Innovation & Insights

Your Organization's Long Now

Sam Frentzel-Beyme Follow Managing Partner & Strategy Director

The Short of It

  • Thinking about longevity changes what's important.
  • Maintainability means taking into consideration all modes of addressing future problems.
  • Evolvability is building something that can still be improved upon.

I saw Brian Eno on the Colbert the other day and it got me thinking again of The Long Now Foundation (actually named by Brian Eno) and its main project these days the 10,000 Year Clock. Currently under construction in a mountain in western Texas, the clock is the tangible outgrowth of founder Danny Hillis’ fascination with the future and our relationship to it.

Here is what he said in a 01995 Wired article (in case you were wondering, the extra zero in the date is used by the Foundation to solve the deca-millennium bug set to hit in about 8,000 years):

"When I was a kid, three decades ago, the future was a long way off - so was the turn of the millennium. Dates like 1984 and 2001 were comfortably remote. But the funny thing is, that in all these years, the future that people think about has not moved past the millennium. It's as if the future has been shrinking one year, per year, for my entire life. 2005 is still too far away to plan for and 2030 is too far away to even think about. Why bother making plans when everything will change?"

To illustrate how we think about time, he goes on to recount a story of the oak beams in the ceiling of College Hall at New College, Oxford. During the last century when the beams needed to be replaced because of beetles, they used trees that had been planted in 1386 because there was a belief then by the original carpenters that oak, in the end, always succumbs to beetles. The story is a useful illustration of what it means to plan ahead and think beyond your own time horizon.* Here is a more visual way of looking at it.

All of this got me thinking of how the Long Now can be used to design better organizations. Here are the principles that Danny Hillis used in the initial stages of designing the 10,000 Year Clock.

Longevity

With occasional maintenance, the clock should reasonably be expected to display the correct time for the next 10,000 years.

Notes on Longevity

  • + Go slow
  • + Avoid sliding friction (gears)
  • + Avoid ticking
  • + Stay clean
  • + Stay dry
  • + Expect bad weather
  • + Expect earthquakes
  • + Expect non-malicious human interaction
  • + Don't tempt thieves

Maintainability

The clock should be maintainable with bronze-age technology.

Transparency

It should be possible to determine operational principles of the clock by close inspection.

Notes on Maintainability and Transparency

+ Use familiar materials
+ Allow inspection
+ Rehearse motions
+ Make it easy to build spare parts
+ Expect restarts
+ Include the manual

Evolvability

It should be possible to improve the clock with time.

Scalability

It should be possible to build working models of the clock from table-top to monumental size using the same design.

Notes on Evolvability and Scalability

+ Make all parts similar size
+ Separate functions
+ Provide simple interfaces

One of the interesting things about these principles is that they are stated as “generally good principles for designing anything to last a long time.” As most organizations providing value want to continue to operate, I think these notes provide a useful framework for thinking about organizational design and culture. I’m going to let this digest a bit, but I’ll come back to this in another post. In the meantime, there is a more recent post on the project on Wired (has a great interview with Jeff Bezos).

*Note: This story is generally attributed to Gregory Bateson an English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist whose work intersected that of many other fields. While there appear to be some creative liberties taken with the story, the overall point holds true.

Images: The Long Now Foundation

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