Last week, I spent a few days in Virginia Beach and had the opportunity to visit the Fort Story Lighthouse. It is the very first public works project ever funded by the United States Government. George Washington personally reviewed the plans and selected the contractor!
While no longer in use, it is still standing — a living testament to well-designed and well-constructed public works projects. As I climbed the spiral staircase to the top (still standing tall in its third century), I was reminded how quickly our current public infrastructure is approaching crisis condition.
The American Society of Civil Engineers has issued their 2013 Report Card on America’s Infrastructure and assigned it a D+. Even though the declining condition of our infrastructure is one of the single greatest threats to our long-term economic vitality as a nation, and even though it has rapidly grown into a $3.6 trillion unfunded liability, we continue to ignore the long-term implications of failing to invest in our future and the very real costs of using short-term time horizons for our decision making.
Too many of our communities focus only on the short-term costs of investing while making believe they will never have to face the rapidly accumulating long-term costs of a decaying infrastructure. And the brutal fact is that communities which fail to think long term are destined for mediocrity and decay.
It really is no different for communities than it is in our personal life. Individuals who start planning for and investing in their future while they are young and vibrant manage to sustain a very high quality of life as they age. Those who are unwilling to invest in the future end up in their later years surviving, but rarely thriving.
If we really want our communities to offer “high quality of life” environments which are economically vibrant and sustain over generations to come, it really is as simple as utilizing Strategic Thinking to change our decision horizon away from a two-year election cycle into a two-generation decision horizon. While self-interested political thinking pushes us to make the shortest possible time horizon decisions, Strategic Thinking creates a culture that routinely considers a minimum two-generation decision horizon.
And note that a two-generation decision horizon is a MINIMUM. Many infrastructure decisions have impacts far beyond 50 years. One dynamic city I have conducted City Council retreats with for over 14 years now continues to deal with traffic issues created by streets laid out in the 1830’s for horses and wagons. The decisions made by city fathers in the 1830’s have affected not just two generations, but eight generations — and that is just so far!
Interestingly, once a community agrees their decisions should consider the impact on at least two generations to come, a huge proportion of conflict about the specifics of each decision goes away. Most political conflicts occur as a result of short-term thinking. By contrast, the very essence of a long-term decision horizon tends to create consensus rather than conflict.
The question is not, “What must we do to create high quality of life, economically vibrant communities which will sustain for generations to come?” The question very simply is, “Do we have the courage and discipline to become strategic thinkers that consider the impact of our decisions on generations to come?”