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A Radical Shift

by Rick Smyre

September 5,2006

In September, I turn 64. When one reaches the decade of the sixties, it is natural to reflect on one’s past. However, I am more concerned with the future my generation is leaving for my four grandsons, Caleb, Ian, Aiden and Keifer.

When my class graduated from Davidson College in 1964, we thought we were being prepared to live, work, worship and lead in the same type of society that existed when my Dad's class graduated there in 1934. However, since 1964 our society has experienced birth control, Vietnam, landing on the moon, economic globalization, the rise of world terrorism, birth of the Internet and the Web, genetic therapy, robotics, AIDS and microsensors….and we haven’t seen anything yet.

When I returned from Vietnam in 1971 to join our family textile yarn-spinning firm, I expected what I learned in my post-graduate education at N.C. State would be all I needed to be successful in the future. Unpredictable leadership challenges in business, the school board, and chamber of commerce forced me to begin to rethink what I had been taught.

Over the past thirty years, I have come to the conclusion that we live in a time of historical transformation and we need to challenge all our underlying assumptions, whether it is how we educate and learn, how we engage in economic development, how we relate to each other, and, especially, how we think.

We face nothing less than mega changes in the human condition as transforming technologies, global warming, and clashing cultures reframe our human condition.

Peter Drucker wrote:

In a few hundred years, when the history of our time will be written from a long-term perspective, it is likely that the most important event historians will see is not technology, not the Internet, not e-commerce. It is an unprecedented change in the human condition. For the first time - literally - substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.

I have come to the conclusion that the ways we are educating, leading, doing economic development and governing is inappropriate for a future that will be increasingly fast-paced, interconnected and complex. We will need to honor our traditions and yet have the maturity and introspection to challenge all our previous truths.

Twenty years ago I made the conscious decision to shift my focus for life in a radical way. I became a professional futurist. It was based on Drucker’s idea that we were not preparing for the future effectively.

The Charlotte region has had the good fortune to have a good geographical location, good climate, and excellent leadership. It has prospered in a time of economic progress known as globalization. My concern is that the ideas and methods that have brought us existing human progress will need to be rethought.

As an example, “progress” over the last two hundred years has been based on individuality, competition, and linear thinking. The concept of attaining and maintaining independence has been at the core of our society. However, in a world of constant change and increased connections, we would be less than rational if we did not adapt to the needs of an emerging society whose fundamental principles are shifting to interdependence, deeper collaboration and non-linear thinking (the basis for innovation). Few people have recognized that the very ideas that have made us so successful in the past can be expected to be the barriers to success in the future if we do not learn to adapt. It is important to realize that we are moving into an Age of Connections.

In such a world of varied and transforming conditions, there is no standard model, no one way to do things, and the traditional concept of practicality is obsolete as continuous innovation rules.

For us to respond to Drucker’s challenge to be prepared for informed and appropriate choices, we will need to develop new capacities for a different kind of future. Our COTF network is working to create and develop “capacities for transformation.” Visit us at We invite you to collaborate with us to explore new ideas in a journey of individual, institutional and community transformation.

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