Futurist think tank moves from Arlington to Berkeley Springs
At a time when the future feels uncertain for many people, Morgan County has become home to an organization that specializes in uncertainty and surprises.
The Arlington Institute relocated its offices and most of its staff to Berkeley Springs in late November, setting up in the historic Hunter house at 192 Fairfax Street.
The Arlington Institute is a think-tank, a non-profit organization that helps governments, businesses and communities prepare for the future.
Petersen and his five-member staff study the future from a global point of view – watching trends, imagining new technologies, tracking economies and posing questions about how forces around the world will shape our reality tomorrow, next year and a decade from now. They are part of the field of futurist studies.
We don't predict. It's impossible to predict. What you can do is build alternative scenarios about the future, Petersen said.
This kind of projection and planning is especially valued in the world of military intelligence, technology and economics.
Petersen started The Arlington Institute in 1989 after spending many years working with the Secretary of the Navy, Commandant of the Coast Guard and the Marines to change the direction of national security.
Petersen then authored Out of the Blue: How to Anticipate Big Future Surprises, a book considered to be an authoritative source on wild cards, or unlikely events that cause profound change in the world.
Petersen accepts the idea that his work seems strange to most people. He speaks extensively to groups around the world, and said only 5-10% of his audiences show interest in his message of understanding the future in order to create change.
We do original, creative thinking. We'll listen to anything and consider anything, he said.
One of The Arlington Institute's most recent major projects was to build the National Surprise Anticipation Center for the government of Singapore.
The small Asian nation asked Petersen to set up the center, which connects all government agencies and allows leaders to track early indicators of change related to topics like terrorism, health care and natural disasters.
The idea of the center is simple in some ways, said Petersen.
If you've never thought about something, then it happens, you're going to be surprised, he said.
If you live your life based on the idea that tomorrow is going to be just like yesterday, you're going to be surprised in a big way.
The Singapore center lets the government systematically monitor events and think about possible problems before they fully materialize.
Tracking the human incidents of bird flu as they occur across the globe is one example of the kind of trend The Arlington Institute keeps its eye on.
We have an international reputation for surprise anticipation. There aren't many other people who do this, said Petersen.
Other projects brewing at The Arlington Institute include The WHETHEReport, a method of collecting and analyzing intense dreams from people around the globe.
Petersen said there are reports from more than 150 people that they dreamed of people jumping out of office buildings in the weeks and months before the September 11 attacks.
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With a network of dream reports, Petersen's team would have access to a widespread sensor of future events, he said.
All of the group's projects are described and updated on the institute's website, which also allows visitors to subscribe to a free monthly newsletter called FUTUREdition.
Petersen wants his think tank to apply its future-thinking resources to the issues facing Morgan County as well as the global community. He already serves on a committee advising the courthouse architect on energy-efficient options for the public building.
Petersen also wants to help craft the county's emergency preparedness scenarios for a disease pandemic, natural disaster or migration of people from the Washington, D.C. area into the Eastern Panhandle.
He hopes to bring a variety of provocative and expert speakers to Morgan County in the coming year, extending a speaker's series The Arlington Institute sponsored in the Washington area.
A much better world
As Petersen sees it, the work of The Arlington Institute is to help humanity prepare for the possibilities of the future by harnessing technology, tapping a wide network of experts and embracing new ways of thinking.
Despite some of the global forces under his watch — climate change, peak oil, the bird flu, terrorism, healthcare changes, financial collapse and social value shifts – Petersen isn't pessimistic about the future.
Instead, his work focuses on humanity's preferred future – one that embraces new thinking and opportunity rather than catastrophic collapse and loss.
We're entering a time of historic change, really epic shifts, Petersen said.
Every indication is that the next five years are going to be really hard, but this is an extraordinary opportunity to be around and shape what will happen. For me, it's a wonderful and amazing time to be here. The world that comes out of this is a much better world, he said.
So while the future may seem arbitrary and unpredictable, Petersen and his staff keep their eyes on the horizon so we might be a little less surprised by what takes shape.