Dear People of 2021: What Can We Learn From Hindsight?

Dear People of 2021: What Can We Learn From Hindsight?

Our forebears had a lot of ideas about where we’d be by now.

Go back just a few years, and you’ll find no end of prophecies about the world we’d inhabit today — tech fantasies of roads filled with self-driving machines, dire visions of critical water sources gone dry, projections of cities and markets growing and shrinking. In The Times of even a decade ago, the year 2020 was considered a rich canvas for visions of the future, “far enough in the distance to dream, yet seemingly within arm’s reach.”

Imagining futures — to pursue, avoid, or merely prepare for — is how we often wrestle with change in the present. Yet our ability to envision — and therefore shape — the future is constantly pressed in by the world we inhabit today.

Few people, even a decade ago, could have imagined how we began 2021: under lockdowns against a deadly virus, with a U.S. president on trial for impeachment, about to undergo a transition of power tainted for the first time in more than a century by violence. Yet despite such explosive change, we’re still stuck on a path to warming the planet beyond what would be livable for humankind. Until a year ago, the fastest vaccine ever developed had taken four years to reach the world; now we’re wondering how much of the world the fastest vaccine ever developed will reach.

We can’t slow down time, but we can widen the span of our attention. So I want to start a conversation with you, and I’m hoping it can last a couple years.

I’m writing to you as the editor of Headway, a new team at The New York Times that is exploring the world’s challenges through the lens of progress.

And I could use your help answering a hairy, urgent question:

The Headway team and I would like you to help us define progress: how we measure it, and how we make it. We don’t expect to find simple answers. But the pursuit itself may light the paths to our best futures.

We’ve imagined Headway as a sort of correspondence with you and everyone who joins us in the years to come. We call this Headway’s Public Square. It won’t be a single destination on the internet, but a series of dialogues, puzzles, and other explorations that will span a range of platforms and spill out into the analog world. We hope this exchange of stories and ideas will help us build powerful connections to the environments around us, and steer our communities to their best collective futures. And if this conversation inspires insights, I hope you’ll write us a letter of your own.

We thought we’d start with a little game called Hindsight. We scoured recent history for forecasts — promises, prophecies, and projections — expected to have become reality by now. For each one, we’ve asked three questions: What did we expect to happen? What actually happened? And what can we learn from it?

The other day, I spoke with Rajesh P. N. Rao, one of the scientists responsible for pushing forward a provocative — and increasingly popular — theory of the brain.

“The way that we perceive the world involves predictions,” said Dr. Rao, a computer science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Our brains are making constant, subconscious guesses about the world around us, he said, refining a model in our minds that we use to navigate reality. “But the interesting thing happens when there is a big mismatch or an error signal.” he said. That’s when we update the model — that is, we learn.

We started with Hindsight for that reason: to learn from how our expectations fared in reality. In the years to come, we’ll bring you a range of stories about the world we are building, all of which will be accessible outside the paywall of The New York Times. We’ll go to a place where the recent discovery of a precious natural resource is playing out with an unfamiliar twist: Most of the resource’s value comes from keeping it in the ground. We’ll look at what it would mean to end homelessness in the U.S. city that’s come closest to doing it. We’ll explore the rebuilding of industrial sectors around the idea that waste should be costly and rare. We intend to wrestle with the paradox of water, at once too much and not enough, and to explore the challenges of urbanization in its many evolving forms. Above all, we’ll try to understand, in the clearest possible terms, what the course of time might have in store for us, and where we might have the greatest collective power to shape that path.

First, let’s go to East River Park.

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy hurtled this park and all the people who lived near it into lethal chaos. The aftermath of that trauma, which took more than 100 lives, awakened New York City to the urgency of figuring out how to mitigate nature’s wrath. Yet nearly a decade later, plans are still in limbo. Either humans change the park, or nature will, at an incalculable cost. But, in the face of accelerating dangers, our pace is slowed by the friction of many travelers, with many destinations in mind. How we race forward through that friction is at the core of what Headway will cover.

Michael Kimmelman, Headway’s founder and editor-at-large and the chief architecture critic of The Times, has followed the park saga for years, and spun from it a parable about participatory democracy — how we reconcile urgency with inclusion, and transparency with expertise. His story frames a conundrum at the heart of progress: Why are our most urgent challenges precisely the ones that seem to be most stuck?

The metaphor for progress I keep returning to is that icon of human invention: the wheel. What it doesn’t crush, it carries. Even as it’s moving forward, parts of it move backward. Actions meet equal and opposite reactions, and the friction of that clash spins us ahead.

There are always multiple futures. Jim Dator, an influential futurist, found that most of the images of the future he encountered could be grouped into one of four types, often described as “Collapse,” “Discipline,” “Transform” and “Grow.” I’ve found this to be a useful framework in considering any vision of the future, and useful in hindsight as well. At any given time, all four phenomena are happening at once: A booming population masks a looming long-term decline. The collapse of one industry enables the blossoming of another. A lethal viral epidemic transforms, with strict adherence to a regimen, into a livable disease.

Most of the indicators we use to define our progress tend to blur on close inspection. Numbers can seem so solid, until you look closely at what they represent and they begin to melt into air. Whether it’s the threshold of extreme poverty or the amount of carbon we’re ejecting into the atmosphere, our methods of measuring progress resist precision.

But even flawed measures of progress can be catalysts for action. Our indicators give us a simple way to pay attention to our challenges over time. And the mere investment of attention can pay dividends. When the U.N. pledged to expand access to drinking water, wells were dug, pipes were fitted, and the world got a better handle on what it meant for water to be safe.

Defining progress is how we make it. It’s easy enough to envision futures; what’s difficult is realizing them. A loose forecast allows us to defer responsibility to the future. Making durable change in the present requires us to define our terms.

The stories that follow in this series — those linked below and those we’ll publish in the weeks to come — each turn on definitions. We can say that a major emitter has actually met a climate pledge, that we’ve reduced extreme poverty, that we’ve spread safe drinking water to more of the world, and that we’ve made serious advances against H.I.V., but what do these achievements mean?

Only the people of years to come will be able to see where our actions will lead. But only we can say where we intend them to. So help us define what it means to make progress.

And may we make it.

— Matthew Thompson and the Headway team

We wrote you a letter, and now we hope you’ll write us one. We’re eager to hear your reflections on progress and the lessons of Hindsight. Use the prompts below to write to us. Or, if you prefer, you can email us directly at

The Headway initiative is funded through grants from the Ford Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors serving as a fiscal sponsor. The Woodcock Foundation is a funder of Headway’s public square.

Quiz produced by Leilani Leach

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