fleur tales tried to describe nothing less than the ways the world might be tomorrow.
The amazing thing about them is that their narrative power was so compelling that they caused everyone from the radical African National Congress to the crypto-fascist National Party to agree objectively that they were accurate descriptions of the possible future realities.
There were four main futures for South Africa. Everybody, after intensive discussion, agreed that the following were logical and plausible:
> “The Ostrich Scenario.” If the white power structure just stuck its head in the sand – did not face the world economic and political isolation, did not deal with internal black unrest except by repression, and did not conduct negotiations with the majority – the result would be massive internal resistance, international condemnation, violence, flight of capital and skills, and economic deterioration. Then things would get really ugly.
> “The Lame Duck Scenario.” If negotiations did occur, but the result was a grudging transition to the new, in tiny steps and dragged out indefinitely, the country would be marked by indecision, lack of confidence, lowest-common-denominator waffling, uncertainty, and a resultant lack of outside capital infusions to either turn the economy around or solve social problems. Nobody would be truly satisfied.
> “The Icarus Scenario” (fly now, crash later). Suppose negotiations occurred, and the transition to the new was rapid and decisive, but the result was a populist government that went on a huge spending spree to try to cure all the problems of generations overnight. As has happened so often in Latin America, deficit spending would cause a brief boom, but ultimately the country would become an economic basket case, and the poor as well as the wealthy would end up worse than before.
> “The Flight of the Flamingos Scenario.” Flamingos take off slowly, but fly high and together. In this scenario, negotiations and a quick transition lead to effective, sustainable, clean, inclusive government, generating the economic growth that allows social problems to be addressed. Everyone lives happily ever after.
The amazing thing about these scenarios is not that they were drawn up. The amazing thing is that they had such power — were logical, persuasive, easily understood and communicated — that to-the-death enemies, all of whom had it in their power to prevent the flamingos from taking off, began to see a feasible, positive path toward a successful national democratic future together.
The beauty of such scenario thinking — whether in South Africa or elsewhere — is that it basically allows people to tell each other stories about how the world might work. The key element is not whether they are “right” or “wrong.” The key element is a sort of literary criticism, in which people dig down to understand the assumptions and perceptions that underpin the imaginations in each scenario, and evaluate their plausibility, their credibility.
This is not a linear, mechanistic, numbers-driven process. It is more of a dance. The process is sufficiently intuitive that, back on the GBN computer network, I discover that one of the more elegant participants is an artist — Brian Eno, the Grammy Award-winning experimental musician.
Such storytelling also allows people to find the most pleasing scenario. Then they can start figuring how to make it happen, as was the case in South Africa. It is all rather like the way a painter creates a new work. Indeed, the point is not to focus on outcomes so much as to understand the forces that would compel the outcome; less on figures, more on figure-ground.
Quite a stunt.
In fact, during the day I first encountered GBN — as mysterious people filled my head with far-out ideas — the first thing that popped into my mind was Isaac Asimov.
On August 1, 1941, Asimov began a series of stories that came to be known as the “Foundation” series. In it, a conspiracy of high-minded people had figured out a science called “psychohistory” that could reliably anticipate the future.
They foresaw a coming galactic Dark Age and launched a plan to cause — to force — a future in which enlightenment would return and triumph over brutal barbarism and savage warfare in only 1,000 years, rather than the 30,000 that it would otherwise require.
At any rate, that first night I could only think one thing about GBN: Holy shit. This is The Foundation.
Subsequent events have only marginally disabused me of this framework of understanding.
One of Wack’s iconoclastic beliefs was in putting a premium on listening to heretics — whom he called “remarkable people.”
In this view, all the statistical data in the world is of less value than a bracing afternoon with an outcast, renegade, nonlinear thinker.
The members of GBN themselves are such “remarkable people.” Co-founder Peter Schwartz, 48, for example, has a welcoming smile, quick wit, halo of hair, and full beard. He resembles the genial host of that kind of restaurant where large men eat large steaks while making large decisions. He is by training an astronautical engineer. He worked for NASA. This allows him to get off lines like, “I am a rocket scientist. I can tell you. Scenario planning is not rocket science.”
