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The Elkington Report

A New Year’s resolution for Bill Gates

Sci-fi titles that should be on the reading list of every climate entrepreneur, strategist or policymaker, including the billionaire investor and philanthropist.

Bill Gates


Bill Gates has a new book in the pipeline, "How to Avoid a Climate Disaster." Vital reading, particularly in a year that should see Glasgow hosting the COP26 climate summit. But if I could propose one additional New Year’s resolution for Gates, it would be to send another book to all COP26 delegates: Kim Stanley Robinson’s "The Ministry for the Future."

Sci-fi fans know Robinson as a giant in his field, but I literally stumbled across his work. I had acquired a second-hand copy of his 2017 novel "New York 2140," coverless and so somewhat unappetizing. I was using it as a doorstop, hence the stumbles. At 600-plus pages it loomed like the Eiger, but once in I was unstoppable. Wanting more, I ordered "The Ministry of the Future," clocking in at a more modest 564 pages.

If I had to give a prize for the best writing, it would go to "New York," but if the prize was for giving readers confidence that we can crack the climate challenge, I would choose "The Ministry." True, some early sections read like novelized versions of an MBA course on sustainable development, but stick with it. "The Ministry" is set in the time of COP58, a world where our worst climate nightmares are materializing. Indeed, the book opens with a disaster leaving perhaps 20 million Indians dead.

It’s fascinating how tomorrow interferes with today.

Science fiction, if you think about it, is all about perspective. In that vein, when I was trying to creep up on companies back in the 1970s, I pictured myself using a periscope. Later, when we had breached the corporate gates, even finding our way into boardrooms, it felt as though we were putting corporations — their leaders, cultures, technologies, business models and supply chains — under the microscope.

We still do that sort of work but reaching for our telescopes — to track the trajectories of entire constellations of economic actors, with an eye to spurring systemic change. Still, alongside those different lenses and optics, I have long ached for some form of kaleidoscope — a compound lens delivering more information the more it is shaken, whether by the user or by reality.

Decades ago, creeping up on the future, I began to stalk sci-fi authors. I had a fascinating early exchange with John Brunner, author of "Jagged Orbit" and "Stand on Zanzibar." When I complimented him on the dystopian vision in the second book, which seemed to be increasingly realistic, he replied, uncomfortably, that he had hoped that the terrifying vision would wake people up in time.

A later thrill involved interviewing Frank Herbert back in 1983. Denis Villeneuve’s film of Herbert’s magnificent "Dune," perhaps the best sci-fi novel I have read, is due out in October. I genuinely can’t wait. Meanwhile, one thing Herbert told me stuck in my mind: "If you're managing and fixing, you're locking down today, you're not getting into tomorrow. You're preventing tomorrow."

A linked idea that has been rattling around my brain recently features an A.I.-enabled resource pooling all key solutions proposed in sci-fi novels — to tap into the collective creativity of some of the brightest minds of all time. 

That idea, in turn, had me stumbling across an experiment launched by David Brin, another of my favorite sci-fi authors since I read his novel "Earth" in 1990, when he already was talking about the possibility of bringing mammoths back from extinction. Like it or not, such ideas are bounding forward, as I learned when talking to people such as Ryan Phelan of Revive & Restore a couple of years ago. Another case of fiction teetering on the edge of science fact

It’s fascinating how tomorrow interferes with today. For a couple of decades, William Gibson has been my favorite contemporary sci-fi author, with the impossibly distant future of his early book "Neuromancer" gradually hauling back in later novels until it eerily mutates today’s realities. Or, as Gibson famously put it in the last century, "The future’s already here — it’s just not evenly distributed." To which I often add, "Yet."

Someone else who achieves this trick is Ramez Naam — whose "Nexus Trilogy" I strongly recommend. As it happens, I met Naam — in his role as a radical energy analyst — at a VERGE event in San Jose, California, in 2016. 

Now, with China looming, I have been reading sci-fi (in translation) by such authors as Liu Cixin. It’s fascinating how as cultures rise, technologically and economically, some begin to produce world-class sci-fi. Europe did it with authors such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, America with everyone from Isaac Asimov to Kurt Vonnegut. 

New Year’s resolutions are an attempt to shape the future. I don’t do them, but if I did one candidate for 2021 would be to pour myself heart and soul into a new Volans project, the Green Swans Observatory. The idea here is to turn every lens we have — periscopes, microscopes, telescopes — onto the emerging regenerative economy. Scanning for what’s working, what isn’t (yet) and what needs to be tried next.

Once again, I’m pondering where the sci-fi kaleidoscope fits in. So I called David Brin, inspired by his TASAT database — the acronym standing for "There’s A Story About That." The idea, the website explains, involves: "Accessing more than a hundred years of science fiction thought experiments, TASAT taps into a passionate, global community of writers, scholars, librarians and fans. We aim to curate a reading list applicable to problems and possibilities of tomorrow."

A fantastic experiment, TASAT, although when you search the database for terms that feature routinely in The Ministry for the Future they rarely show up. Yet. True, the "Dune" series of novels focuses on the regeneration of planets such as Arrakis, but can TASAT-style initiatives help us all boldly go toward a truly regenerative future?

Perhaps that’s one more resolution for Gates, or for another future-oriented billionaire or foundation: to help turn TASAT into a globally accessible portal to the ever-expanding universe of sci-fi wisdom.

At a time when every second business book seems to include words such as "reimagining," "reinventing" or "resetting," we will need all the help we can get.

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