Nine projects with a long term perspective

I’ve written before about the need for long term perspectives, and how important it is to be able to think beyond electoral cycles or quarterly reports. The biggest problems of the 21st century are playing out over decades, and we need decades-long plans to deal with them.

With that in mind, I’ve been making a note of long term projects when I come across them. I am partly inspired in this by Alex Evan’s book The Myth Gap, in which he argues for ‘a longer now’, but then only gives a couple of examples. So I’ve been on the lookout for others. By looking at projects that run over decades, we can learn about how to structure a project so that it stands the test of time.

Here are nine:

  • All NASA missions are planned over many years, but the Voyager probes are a case in point. The idea was hatched in the 196os, and they launched in 1977. Voyager 1 completed its initial fly-by of Jupiter and then Saturn, and headed for the edge of the solar system. It got there in 2012, and continues to send data back from interstellar space as it approaches its 40th birthday.
  • It was Reagan and Gorbachev that agreed on international cooperation for experimental nuclear fusion energy, back in 1985. Work on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor site finally began in 2008. It isn’t due to run its first full scale experiments until 2035.
  • Pitch is a liquid that moves so slowly it can easily be mistaken for a solid, and in 1927 scientists at the University of Queensland set out to measure its exact viscosity. A chunk of pitch was put into a funnel, and they left it to see how long it took for the first drop to fall. The experiment is still going, and you can wait for the tenth drop on the university’s dedicated webcam.
  • At the moment the English city of Newcastle is debating handing its parks over to a citizen’s trust, as a response to budget cuts. If they do, it will be on a 125 year lease.
  • Work on Antoni Gaudi’s famous Sagrada Familia began in 1882. It has been under construction for 135 years and has another decade to go before Barcelona’s iconic cathedral is finally complete.
  • In 1985 composer John Cage wrote a piece of organ music called ‘As Slow as Possible’, with instructions for it to be played accordingly. Early performances rendered its eight page score in under an hour, but heroic organists later stretched it to 8 hours, or 12. Then a church in Halberstadt, Germany, began a performance that won’t end until the year 2640.
  • PIQL is an archiving company that offers long-term data storage. Data is stored on micrographic film that is designed to store digital information for 500 years. Just as much attention goes into the machines to read the film, so that future generations will actually be able to access them.
  • The Long Now Foundation exists to promote long term thinking, and one of its projects is to build a clock that will tick once a year for 10,000 years.
  • In the 1980s Finland began the process of looking for a safe repository for the spent fuel from its nuclear power industry. It settled on Olkiluoto in 2000, and construction of an underground storage facility began four years later. It will begin service in around 2020 and be full to capacity by 2125. At that point it will be sealed up, and it is designed to keep that nuclear waste safe for at least 100,000 years.


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