Schwartz has also studied Tibetan Buddhism and worked closely with Willis Harman, a key figure in the transpersonal psychology movement in San Francisco. Before accepting a post at Shell’s Planning Group, he worked at SRI International, the famed Menlo Park, California, research outfit that came up with the widely used psychographic measuring system known as VALS (for “values and life styles”). SRI also developed the computer mouse. Schwartz’s is a tame résumé by the standards of GBN.
Member Peter Gabriel, for example, the innovative rock musician, won an MTV Video Music Award for his “Kiss That Frog” video. Rusty Schweickart, who was the lunar module pilot of Apollo 9, is a co-founder of the Association of Space Explorers, an international professional society of astronauts and cosmonauts. Mary Catherine Bateson is the author of With a Daughter’s Eye, a memoir of her parents, pioneering anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead. Doug Carlston is head of Brøderbund, the world’s hottest producer of learning software like “Living Books” and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Orville Schell is the widely read China scholar. Alex Singer directed episodes of some of televisions best series, including Lou Grant, Cagney and Lacey, Hill Street Blues, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. There are a ton of members focused on the transformation of the former Soviet bloc.
I gotta tell you. This makes for one hell of a cocktail party.
Okay, so Royal Dutch/Shell was a major influence on GBN; SRI was another (co-founder Ogilvy is also from the latter). If scenario planning is its engine, remarkable people are its fuel.
Its product, however, is nothing less than accelerated evolution. Such rapid evolution is frequently described as “group learning.” Its value is stunning. It assumes that morphing into new shapes is the only sustainable advantage any competitive organization has.
This ability to morph is embedded in GBN itself, which, from its offices in an industrial neighborhood of Emeryville, California, can and does — with only 30 employees — present itself in so many bewildering guises that describing it as a tiny consulting company with 55 major corporate clients is as silly as describing Yale’s “Skull and Bones” as just a fraternity.
GBN is a “network,” which by definition connects to other power structures. There are also different ways in which a person can be inside or outside the organization. That makes GBN like the elephant being felt up by the blind men. Its elements can add up in mysterious and perplexing ways.
At its core GBN is a cause, a club, a conspiracy, and a collection of highly energetic particles aimed at bumping up against huge organizations with positive results.
“It’s a convention of curious kids,” says Eric Best, a GBN staffer. “They want the opportunity and license to explore anything with the smartest people they can find.
“At a time of macro change, it’s a collection of magpies and blue jays that set up the screeching when a big animal moves in the forest — because the forest needs that. When we tried to boil it down to two or three words, the phrase ‘ruthless curiosity’ came up.”
GBN can come together in so many ways that describing it organizationally is an almost hopeless task other than to note that there are basically four classes of connection: the five co-founders, the staff, about 90 network members (the eclectic braintrust), and the 55 corporations that are paying customers.
More satisfying than presenting a wiring diagram of GBN is to say how it feels.
Global Business Network, first of all, has an Anglo-American cast.
The grand old man of the organization is co-founder Napier Collyns, 67. An avuncular British liberal of keen insight and random concentrations, one would almost expect him to be a dedicated breeder of orchids.
Coming from the London office of Shell, Collyns helped impart a scholarly, tolerant, upper-crust seasoning to GBN. He is the kind of person who winces when pressed about the profit-making aspects of Global Business Network. That all seems so, rather, base.
GBN, however, also has a California capacity for American boogie. That is brought to it in part by Stewart Brand, 55, another co-founder. Brand has been an American cultural icon for half his life. This is the man who, in the ’60s, won the National Book Award for inventing The Whole Earth Catalog. Its motto was so American as to bring a tear to the eye: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” That might as well also be the motto of GBN.
In the ’80s, Brand stuck with his maxim by creating the Well, one of the nation’s most influential computer bulletin boards, with which GBN trades staffers, and through which – on a private conference – GBNers stay in touch. (The Well, in turn, feels like a San Francisco bar fight.)
Brand also has become the distinguished chronicler of MIT’s Media Lab — where, it has been said, “the future is invented.” His interest in the implications of cyberspace continues to be a recurring preoccupation of the members of Global Business Network.
