How to imagine and work towards a future

It is an uncertain world and the threats emerging today seem totally unforeseen. First there was the Covid pandemic, then the war in Europe. What can a society do to ensure its well-being in these uncertain times? Fortunately, humans have the ability to imagine a future and plan for it.

A future for society is the product of its collective imagination. It is generated by large numbers of people sharing ideas over long periods of time. It is therefore astonishing that in India there is so little public debate about what the shape of our future might be. Isn’t it important that we foster an ability to imagine possible futures for our country?

Imagining different futures also means planning them. We cannot know precisely what crises await us. But we can certainly build knowledge resources and develop the ability to tap into those resources for possible solutions as the need arises.

As things stand, building knowledge capital is a task that is still seen in India today as a costly exercise with no immediate payoff. For several decades, two perverse attitudes have hindered the creation and expansion of knowledge. One is the extreme belief, held by those educated in modern institutions, that there is a political angle to all knowledge. The other is a stubborn commitment to demand immediate and visible profit from everything. These two attitudes are harmful to any creation or dissemination of knowledge.

The obsession with immediate returns affects everything; from public policy to technological development to social development and economic growth. This is one of the reasons why India, despite having a strong presence in IT services, has not done much in terms of independent innovation. Even something as basic as creating an online GST and income tax payment system has been quite difficult for Indians to develop.

It is unreasonable to expect individuals to plan decades ahead for a collective goal. This is the mandate of social institutions. Institutions in India seem to work on a limited time horizon. Recently, a vice-chancellor of one of India’s top universities presented a five-year plan at a conference at Cambridge University. The university told the manager it was used to 30-year plans. A short-term approach at the institutional level has serious social costs.

It was a series of short-term actions that led to the coal crisis a few years ago. In 2014, when the Supreme Court overturned the allocation of 204 blocks, allocated since 1993, on the grounds of non-transparent processes, there was a major crisis. The Coal Ministry has developed a transparent online bidding process to auction the blocks with some success. The auctions not only met industry demands, but also generated revenue for the government. The fact is that well-structured rules and regulations are needed all the time, not just for the day-to-day business of government, but across all sectors. Designing these rules and regulations fairly after considering the views of all stakeholders is a sunk cost. Regularly revising the rules to adapt to new realities is also a sunk cost. Following proper scientific methods, whether in science labs, in business, or in government, is a sunk cost. Yet social investment in good rules and regulations, documentation, building knowledge capital remains very low in India.

The ability to imagine a future means a degree of comfort with sunk costs. Most of the technologies we depend on today, whether it’s the Internet, the mobile phone, electric cars, batteries or penicillin, have taken decades to develop. even centuries. An electric car model, for example, was developed even before the gasoline engine, but it was not practical to use. What is feasible at what time depends entirely on the circumstances.

For companies, refusing to invest in innovation for the future would be counterproductive. Such societies would have nothing to rely on in times of crisis.

The author is an IAS officer from the 1990 batch. The views are personal.

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