Future of California map, from Institute for the Future, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego

California is a mess. We have a nearly $20 billion deficit, no approved budget, and Meg Whitman running for governor against Jerry Brown. Meanwhile, we have a water shortage, the educational system is deeply screwed, and we suffer, like the rest of the country, from broken health care and immigration systems. Are we screwed for the long term? Are we headed toward an "Enclave Economy," complete with walled cities, suburban slums, and a privatized police? Or a smarter state with open governance, free online education, and a culture of innovation? These were some of the questions raised by my colleagues at Institute for the Future who during the last year worked with crossdisciplinary experts from UC Berkeley and UC San Diego to lay out an array of alternative futures for the state. The result is a beautifully-designed map called "California Dreaming: Imagining New Futures for the State," that's meant to provoke conversations about how California may change for the better, or the worse. Hopefully, if many more citizens start thinking about this stuff in a systematic way, it'll lead to real action. The map is free and CC-licensed to encourage as much public engagement as possible. My old friend Jonathan Weber wrote about it for his Bay Citizen column, that also appears in the New York Times:
As I gaze at a colorful new map that lays out four alternative futures for the state, I feel quite energized. The document is the first piece of an effort by two major University of California research centers and the Institute for the Future, based in Palo Alto, to reframe the public policy conversation. And for me, it succeeds in its effort to use imagination about the future as a way to grapple with the present.

It’s not that the scenarios themselves are particularly rosy. One envisions an “enclave economy” in which the wealthy parts of the state – the Bay Area among them – wall themselves off and hoard resources, letting hoi polloi in the hinterlands fend for themselves. (This scenario would most likely play out in the wake of a natural disaster.)

Nor do the situations all seem realistic. Another suggests that “a sober-minded assessment of risks and resources in the face of water and energy shortages leads to a new focus on communities and commons.” In this vision, Proposition 13 would be repealed, and investment would be directed to creative arts and community health rather than to personal consumption. Even the “smart state” scenario, in which California leverages its technological prowess and invests in education to restart economic growth, has a big downside: greater income inequality. Only the least tangible scenario – transformation led by social-network-based communities of interest that assume many governmental and business functions – has something for everyone.

But as Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future, explained, the specific scenarios are not really the point. Rather, the goal is to “outline the kinds of questions and dilemmas we need to be analyzing, and provoke people to ask deep questions..." “The best way to influence the politicians is to educate and stimulate the thinking of the electorate,” said Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, an interdisciplinary institute that’s part of both the University of California, San Diego, and the University of California, Irvine, and was a key collaborator on the project. (The Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, headquartered at Cal, was also involved.)

California, Mr. Smarr said, has “locked itself into a very 20th-century way of looking at things,” and this kind of exercise can help reframe the discussion.

"The Future of California, Ready for Discussion" (Bay Citizen)

"What would YOU do to build a better California?" (IFTF)

"California Dreaming: Imagining New Futures for the State" (PDF)


  1. There are two scary things about California’s situation:

    First, California tends to be a trend setter. They usually get there faster and sooner than the rest of the USA. My own Oregon is catching up fast. In both cases the Initiative system is to blame. If you’re interested why, I’ll be glad to supplement this comment below. (It’s a subject I know something about.)

    Second, it is always the poorest and weakest of us who carry the burden.

    The tragic irony is that the people who created the mess appear to be ready to running things again.

  2. It’s nice to know our state University system is still capable of free thought.
    It’s sad to know virtually no one is listening.

  3. As a California expatriate, this quote jumped out at me:

    California’s high cost of housing and turbulent job market may be driving an entire generation away.

    I desperately wanted to stay in California, but housing prices, jobs, and quality-of-life factors really made it impossible to stay.

  4. Shouldn’t California’s #1 problem, massive debt, be on the graph? I guess it doesn’t matter; it would probably say something like “RESPONSE: Money Upgrade” with little cartoon people next to it. Problem Solved!

    1. the feds seemed pretty happy to extract revenue from california’s bubble; strangely too busy now to help california refinance or write down the consequences

      1. Not only during the bubble: in 2009 the Feds took $320 billion of taxes from CA and returned $270 billion. Where did the difference go? Google “red state welfare” for some edifying links – yes, the same people who bitch about “tax and spend lib’ruls” are only too glad to stick their hands out for massive subsidies.

        If California didn’t have the Southern millstone around its neck the state would be running a $30 billion _surplus_.

        1. BZZZZZZZZZZ!!!!!!!!
          Wrong answer.

          The biggest drain on governments is old people. Almost half of the Federal budget is taken up by 2 programs, Medicare and Social Security.

          1. if higher % of red states’ older residents get federal help, that’s sorta more ironic (and shameless) than BZZZZZZZ.

          2. The biggest drain on governments is old people. Almost half of the Federal budget is taken up by 2 programs, Medicare and Social Security.