There is another sense, however, in which GBN feels Anglo-American. This allegedly universal set of iconoclasts is relentlessly white and male and middle-aged — even more so than many dinosaur American corporations. Discussions of music tend to focus on the avant-garde, the experimental, jazz, and classical.
While GBN’s European, American, and Asian clients from governments to oil companies to telecommunications conglomerates are geographically, culturally, and racially quite diverse, there are only 15 women in the core network of 90 GBNers, and only one black, one Latino, and one Asian.
Collyns gets quite defensive when this is pointed out. “If anyone knows of a professional scenarist with lots of experience who is a woman, please let us know. Training takes longer,” he harrumphs on the computer network. Everyone points to the misogynistic aspects of the oil and gas industry from which scenario planning sprang as the historical precedent GBN has to overcome. Stewart Brand points to the number of women and minorities at a recent scenario training exercise as the beginnings of a new and virtuous circle.
Barbara Heinzen — who made it through Shell to become one of the world’s few woman scenarists, and who is a member of GBN – does not buy all of this. “There is some diversity,” she noted, “but not as much as we might see in another three to five years’ time, if we continue to develop as a truly global network.”
But the women and the minorities who are part of GBN are remarkably inclined to cut the organization some slack. They point to the omnidirectional, informal, friendly, and open-minded atmosphere.
Nancy Hicks Maynard, the former publisher of The Oakland Tribune who has been a panelist on Face the Nation, Meet the Press, and Washington Week in Review, agrees. “I’ve spent a lot of time working on issues of diversity. But I’ve been very pleased with the reaction to what I have to bring to GBN. Not necessarily being a black woman, but to my work experience, where I’ve lived — the way my crazy brain is wired.”
She compares GBN positively to outfits that may appear more diverse, but, “There’s 10 of us, and two of that: there’s a very mechanical feel to it that is not at all welcoming to the people being included. They are not there for who they are in a deep sense — who’s a good linear thinker, who’s an iconoclast, who’s a good convergence thinker, bringing the pieces together. GBN just feels comfortable.”
GBN feels articulate, artistic, even literary, as well as visionary. It’s quite charming to be rafting down the Rio Chama in northern New Mexico on a GBN expedition in which you’re pulling an oar next to Joe Traub, a pioneer of the science of “complexity,” or launching a pirate raid/water fight against the boat of Pamela McCorduck, an explorer of hypertext — a new medium that allows her to represent memory as a dynamic, complex system. All the while, Peter Warshall, the ecologist, is describing the complexities of the wilderness through which you float, and Lee Schipper, the transportation visionary, is doing a Lenny Bruce shtick. Just as fascinating are the paying clients, like Robert Salmon, the Parisian vice chairman of L’Oréal — an outfit deeply interested in GBN’s take on the future of women around the world.
GBN feels powerful. A high-ranking corporate officer can get quite upset if you present him with a convincing scenario that suggests an entire multibillion-dollar class of investments on which his company has depended for generations might well become worthless within the next five years.
(This sort of thing is also rather fun.)
Finally, GBN feels optimistic.
At an April GBN meeting, one of the most closely studied scenarios was one developed outside GBN by Roger Cass, titled “The Belle Epoque.” It made a closely reasoned (and heavily caveated) case that the coming decades could see the greatest flowering of the human spirit since the Renaissance, with democracy ascendant, international trade flourishing, prosperity growing, and intellectual achievements proliferating as unlimited thoughts bloom and are cross-pollinated on the Net.
This sort of optimism is important. One of Peter Schwartz’s favorite stories, repeated over and over again, is how in 1980, IBM calculated that the world market for personal computers over the following 10 years was 275,000 machines. The actual number, he smirks, was 60 million.
IBM was caught not by its inability to foresee problems, but by its inability to imagine greatness.
That is to say, it scarcely takes a rocket scientist to generate a disaster scenario.
But to envision success takes talent.
There is a rather New Age sort of romanticism to all this. (Not surprising: when co-founder Ogilvy, 52, was a young assistant professor of philosophy at Yale University, Garry Trudeau created a Doonesbury character around him named “Dr. Consciousness.”)
