Below is a summary/transcript of Stewart Brand’s video segment about “Pace Layers of Change” at an Evernote conference in late 2014. Mr. Brand is founder of the Long Now Foundation, whose mission is to encourage people to think in the very long-term (on the scale of centuries or millennia).
Let’s try to bring context into our lives and make each day count. Part of being able to do that is how to frame your day’s work into your life’s work. Once you start doing that, maybe you can then begin to frame your day’s work into civilization’s work. One way to reframe your thinking is by understanding the pace layers of change. The diagram above is of a healthy civilization. It is a cross-section of society that moves and changes at different speeds. The most rapidly changing parts are at the top–where fashion changes weekly. The slower parts are down at the bottom. So, cultures take decades to change (at best!)…sometimes centuries or millennia. Sometimes, cultures don’t budge at all.
It’s the combination of the fast and slow parts that give a whole system its resilience.
Because, the fast parts learn; the slow parts remember. The fast parts suppose things; slow parts dispose things and keeps things that are important. The fast is discontinuous (moves in quick cycles); the slow is continuous. The fast and small instruct the slow and big with accrued innovation and occasional revolutions. At the same time, and we don’t respect this as much as we should, the slow and big parts control the fast and small with constraints and with constancy. It’s the case that all of our attention goes to the fast parts–it’s pretty much how we live.
But, all of the power is in the slow parts. And if you want to do any lasting good in the world, this is where you focus your attention. That’s the perspective you want.
There’s one other point to make about these pace layers. They need to respect each other’s pace. For example, the commerce layer is very important for many people. However, if commerce is too dominant in society, it can jerk governments around harmfully. Or, it can reach all the way down and disrupt culture and nature by going too fast. The commerce layer doesn’t have the patience to deal with infrastructure problems. Social turbulence also occurs when lower layers move faster than upper layers. An example of where pace layer speed wasn’t respected was in a communist regime like the Soviet Union. They tried run the whole country at an infrastructure pace and only worked with 5-year plans. They destroyed all of the other layers in the process of doing that.
What fits where? Where does your work fit in the pace layers? Most organizations think in the short term (fashion and commerce layers) and work with 1-5 year plans. How does your work create a lasting impression on your organization, industry, or society? Shift your frame out and think about what kind of impact you can have on infrastructure or governance…can you imagine your future in terms of decades? The Long Now Foundation is coming from the other direction and starting from the nature level at 10,000 years…try to think in that time frame!