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 In this vision, Proposition 13 would be repealed, and investment would be directed to creative arts and community health rather than to personal consumption.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)