Verner column: The Optimistic Futurist’s search for solutions

  • Posted: Sunday, March 31, 2013 1:19 p.m.

Francis Koster spends a lot of time thinking about the future and the world’s problems. But for him, thinking about the future can also lead back to questions about the past.

For instance: Why did the captain of the Titanic ignore warnings about icebergs? What does that catastrophe say about human nature and warning signals we ignore today?


“People comfortable in their beliefs will go to great lengths to reject new knowledge,” Koster says.

Beginning in 2011, Koster began sharing his thoughts on the future, problems and practicable solutions through “The Optimistic Futurist,” his newspaper column that appears every other Sunday in our Insight section. It’s a research-based exploration of how communities across the country are addressing problems that are easy to identify but have proved difficult to remedy — problems such as poor reading skills among at-risk children, teen pregnancy rates, unemployment and economic stagnation. He’s now compiled 63 of those columns into a book, “Discovering the New America: Where Local Communities Are Solving National Problems,” available in softcover and e-book formats from Amazon.com.

Like the subject matter, the soft-spoken grandfather’s life history covers a lot of ground. He has a doctorate from the Program for the Study of the Future at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst). He has served in the Peace Corps, worked as a university administrator, designed and run programs in renewable energy for electric utilities and before retiring in 2008 was vice president for innovation for the Nemours Foundation, one of the nation’s largest pediatric health systems. He and his wife, Dr. Carol Spalding, president of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, live in Kannapolis.

I asked Koster to give readers a bit more background on his research and the case studies he writes about. Here’s an edited version of his responses.

What led you to study the future?

I had been in the Peace Corps and saw many examples of poor nations building out infrastructure like roads, electric grids and water systems as if the population was not shifting due to immigration or new births. When the infrastructure project was done, it was already obsolete. When I returned to the U.S., I saw the same thing — colleges building large libraries to hold big collections of books and ignoring the arrival of the Internet, subsidies being given to obsolete technology, public health officials weeping about air pollution killing thousands before their time ... The list goes on and on. I began to wonder how a society could ignore trends and warnings, only to pay a large price later. I went back to graduate school at the Program For The Study Of The Future specifically to study why leaders do not listen to warnings.

What I found was that if you scare people by warning the sky is falling, they repress the warning, because no one likes to feel powerless. So a key ingredient to a warning is an individually implementable solution. I also learned that mature adults tend to feel bullet-proof, particularly if they have some resources, and they ignore the warning. However, people responsible for kids act not for themselves but for the sake of their kids.

The automobile seatbelt campaign failed early on because it was phrased as “if you don’t buckle up, you will be hurt.” When the message was changed to “If you don’t buckle up, your kids will not either,” you could hear the clicks all over America.

Got a favorite example or two of the solutions you’ve written about?

For creativity, I would point to the project created by Duke University students which leases cooking oil to restaurants, collects it when its cooking days are over and converts it to diesel fuel. Double the usage of an expensive “feed stock” (pun intended). For social impact, the Nemours BrightStart Reading Intervention program, where they identify the one in four kids who cannot read as they enter kindergarten. For an investment of $100 per at-risk child, they totally change the child’s life. Two thirds of the kids they work with reach age-appropriate reading levels, and stay there — for life. Employability goes up, risk of prison goes down, stable marriage is more likely. All for $100.

And using private money to install non-polluting energy conservation and renewable energy in public buildings, as the AIRE group in Boone facilitates, can be a game changer for climate change, taxpayer savings and local employment.

What’s the target audience for the book?

As I say in the introduction, the goal is to equip civic volunteers and elected officials with a cookbook full of proven recipes for success to solve systemic problems existing throughout our country.

I am working now to make sure that school board members, city and county managers, local elected officials at all levels and their community advisory groups like United Way and church groups get copies so that they can both see the warning, and know the problems have solutions.

How would you summarize the “takeaway” you hope to instill in readers?

The list of horribles is pretty scary. Our food system has resulted in one in three adults being medically obese. Currently, about one in 30 of our adult citizens are either in prison or on probation or parole. One in seven households do not know where their next meal is coming from. We waste one in three dollars spent on energy in public buildings. ...

Each of these problems has at least one proven solution that can be implemented locally. And implementing the solutions lowers taxes, create jobs, protect the public health, and improve kids lives. The problem now is not that we don’t know how to fix these problems. The problem is that we don’t have enough leaders willing to step up to the challenge.

Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post. For more information about The Optimistic Futurist, visit www.theoptmisticfuturist.org.

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