Longtermism and Institutional Change

What makes an institution capable of acting for the long-term future?

Longtermism and Institutional Change explores how institutions contribute to embedding focus on long-term perspectives within research, social practices, governance and policy-making.

The stunning failure of short-term thinking in our stewardship of the biosphere around us has made the value and importance of long-term approaches to governance more obvious and urgent than ever before. However, implementing and embedding long-term perspectives into our civilisational design requires more than changing individual minds. Institutions, as a core and critical aspect of our social systems, must be re-oriented towards the long-term, and instilled with the capabilities necessary to act on this. What qualities, capabilities and structures enable an institution to act in the long-term? How can we better equip existing and future institutions to shape the long-term future? How can Longtermism guide institutional design?

Institutions for Resilience and Long-termism

What is Longtermism?

At its most basic, Longtermism is the view that taking into account the long-term consequences of current actions and seeking to positively influence the long-term future is a key priority of our time. What exactly ‘long-term future’ means can vary wildly depending on the context, with timescales ranging from hundreds to thousands to millions of years into the future.


Longtermism in Institutions

While individuals often naturally focus on immediate challenges from a short-term perspective, institutions by their nature can be designed to operate on much grander scales. In the political sphere, functional and effective institutions can often last hundreds of years, undertaking projects on behalf of generations that will not live to see their completion, for the benefit of generations who are not yet born. Yet, as the question of what world we are leaving behind for our children becomes an ever-more troubling concern, some have suggested reforming democratic institutions to better represent these future generations within the political process. What institutional design options are available to us? How effective might these be?

With the advent of Nuclear weapons and the emergence of the climate and ecological crises, security challenges have taken on a global scale. At the intersection of security and Longtermism is the field of ‘existential risk’ – the study of global risks that pose an existential or otherwise catastrophic threat to humanity as a whole. While pre-existing institutions such as the United Nations struggle to respond effectively to these challenges, new institutions with a long-term focus have been established to improve global civilisational resilience, such as the Svalbard Seed Vault, which store over 4.5 million unique seed samples and conducts experiments lasting centuries.

The climate and ecological crises are an acute example of the severe limitations of short-term approaches to civilisational design, and so it is natural that the global turn to Sustainability is deeply rooted in and empowered by Longtermism. Sustainable policies emphasise our future world as the core reference point for evaluating our actions today. In practice this often means adopting near-term future milestones such as 2030 or 2050 to highlight the importance of action today in service of a better version of tomorrow. Sustainability is inherently Longtermist, emphasising the systems-thinking principles of management and stewardship of complex systems which need to be balanced in perpetuity. At an institutional level, the UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to establish sustainable polices covering the entire range of global economic, political, technological, and social areas of action. However, all those goals can only be translated into results if we have the ability for long-term policy-making, planning, regulation and action. What gives an institution these capabilities? How can we improve them?


Activities

Longtermism and Institutional Change provides a platform for researchers and students at Utrecht University working on or interested in long-term perspectives in institutions. Our ambition is to provide space for  inter- and trans-disciplinary debate about the role of longtermism in institutions for an open society, thereby, facilitating an interdisciplinary dialogue (including non-academic societal partners,) focusing on two core research themes:

  1. the interdisciplinary conceptualisation of the long-term and longtermism, and
  2. the possibilities and constraints of longtermism in institutional decision-making.

If you are interested in this field and would like to contribute or collaborate with the Longtermism and Institutional Change, please don’t hesitate to reach out to Jack Davies at j.b.p.davies@uu.nl.

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