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A big here and a long now

Here’s an editorial I (Michael) wrote for the NZIS Survey Quarterly (Dec 2007) following the South East Asian Survey Congress in Oct 2007 :

A big here and a long now

The recent conference in Christchurch provided lots of food for thought.  Developing Sustainable Societies was the theme and this was delivered and reinforced by the keynote speakers.  In particular Rob Gell highlighted the issues around climate change, and even if you’re a climate change sceptic the related issue of depletion of natural resources such as oil and water demand a response.  Rob challenged attendees to write a letter to their grandchildren explaining what action they took in light of these issues.  So there was a strong call to act sustainably both on a personal & professional basis. There was also a call to tackle sustainability by collaborative effort working across professional boundaries to achieve a better result.  Some of the afternoon sessions tackled the realities of trying to create great communities while facing the constraints of real life situations.

While reflecting on these themes I was reminded of a fascinating project underway in the USA.

The LongNow foundation was formed in the nineties partly in response to the Y2K bug.  Here’s a quote from their website:  “Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking.   All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed – some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where ‘long-term’ is measured at least in centuries.”

LongNow is engaged in several projects and “hopes to provide counterpoint to today’s “faster/cheaper” mind set and promote “slower/better” thinking”.  Now before you write them off as luddites, one of their founders is Daniel Hillis who played a role in the invention of the supercomputer.  Ironically their first project is the development of the worlds slowest computer – a clock that ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium!

I think their goals serve as a great reminder to us all to act with the future in mind.  It’s a call to expand our “time horizon” and consider the effects of our actions long into the future.  And surely that’s what sustainability is all about.

The title of this editorial is part of a quote from another LongNow board member Brian Eno and it’s a call to broaden our place in the wider community.  Life has become considerably busier and more complex with both technology and mobility meaning that social networks are no longer geographically based.  This often leads to a disconnection or disengagement with our local community and environment.

While these themes (big here and long now) challenge at a personal level, I think both of these thoughts are very important for the surveying profession.  In terms of the big here Surveyors need to be involved in our local Council processes (annual plan and LTCPP, District plans, codes of practice, even the urban design debate (cul-de-sacs anyone?)).  At a time when workloads are high and ever-increasing this is a difficult task, but without being involved in these matters we will lose our standing and disappear.  Our viewpoint is unique and therefore valuable and needs to be heard.

In terms of the long now we need to think long term.  Our workloads make it hard to think about next year let alone the next 50! It requires discipline.  So how about some long term thinking/visioning.  Where will you be in 10 years time, 50 years time?  What will your children/grandchildren be doing in 100 years time?  What will life in NZ be like in 150 years time?  What will the organisation you work for be doing in these timeframes, and what about the NZIS and the surveying profession?  What will your subdivisions look like over these timeframes? Perhaps the test here is “Will my grandchildren enjoy growing old here?”

One of the aims of the conference was to provide a stimulus for change, and I believe that this was achieved.  Now is the time to consider such change. Surely any decision or action can only be better informed in the context of a big here and a long now. Rob Gells letter to your grandchild is one way of focussing the mind – what are you going to write?


You can find the Long Now Foundation at

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