Pacific Coast Futures Retreat Inspired Spirit of Tomorrow's Potential

What happens when you bring together 50 leaders from the worlds of business, non-profits, government, and academia to ponder threats and opportunities in artificial intelligence, climate change, and aging global populations?

A moment in time that was downright heart-warming.

On May 2, within the elegant, wood-paneled walls of Santa Barbara's Music Academy of the West, perceptions were altered. Assumptions challenged. New relationships blossomed and spirits were lifted. In their feedback, participants shared that they came away from the Pacific Coast Futures Retreat feeling that the future now seems a little less dark and a bit more navigable. They shared a hopefulness about anticipating and shaping what's next rather than being blindsided by it.

For me, the retreat affirmed something both undeniably powerful and surprisingly moving: Despite all the risks, threats and crises gripping our world, that informed and open-minded and forward-thinking leaders can set a different course. That the direction the world seems headed is not inevitable. It is and will be what we make it to be.

The spirit of possibility emanating from the day reminded me of words from the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead, who encouraged us to "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

And what a group that gathered in Santa Barbara. Throughout the day, those fortunate enough to be able to leave behind their daily responsibilities and attend this unique event experienced a true melding of the minds. They exchanged ideas with fellow leaders, often with diverging opinions but with a shared focus on making the future work. Participants spanned sectors, geography lines, political party lines and generations -- ranging in age from 13 to 85 -- yet they demonstrated that, with the right mindset, we can do more than merely adapt to change, we can lead it. We can surmount even the greatest challenges of our time. All that is necessary, really, is a "we can fix this" attitude, plenty of innovative thinking and a focus on sharpening what I called in my opening talk our "navigational mindsets."

A Vision Born on a Flight from Green Bay

I hatched the idea for the Pacific Retreat at 35,000 feet. It was 2021, and I was flying back from an amazing conference of CIOs in Green Bay, Wisconsin -- my first live speaking engagement since COVID-19 halted the conference industry in early 2020. As my plane approached Santa Barbara, I was filled with the new ideas, forward thinking and bolder visions that well-conceived conferences so uniquely unleash. I was also saddened by the last few years and the trends that had taken hold of our national optimism.

Amid the pandemic crisis, and throughout the chaotic Trump administration and the brutal January 6 attack on our democracy, I came to see that we had suddenly arrived at an inflection point. The future could go either way: Toward dystopia, distrust and further decline or toward a more hopeful and prosperous future for all -- and for generations to come, if only enough of us put our minds to the vision of it.

As a futurist, I observed that COVID-19 was a key accelerator of trends, both good and bad. I saw that climate change and income inequality, racism, anti-Semitism, nationalism and authoritarianism were accelerating around the world as people reacted to exponential change with fear. What might I do to make a difference? On that flight it hit me hard: the time to prepare for a better tomorrow was now! That Wisconsin event had reminded me of the "privilege of the platform" I had been given in being a public speaker all these years, and being nourished by them as well. I particularly benefited from participating in and speaking at economic development conferences in 54 countries, which are all about raising living standards for citizens. It brought back how fired up I used to get taking in all the "aha" moments that come about when leaders swap ideas and trade minds and build relationships in the flesh.

I knew it was time to convene an event myself to address this pivotal moment in history. But how to do it?

You Can't Do a Conference Like This Alone

I could not have pulled off this conference alone -- no way. Here I wish to thank my dear friend and co-producer Jatin Das Gupta, videographer and creative director extraordinaire. Jatin joined me in January and provided "rocket fuel" to the vision of this conference. Jatin's unwavering belief helped steer the conference in the direction of storytelling, and keeping it real. Our goal was to have participants describe their own "Everest Moments," recalling their stories to foster connection, empathy and innovation as we prepared together for more change over the next decade than there has been in the past 50 to 100 years.

I also wish to thank my "ensemble cast" of outstanding speakers, without whom we could not have addressed complex issues like A.I., climate change, and aging global populations with such insight:

  • Tamara Afifi, head of Department of Communication at the University of California-Santa Barbara, shared her research into making the longevity revolution work for all, even with those with dementia. Tammy's research focuses on family and interpersonal communication during times of stress. She described her current research, which studies the impact of virtual reality headsets that allow family caregivers to take ailing loved ones on visual journeys.
  • Don Gilman, the tech industry strategist and in-demand author of "Outsmarting VUCA," did an extraordinary job of helping participants navigate A.I., crisper, quantum computing and other burgeoning technologies. Staying on top of A.I. advancements during the ChatGPT rollout this year was a full-on commitment on top of Don's busy travel schedule, and it had him updating his presentation right up to the last minute.
  • Jim Cathcart, the famed motivator and musician and former president of the National Speakers Association, proved his mettle once again when he spoke about making the third phase of life the best yet, rather than slinking off into decline and self-imposed isolation. An expert in personal development, leadership and unleashing one's highest potential, Jim became in his 60s a "rock star" to thousands of young and ambitious Chinese entrepreneurs. Jim's TED Talks have been viewed millions of times, and he has advised and coached millions of people around the world on self-leadership. He also graced us with an original song.
  • Rich Sorkin, CEO of Jupiter Intelligence, and Rinaldo Brutoco, co-founder of World Business Academy, offered illuminating perspectives during the afternoon "Climate Power Hour" talk show. Sorkin, a pioneer in climate risk assessment, took a practical approach to assessing climate change opportunities. He asked critical questions -- "How long will it take?" and "How much will it cost?" -- as he advised leaders to prepare for worst-case scenarios rather than assuming they won't be disrupted. (Sorkin's slides click here)Brutoco, a pioneer in the pay television arena, has spent his life not only starting companies but honing his commitment to "the planet." Brutoco's forward thinking has him pondering what comes next after what comes next. He's become a proponent of hydrogen power, which he discussed at length during his fascinating discussion with Sorkin and I.
  • David Moore, Stanford University lecturer and Zero Nine Design CEO, spoke on his career in the design arena and how we can go about "Designing the Future." He quoted the German philosopher Schopenhauer, who said, "Everyone takes the limits of his own vision with the limits of the world." David showed us how to jettison those limitations and let our visions for new products, new songs, new designs, and new ideas fill our hearts and minds.

As I told the group on May 2, nothing about the future is written in stone. The future is what we make of it. We shape the future -- and that of our kids and future generations -- by the decisions we make today. My thanks to everybody who participated in the event, to all those who offered encouragement and ideas, and to those who will grasp this spirit of possibility and carry it forward into the world.

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