Behind a smallish shop front on Marina Boulevard, the Long Now Foundation resembles something between a trendy coffee shop, second hand bookstore, art gallery and museum of mechanical computers. This was to be the culmination of a morning’s tour of downtown San Francisco for the Clean and Cool Mission, providing the group with a cultural, geographic and historical orientation to help frame the coming week.
Long Now Foundation Shop Front
I had previously come across The Long Now Foundation in articles written about its most famous project, a mountain-scale clock designed to keep time for the next 10,000 years.
Planet earth on the inner solar system position indicator mechanism of the 10,000 year clock
This design brief is both breathtakingly audacious and utterly perplexing. And for good reason, because the questions posed by this project run to the heart of what the Long Now Foundation is about. How do you design a clock that must outlast not only its designer but perhaps even its designer’s language and civilisation? What will power it? What events could occur in the next ten thousand years that might stop the clock or break it? How will the next five hundred generations maintain and repair it? And then there’s the small matter of ten millennia of weathering and climate change to deal with.
These questions and many more have been addressed in a beautifully conceived mechanical design which is now being installed in a man-made cavern in Texas, and a scale model of part of the mechanism stands in the Foundation’s entrance.
The Long Now Foundation is the brainchild of Danny Hills, Stewart Brand and Brian Eno ‘to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years’. It provides thought leadership and inspiration through a wide range of activities that span cultural, linguistic and genomic archives as well as digital information, software and computing projects. The Foundation also provides a forum for debate and idea sharing both through an active online community and a series of seminars hosted by co-founder Stewart Brand at the Foundation’s headquarters.
Originally a museum for the Foundation’s work, the building has recently been developed to include ‘The Interval’ – a meeting place and café – and hosts a crowd-curated ‘Manual for Civilization’, a collection of around 3,500 books considered most essential to sustain or rebuild civilization. One striking feature of this library is the prominence of science fiction which sits side-by-side alongside more practical manuals on how to build and understand things. One of the four basic categories which the library is composed of is “Long-term Thinking, Futurism, and relevant history”. In this category, well known history, anthropology and socio-political titles jostle for position with futurology and science fiction works. What many of these have in common is the contemplation of real or imagined changes in human society across millennial spans of time. This vision stands in stark contrast to the ‘short now’ of daily life, with an urgency driven by the exponential pace of change in technology, information, resource consumption and economics.
As the morning’s fog lifted, the relevance to our Clean and Cool Mission became clear. Every one of the cleantech businesses here understands the role that new technology can play to help address global sustainability challenges in the coming decades. The Long Now Foundation has taken this idea and, by looking out across millennia rather than decades, has made it much, much bigger.
Sam Cockerill is CEO of Libertine FPE Limited, developing “Linear Power System” technologies that will make decentralised power generation the norm – bringing clean, reliable and affordable power to wherever it is needed. Sam is currently in San Francisco along with fourteen other UK cleantech start-ups as part of the Clean and Cool Mission 2015. This week-long trip is an opportunity for the entrepreneurs to hone their business pitches, learn from leaders in the field, and talk about their amazing products to potential investors and partners. Clean and Cool 2015 is organised by Innovate UK, together with The Long Run Venture, UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) and CoSpA (the Co-Sponsorship Agency). You can follow the progress of the Mission on Twitter@innovateukmedia,@CleanandCool and #cleansf. Follow the author @LibertineFPE.