Don’t wait for the year 2000, the future is now

The onset of the new millennium is bound to prompt a bit of crystal ball-gazing. In a culture given to new year’s resolutions, what promise for optimism a new century brings. How very different we expect it to be the other side of midnight as 2000 is chimed in.

Deep down we know it won’t be, once the hangover is over. As long as the Millennium Bug doesn’t bite as fiercely as was once feared and Western society isn’t plunged into a computer-driven chaos, things are likely to be the same as they were the day before. You could argue that the UK launch of the Apple Macintosh in 1984 was more momentous for design than an arbitrary change in the calendar. The future lies in altering things now, as part of a continuing process of change.

Last week saw the launch of a series of debates by the Design Business Association under the Fast Forward banner to encourage its members to cast their vision forward ten years to 2010. The upshot, predictably, was that you can’t make meaningful predictions. You might be able to plot your consultancy’s performance via a business plan, but none of us really knows what’s round the corner. You can, however, alert yourself to the social possibilities and technological advances that might affect the way we live.

One of the strong themes underpinning last week’s debate was that you can do things differently now, not least running your business or approaching clients, rather than pinning your hopes on an intangible future. And it has more to do with human relations than technological resources.

Andy Law, chairman of the legendary St Luke’s, described his 100-strong ad agency, that makes money working for mainstream clients, but where “co-workers” (ie staff) fix their own salaries and decide how they want to work. The only flaw in a seemingly liberal company is that some things – like puns – are taboo. Okay, life isn’t perfect.

Piers Schmidt, chief executive of The Fourth Room, meanwhile, told of a massive response from clients invited to become “members” of the consultancy – ie pay to work with it – compared with a lukewarm reception that met an earlier, more conventional new-business pitch.

Design groups tell clients that they are different, in terms of their work. But how many act out that claim in the way they operate? St Luke’s and The Fourth Room have shown it works for them, so why aren’t there more models?

Management guru Charles Handy says: “The great excitement about the future is that we can shape it.” If we accept that idea, we can start now – with the way we are. The future is, after all, as much about tomorrow as about 2010.

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