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Can the Bay Area Lead the Charge in Reinventing Long-Term Decision-Making?

When bestselling author Steven Johnson told his New York friends that he and his family were leaving Brooklyn for the Bay Area, they asked him if he would miss the culture. “If by culture, you mean the number of jazz performances or ballet performances each night, yes, there is more culture in New York,” said Johnson. “But if by culture, you mean where the ideas come from that end up shaping the culture—whether it’s technological, political, environmental, fashion—the Bay Area, per capita, is the most culturally innovative place on the planet.”

Johnson’s take on the Bay Area highlights the impetus behind What’s Now: San Francisco—bringing together innovative people from different sectors to participate in dialogue and exchange ideas. At our most recent event, Steven Johnson talked through ideas from the book that he’s currently working on about long-term decision-making, and sought input from the audience on these ideas.

Johnson believes that the Bay Area, which has revolutionized the way we communicate, might also be capable of revolutionizing long-term decision-making. He shared recent innovations in the field, particularly those that have to do with ensemble scenarios, like weather forecasting and randomized controlled trials. He talked about the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound as an example in which theories were rigorously questioned during each step of the decision-making process (as opposed to the conviction that Iraq possessed WMDs). Johnson also discussed areas in which long-term decision-making has fallen short or could be improved, like the electoral college.

One rule of thumb in long-term decision-making is that diversity trumps ability, even if the collective IQ of the homogenous group is higher than the collective IQ of the diverse group. Johnson referenced studies that prove that increasing even just gender diversity in previously all male groups improves decision-making outcomes (although interestingly, all female groups perform even better than the gender-diverse groups).

One of the reasons that President Trump’s cabinet is a “recipe for terrible decision-making,” according to Johnson, is not just that it doesn’t mirror the diversity of America—a problem in and of itself—but that such homogenous groups typically suffer from overconfidence and other dangers of groupthink.

Johnson thinks that the electoral college, a form of long-term decision-making with hugely important consequences for the country and the world, should be rethought. He referred to blue states as “true heirs to the tea party” (the tea-over-the-side-of-the-ship kind of tea party, not the other kind) because the amount of money these large urban states pay in taxes far outstrips what they receive from the federal government.

In addition to the electoral college, Johnson believes that Internet could use an overhaul. The founders of the Internet had no way of foreseeing the many downstream consequences of each of their choices—knowing what we know now about cybersecurity, trolls, the demise of the newspaper industry—what might we do differently if we were to reiterate the Internet?

Above all, Johnson urged the audience to remember the importance of taking the long view. “The future doesn’t vote,” Johnson reminded, so it’s up to us to take it into account.