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Envisioning The Future Of The American Chemical Society

ACS lays out strategy to prepare for coming trends

by William F. Carroll Jr., Chair, ACS Board Of Directors , Neil Jespersen, Chair, Planning Committee
August 26, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 34

The saying, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there,” is often attributed to Lewis Carroll (no relation). Whether he actually said it or not, the ACS Board of Directors has tasked the ACS Planning Committee with the responsibility of generating a strategic plan—mapping out where we’re going—and for helping us understand the future context in which it will be operative. Our ongoing Strategic Environmental Scan is a study of that external context and suggests roads that will take us where we want to go.

The environment we’re scanning is the future world in which we will live and operate. Predicting the future is tricky business, but many of the forces that will shape it exist all around us today. In our planning process, we try to create a framework through which we can understand how these forces will impact ACS as well as various other enterprises.

Neil Jespersen, Chair, Planning Committee
Credit: Courtesy of Neil Jespersen
This is a photo of Neil Jespersen.
Credit: Courtesy of Neil Jespersen
William F. Carroll Jr., Chair, ACS Board Of Directors
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
This is a photo of William F. Carroll Jr.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

We have adapted the McKinsey & Co. Three Horizons model for our use. Not surprisingly, the three horizons are short, medium, and distant, but we analyze them in a different order. First, we consider trends that can be extrapolated from today’s realities—that’s the short term, and our vision should be pretty clear. Second, we use scenario planning to paint a rough picture of what the world might look like in the hazy future. Finally, we use those two extremes to interpolate key areas of uncertainty in the intermediate term, which is our real focus for this exercise.

It’s that middle time frame that is the most important. Small tweaks in how we perceive, understand, or plan for the intermediate term on the basis of our current information and long-range scenarios can make a huge difference in our performance in the five- to 10-year time frame, which seems like a long way off but is actually right around the corner.

Sometimes there are discontinuities that interrupt the smooth transition between the horizons. Consider the events of Sept. 11, 2001, or the fiscal crisis in 2008—abrupt changes in the environment can’t be ruled out.

We are using a number of resources in this exercise. Some information can be found in contemporary literature. We also consult both professional “futurists” and focus groups of members, students, and other ACS stakeholders, including the ACS LinkedIn group, governance, and staff.

The broad topics of consideration include government fiscal constraints, the geopolitics of science, face-to-face versus virtual and hybrid meetings, and more. Twelve major trend areas have been or will be discussed by the Planning Committee, the board, the Council Policy Committee, and other ACS groups. The fall ACS national meeting in Indianapolis will be a center of this activity.

There are, of course, pitfalls to be avoided. Harvard University psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert warns in his book “Stumbling on Happiness”: “The way we feel right now and the way we think right now exert an unusually strong influence on the way we think we’ll feel later. … We fail to recognize that our future selves won’t see the world the way we see it now.” In other words, if you’re knee-deep in a problem today, it’s hard to imagine a world without that problem five years from now. And yet, the best projecting is done if we can lift ourselves from the current challenges.

Envisioning the future might even be the easy part. Executing plans that position us for the future is more difficult. The roadside is littered with organizations that could see the future but couldn’t make the transition. We’re planning on being one of the successful organizations.

As we explore the future environment, we’d like to hear your voice. Please e-mail your ideas about key developing trends and factors that should shape ACS strategy to Also, we encourage you to post your thoughts about the evolving chemistry enterprise within the ACS Network or the ACS LinkedIn group, which we monitor regularly.

The world we face as chemistry professionals will change, and our understanding of it must evolve as well. We will share the results as they become available through ACS committees and governance group meetings, web­inars, and C&EN.

Predicting the future is hard. But imagining outcomes of different likelihoods and preparing for multiple eventualities is necessary, and we’re on it.



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