In the spring issue of The Antioch Review, our archives section reprints an article, “Futurism and Management” by business guru,Theodore Levitt. The piece, that first ran in 1991, was from a speech he gave at the annual lunch of the British-American Chamber of Commerce in London, in June 1989. Few names in marketing, and in business, in general, have ever achieved the kind of recognition Levitt’s has. He was catapulted to fame with the publication of his revolutionary article, “Marketing Myopia” that appeared in The Harvard Business Review in 1960. It has since sold over a million copies. It was in this landmark article, that Levitt first suggested that businesses will do better in the end if they concentrate on meeting customers’ needs rather than on selling products. Now a commonplace consideration, companies in every sector began to ask of themselves, “what business are we in” based on Levitt’s admonition.
At The Antioch Review, we have a special affinity with Theodore Levitt who was a member of our National Advisory Board. For one thing, he’s a native son—well almost—of the Dayton, Ohio community, our own home base; and, for another, he graduated from Antioch College in 1949 following his return from WWII where he served in the US Army. He arrived in Ohio at the age of ten when his family moved to the US from Germany. He went on to receive a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University. From there he taught for a short time at the University of North Dakota before going on, in 1959, to teach at the Harvard Business School where he also assumed the role of editor of the Harvard Business Review. He transformed the journal into the management must-read business magazine it is today.
In “Futurism and Management,” an article that is surprisingly relevant and fresh twenty-three years later, Levitt addresses the difficulty companies have with being able to know what the future holds, which is a logical concern of any company who seeks to understand what business they are in. You can’t understand what it means to be in the transportation business if you can’t envision the many modes of transportation that may be a part of the futurescape.
More than anything, Levitt, in this essay, is taking potshots at the futurist who were charging companies thousands of dollars to tell them what to anticipate; and, at the futurists who were selling books by the thousands. (Think Future Shock and The Third Wave.) Using numerous examples, he reminds us of how easy it is to get it wrong.
In 1967 Herman Kahn and Tony Wiener published The Year 2000, about which Mr. Kahn made a lot of profitable speeches to groups of businessmen and did a lot of futurism research for companies. The book became a mine of embarrassments: oil was mentioned only once—in a relaxed discussion of extraction from Shale. Nothing about Islam or the Middle East. By the mid-1070s they expected fast-breeder reactors for nuclear power plants, providing cheap electricity and large amounts of desalinated water for coastal cities everywhere. There was nothing about the overcrowding of cities everywhere, slums, the underclass, the coming of Asia’s ne industrial Tigers, that Europe might actually get its economic act together, that the U.K. might abandon the Left and Sweden shift from its famous Middle Way, or that the Soviet Empire might rattle and lurch erratically to God-knows-where.
Levitt goes on to point out how “in 1967 Herman Kahn and Tony Wiener published The Year 2000, and Mr. Kahn made good money making profitable speeches about the future to groups of businessmen and doing a lot of futurism research for companies.” Levitt says that in their book, Kahn and Weiner told us “that the big story of the 1990s would not be that of high tech but of the arts, literature, and spirituality, which would replace sports as the great leisure activity of the age.”
We all know how that turned out.
Levitt ultimately weighs in with his own suggestions about what the future might hold, suggesting that while “it is impossible to know what will happen”, and that “nothing is preordained,”
There are of course powerfully transforming changes that churn our times. They should be noted and understood. There is the shift from mechanical and electromechanical devices to electronics, from scale to miniaturization, the digitization of most things, the conversion of some people’s knowledge into everybody’s software, rapid accelerations in transport and communications, and fundamental new creations in genetic engineering, chemistry, inorganic materials, and knowledge itself.
Levitt says, “all of these things shape what will be,” and there’s no argument to be made against Levitt‘s 1991 predictions. In his essay, he talks about world problems, globalization, and all the other pressures coming to bear in modern society, suggesting that,
The world is inherently unstable because it is populated by people with will, energy, and imagination. They do things. They won’t leave well enough alone. That is why success is only a transient condition, not a result. Nothing is ever finished or fixed, not even in the paradise of which we just spoke. Adam told Eve upon their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, “This, my dear, is a time of transition.” It always is.
Levitt’s article in the Spring, 2014 issue of The Antioch Review, is not only still relevant, it’s a good read, it’s entertaining, it highlights Levitt‘s wry humor and conversational style, and it’s also a reminder of how a great mind views the world. It’s just one example of why Levitt deserves an unparalleled place in the history of modern business thought and practice.
You can order the issue containing Levitt’s article and other great writing, here.
© The Antioch Review, 2014