Interior York Minster

The dynamic of trading off the long-term for the short-term appears hard-wired into our systems. Our brains discount the future, our body wants us to eat fats now to save for later and so we enjoy this process far too much. As a society we are unable or deeply unwilling to put off today so we can have tomorrow.  As small children, those who demonstrate the ability to wait for something have higher achievement scores later in life, so the ability to wait does reward us but not until later and it is this later which is the issue.

I recently recorded a keynote for a virtual conference on place based poverty run by UnitingCare which considered the long-term view for people in poverty and what might be needed to bring about change. My core message was that joined up, holistic and long-term planning for services, infrastructure  and service delivery were the key issues. I said this knowing that under current systems, it is very difficult for Governments and their service delivery agencies to deliver. Not for a want of trying, but rather funding and reporting requirements, both in Government and in the service world, actively work against it. However, all of these requirements are not ‘real’ in the sense they can be altered, they are simply constructions of a time and place. Committed people can change these requirements and therefore the results delivered on the front line.

Richard Slaughter in the Biggest Wake up Call in History discusses the mafia in Italy and says that the reason there is garbage piled high in southern Italy is the short amount of the time a crime boss stays at the top of a syndicate results in short-termism of thinking – why provide for the future if you won’t be around to enjoy it? Our brains find it difficult to think about how good something might feel in the future or how bad the consequences of poor behaviour might feel – ask anyone with a hangover.  As the reigns of those at the top get shorter with electoral cycles, CEO roles, share returns all under constrained time frames, the propensity for short-termism will increase, ironically at the same time, as we need to be thinking long-term. This is not a coincidence, it is the nub of the challenge we face. We have to become cathedral builders rather than property developers.

To build a cathedral is to toil for centuries without one generation seeing the outcome, it may their sons/daughters or grandchildren that see the finished product. Why do such a thing as for most of us there has to be individual gain, and in medieval times it was grace – or the points you accrue before you try to get into heaven.

What might be the modern equivalent?

What long-term goal with an individual payoff and a longer-term societal good could we identify?

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