I want to lead you through some of the research that I’ve been doing on a meta-level around long-lived institutions, as well as some observations of the ways various systems have lasted for hundreds of thousands of years.

Long Now as a Long-lived Institution

This is one of the early projects I worked with Stewart Brand on at Long Now. We were trying to define our problem space and explore the ways we think on different timescales. Generally, companies are working in the “nowadays,” although that’s been shortening to some extent, with more quarterly thinking than decade-level thinking.

It was Peter Schwartz who suggested this 10,000 year timeframe. Danny Hillis’ original idea for what would ultimately become The 10,000 Year Clock was that it would be a Millennium Clock: it would tick once a year, bong once a century, and the cuckoo would come out once a millennium. He didn’t really have an end date.

We use the 10,000 year time frame to orient our efforts at Long Now because global civilization arose when the last Interglacial period ended 10,000 years ago. It was only then, around 8,000 BC, that we had the emergence of agriculture and the first cities. If we can look back that far, we should be able to look forward that far. Thinking about ourselves as in the middle of a 20,000 year story is very different than thinking about ourselves as at the end of a 10,000 year story.

This pace layers diagram is the very first thing I worked on at Long Now. The notion of pace layers came out of a discussion between Stewart and Long Now co-founder Brian Eno. They were trying to tease apart these layers of human time.

Institutions can be mapped across the pace layers diagram as well. Take Apple Computer, for example. They’re coming out with new iPhones every six months, which is the fashion layer. The commerce layer is Apple selling these devices. The infrastructure layer is the cell phone networks and chip fabs that it’s all built on. The governance layer—and note that it is governance, not government; they’re mostly working with governments, but they also have to work with general governing systems. Some of these companies are hitting walls against different types of governments who have different ideas of privacy, different ideas of commercialization, and they’re now having to shape their companies around that. And then obviously, culture is moving slower underneath all of this, but Apple is starting to affect culture. And then there’s the last pace layer, nature, moving the slowest. At some point, Apple is going to have to come to terms with the level of environmental damage and problems that are happening on the nature pace layer if it is going to be a company that lasts for hundreds or a thousand years. So we could imagine any large institution mapped across this and I think it’s a useful tool for that.

Also very early on in Long Now’s history, in 01997, Kees van der Heijden, who wrote the book on scenario planning, came to a charrette that Long Now organized to come up with business ideas for our organization. He formulated a business plan that was strangely prophetic:

The squares are areas where we have core competencies. The dotted lines indicate temporary competencies, like the founders. The other items indicate all the things we hadn’t really gotten to yet or figured out: we didn’t have a way of funding ourselves; we didn’t have a membership program; we didn’t have a large community of donors; we didn’t have an endowment; and we didn’t have people willing to give their estates to us. We still don’t have an endowment or people willing to give us our estates, but we’ve achieved the rest. And now that we’ve been around for 22 years, we can imagine how those two items are going to start to happen next.

I also want to point out the cyclical nature of this diagram. There’s no system in the world that I’ve found that is linear that has lasted on these timescales. You need to have a cyclical business model, not a linear business model.

The Longest-Lived Institutions in the World

I’ve been collecting data on all of the longest lived institutions in the world. As you look at these, there’s a few things that stick out. Notice: brewery, brewery, winery, hotel, bar, pub, right? And also notice that a lot of them are in Japan. There’s been a rough system of government there for over 2,000 years (the Royal Family) that’s held together enough to enable something like the Royal Confectioner of Japan to be one of the oldest companies in the world. But there’s also temple builders and things like that.

In the West, most of the companies that have survived for a very long time are basically service companies. It’s a lot easier to reinvent yourself as a service-oriented company than it is as a commodity company when that particular commodity goes out of use.

Colgate Palmolive (founded 01806) and DuPont (founded 01802) are commodity companies that are broad enough to change the kinds of products they sell over time. I’m interested in learning more about all these companies, as they probably all have some kind of special sauce in their stories of longevity.

Something else that came out of this research is the fact that the length of company’s lives is shrinking at almost one year per year. In 01950, the average company on the Fortune 500 had been around for 61 years. Now it’s 18 years. Companies’ lives are getting shorter.