            Wrong answer.

            Look at the numbers again, but this time with all the stuff that Reagan and W. took off the books added back in.

            War profiteering is alive and well…

  5. Find the grouping of problems and solutions that most closely match our current conditions. The future will most closely mirror today’s problems.

  6. @Rayonic CA’s debt as a percentage of GDP is relatively low (7%) and it ranks 32d out of 50 states in terms of the debt/GDP ratio http://www.thedailybeast.com/galleries/1740/1/. When considering long-term future of the state, financial health of the economy is a result of other choices we make–what and how we produce, employment, housing, health expenditures, and many others actions we take.

  7. the system is built to resist change. any change that a large majority cannot agree on will not be done , period. Instead of having A or B , we get neither and status quo is also the thing we don’t want.

    i guess that’s why there’re revolutions.

  8. You’ll continue to hobble along toward disaster because the stupid party is unable to defeat the crazy party.

    Welcome to America.

  9. I guess it is a good thing when educated and well meaning people get together to plot a course for a brighter future for all.

    But as a Californian who is neither highly educated nor particularly well meaning; I wonder if all this ‘building a better tomorrow, today!’ mentality can change inexorable problems within this state.

    Repeal prop 13? It is to laugh. Income inequality? Guaranteed. Pitiful boondoggle of special interest governance? No changes there anytime soon: (this hotly contested Governors race between Jerry and Meg is Giant Douche vs. Turd Sandwich all over again)

    Water rights. Immigration concerns. Natural disasters spurring change you wont like. . .

    Perhaps I’m wrong: The resilient spirit of Californians working together in solidarity can overcome any and all obstacles using our superior educational system and limitless natural resources combined with selfless citizens willing to make difficult sacrifices for the betterment of everyone!!!!

    no? Still, we’ve got movies and beaches and wine! I’ve got my fiddle. . .whos got a match?

  10. Actually, there isn’t really a water shortage. California water subsidies are just skewed towards agriculture. Even though agriculture accounts for about 4-5% of California’s economy, it controls around 70% of California’s water.

  11. So “red” states are being bribed more for their votes than “blue” states? That’s one interpretation anyway.

    1. i wish! but the money doesn’t stay there helping people out of the hole, much gets whisked away by big resident corprits, leaving non-fictional residents feeling empty and ill-served. all that blue-tinged advocates need do to check this is look at state and regional income levels. to buy votes (in a positive way) the federal investments would need to build people some good.

      mind you i’ve talked to many die-hard Rs who take subsidies and yell about other people getting any. (shrug)

  12. Hmmm somebody is riffing off of the THREE CALIFORNIAS TRILOGY by Kim Stanley Robinson I see.

    California’s screwed, period.

    Repealing Prop 13 is the scary one for me. First off the people that would get fucked over are older people who are on a fixed income who have had their homes paid off for years (and me). People who have owned their houses since before 1978 and that are on a fixed income will not be able to pay the property taxes at the current rate. I’m talking about Social Security recipients. My house has been paid for for almost 20 years. So for me it’s just paying utility bills, city taxes. My property taxes are paid at the 1978 value of my house – thank whatever divine or demonic being for this because although I do have to save money to pay it I can afford it being on a fixed income. If the intent of repealing Prop 13 is to get those who are on a fixed income to sell their houses because they can’t afford (in my case my property taxes would probably go up by x10) the property taxes – and get a huge flush of cash from new owners and new cash flow – if that’s what they are trying to do – then that makes sense. A nice cash grab that’ll just be flushed down the toilet here in California. And the old geezers? Can’t they just move to Leisure World or something?

    It seems to me those who are most against prop 13 are the bitter cranksters who have moved to California in the last 20 years or so and bought homes at over inflated prices.

    The Three Californias Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson on the other hand. Great stuff.

    1. It seems to me those who are most against prop 13 are the bitter cranksters who have moved to California in the last 20 years or so and bought homes at over inflated prices.

      And all the young people who can’t afford to subsidize old people protected by Prop 13 and rent control. If children are the future, you don’t want them all moving out of state (especially after California invested in their K-12 education).

  13. Uh, as a resident of California’s boonies (the one Whitman compared to Detroit, actually), I have to point out that it isn’t us that will be screwed when it comes to food; it’s the big cities who will be hurting if the enclave thing happens. About 20% of the nation’s food (iirc) comes from where I live. I can walk down the street and buy grapes, tomatoes, corn, and pretty much anything I want, directly from the farmer. Folks in the cities can’t do that so much.

  14. Each of the four ‘futures’ of CA are pretty ridiculous. The author goes from Progressive/statist utopia to Progressive/Mad Max-esque anarchy as possible outcomes for the state, ignoring the role of personal freedom of the individual in all cases.

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