Yet GBN’s headquarters are not in the rarified air of the Berkeley hills. They are in a converted factory in the industrial flatlands of Emeryville, down by the footings of the Bay Bridge. The trendy seven-foot designer grasses someone has thoughtfully planted grow through rusted triple-strand barbed wire.
“Business” is GBN’s middle name, and it ultimately lives or dies by its ability to shake down big bucks from hard-headed clients such as Sears, Ford, Hewlett-Packard, Campbell’s Soup, and Bell South. Yet the only co-founder of GBN with an MBA is Lawrence Wilkinson; characteristically, he studied classics at Oxford University before that. One wonders how this sort of touchy-feely séance plays back in the halls of power in Washington, London, and Singapore. I mean, really. Sharing knowledge as a way to achieve profit? Isn’t this all rather zen?
The answer seems to be that so many top corporate managers around the world are so utterly shell shocked by change that nothing seems implausible anymore. The rise of China, the fall of IBM, the acknowledgement by many that they have absolutely no idea what a career in their industry will look like in 20 years, much less how to educate and prepare their staffs for that future — all they know is that business-as-usual means death.
To the extent that scenario planning offers any logical path at all, GBN starts looking good to business.
Capitalists have deeply internalized, for example, the lesson of laughing at W. Edwards Deming, the American statistician whose “quality management” ideas led the Japanese to glory. They don’t laugh so much any more at any idea — no matter how outlandish it may sound on the surface — if there seems to be a kernel of opportunity in it. After listening to a few Genentech scientists at a GBN conclave talk seriously about someone creating a slave class of genetically modified chimps, very little else a corporate officer hears at a GBN meeting seems preposterous. Besides, if it’s the chief economist of the American Express Bank in London sitting next to you who’s just said something weird, one feels less self-conscious about stretching one’s thinking.
“I’ll go out on a limb and take a stab at articulating the ‘capitalist’ perspective on this rather unique breed of cat,” posted Dan Simpson, director of strategy and planning at The Clorox Company, a GBN client member.
“GBN is a rather unique set of competencies and connections,” he wrote, “that offers the businessperson three things:
Food on the Future (challenges to thinking about the future);
Food on the Present (challenges to rethinking the present differently).
“Whenever I refer colleagues to GBN, it is always in response to the question, Who would you recommend to help us in developing our very first set of scenarios?
“The network is a curious blend of scientists, musicians, artists, economists, anthropologists, and information technology gym rats who form a mosaic by which us capitalists can view our business environment and even our company.”
Another corporate client, J.R.W. “Wick” Sloane of Aetna, adds, “People are hungry for new views. The current argot is outside-the-box thinking. By and large, people believe that systemic shocks will make or break companies, and that little curiosities today could be major trends soon. Environmentalism is one example. Thirty years ago a quirky movement. Superfund today.
“I take the GBN mailings and send them out to about 100 people from time to time. People are fascinated, interested, and look for more.”
In order to close the circle on these futurists, I asked Peter Schwartz to give me three scenarios for the future of GBN, at least one of which would have to be The Official Future.
He complied, but in such a corporate way as almost to lull me into the belief that his was indeed nothing more than a tiny little company housed in a converted factory.
The Official Future involves GBN spinning off television shows for PBS, new publications, that sort of thing. The most interesting offshoot in this scenario addressed that age-old question: if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich? “We find that we are in a position to see a lot of companies that are emerging intriguingly in new fields,” Schwartz said. “We’re thinking about starting up a venture fund to invest in them.” Entry would be on the order of $5 million a pop.
But the other scenarios were pretty much what you’d expect of any young company. In “Slow Slide,” the phone stops ringing. “Wildest Dreams” involves an extraordinarily high buyout bid from one of consulting’s giants.
Not a whole lot in these scenarios about The Men’s Club, or The Shape Shifter, or The Foundation, or even Remarkable People. It is enough to shake one’s belief that the Global Business Network might be anything extraordinary.
But then, but then….
Back on GBN’s private computer network, Sloane, the insurance executive in Connecticut, posted to the group asking for information about how things were going in South Africa.
From Cape Town came back no less an authority on the subject than Adam Kahane, that instigator of the Mont Fleur scenarios that changed the country.
Reading the words Kahane typed to his fellow GBNers, I once again flashed back to Asimov and his depiction of The Foundation. Kahane’s eerie posting reminded me of a passage in Asimov in which an agent for The Foundation’s founder, Hari Seldon, is speaking to a new recruit:
“‘You must realize that Dr. Seldon’s plans include all eventualities with significant probabilities. This is one of them. It will end well; almost certainly so for the project; and with reasonable probability for you.’
“‘What are the figures?’ demanded Gaal.
“‘For the project, over 99.9 percent.’
“‘And for myself?’
“‘I am instructed that this probability is 77.2 percent.’
“‘Then I’ve got better than one chance in five of being sentenced to prison or death.’
“‘The last is under one percent.'”
For it is possible to get the giggles about the work of GBN at the same instant one realizes it can be deathly serious. Kahane, for example, referred to the scenarios South Africa had in fact gone through on its way to joining the rest of the globe in a marvelously camp secret-agent-sounding burst: “We’re in Flamingos now. Icarus is still a danger — but one that is present in everyone’s mind, and is therefore less likely to occur. Lame Duck is also less likely for the same reason. Ostrich is past now. The MF [Mont Fleur] team will be reconstituted (with a wider range of viewpoints) this August. I will facilitate again. Two key members of MF-1 are now in the Cabinet.”
Peter Schwartz, the spark plug of GBN, did not giggle online. He of course took it all seriously.
“Since Flamingos was the most balanced and optimistic scenario, it is an interesting outcome,” he mused. “It is rare that the best case is the real outcome.”
“On reflection,” wrote Schwartz, the Hari Seldon of GBN, “it would be interesting to explore why that was so.”
Life is not going to be easy in the 21st century for people who insist on black-and-white descriptions of reality. The shape of the truth isn’t static; it shifts depending on where one stands. Bottomless truth lies in the gray.
There are multiple layers of truths about this organization. GBN is a network. All networks shimmer with gray boundaries, vague membership, and multiple – often contradictory – goals. Like the search committee for the MacArthur “genius” grants, Global Business Network assumes that if you are one of the hundred-or-so remarkable people in whom they might have an interest, they know how to find you. It’s spooky.
And the network is a tangle. This article on GBN was commissioned by a magazine whose executive editor is a member of GBN. It is running in a magazine which mentions a GBN member in almost every issue. Four GBNers have already been on its cover. And, as I mentioned at the beginning, it was written by a journalist who is a member of GBN.
Hari Seldon would definitely get a kick out of this.
Who’s Who in GBN:
A sampling of GBN’s member roster turns up a collection of heretics and remarkable people:
a film and television actor and one-time leader of the Diggers, the famous commune formed by members of the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the Haight-Ashbury of the ’60s.
cyberpunk icon and author of four science-fiction novels and the nonfiction The Hacker Crackdown.
the godfather of nanotechnology, the incipient revolution in manufacturing based on the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules.
founder of Smith & Hawken, the ecology-friendly gardening enterprise, and host of the PBS series Growing a Business.
author of Machines who Think and four other books on the intellectual impact of computers.
a founder of the cyberpunk vein of fiction writing and author of Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, and Virtual Light.
a musician and pioneer of the virtual reality industry.
co-founder of Sun Microsystems, the pioneer in powerful workstations.
a writer and producer who has seen his movies WarGames and Awakenings nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Picture Oscars.
the developer of Lotus 1-2-3 and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the advocacy group for computer users.
co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute and America’s foremost seer on energy futures.
the author of Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father and a prominent writer on the Mexican-American immigrant experience.
co-founder of Thinking Machines Corp., the trailblazer of massively parallel computers
co-author of the ground-breaking The Limits to Growth.
one of the few futurists who saw the feminist revolution coming.
co-founder of the Esalen Institute, the source of the human potential movement.
a beat poet and a leader of the ’60s cultural revolution.
senior vice president of technology and environment for Rubbermaid Inc., the innovative creator of mundane and necessary household items.
head of Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment.
John L. Petersen,
an expert on the changing nature of the concept “national security.”