What Was I Thinking?

[DRAFT] Last updated on September 6, 2020

Harry Conaway, Executive Director of Policy Futures Network

At first, I struggled when friends and colleagues asked me what I planned to do next after I left my most recent job [LINK TO BIO]. Was I going to work somewhere else?  Was I going to start something new?  Would I retire, watch movies, relearn the guitar?  I wasn’t sure, and I felt a bit defensive about it.

But as the priority distortions that inevitably flow from official employment subsided, several realizations brought me to the idea of Policy Futures Network.

One of my first post-employment projects was to organize my house, and this required me to sort through 35 years of paper. I discarded most of it, but I noticed I had collected many articles on long-term, innovative policy ideas that were beyond the scope and interests of the places I had worked. I had long believed in the importance of focusing on long-term goals before next steps, but I was surprised that this tilt was also reflected in my paper collection patterns. So, my first realization was that I should focus on long-term policy ideas and change.

My second realization was that, while I have often completed projects on my own, my work has always improved when I collaborated with others. So if I started something new, I wanted to be sure it would involve working with people having diverse perspectives.

My third realization was that I wanted to get involved in activities that countered the hyper-polarized, evidence-challenged, and personally disrespectful culture of discourse and decisionmaking that seems to be on the rise. My temperament has always been more anthropologist and analyst than advocate, and so it seemed right to do work that promotes evidence, analysis, transparency, and interaction across a wide range of viewpoints.

Thus, the PFN idea was born.

An early step in creating PFN was to develop a logo for the organization. As you can see, I settled on an image of a banyan tree. Why? Before law school, I had studied South Asia from a cultural anthropological perspective, and the banyan tree (now the national tree of India) has many meanings in Indian culture, some of which reflect what I’m hoping to achieve in PFN. For example:

  • Banyan trees serve as central gathering and meeting places in many Indian villages, with neighbors coming together under the tree’s full, protective, and unifying umbrella or canopy. They also serve important roles in larger cities: evidently, in the 1850s, stockbrokers would gather and trade under a large banyan tree in Mumbai, thus creating the Bombay Stock Exchange, which is Asia’s oldest stock exchange.
  • While a banyan tree appears (particularly at a distance) as a grove or a forest of separate trees, it is actually a single tree with multiple “false trunks” (also known as “prop roots”). Also, it grows from a single tiny seed, just a couple of millimeters long, to be very large and diverse and to live for a long time. For example, the largest banyan tree alive today, which is in the southeastern coastal region of India, covers 4.7 acres and can shelter as many as 20,000 people. The banyan tree thus manifests the “unity in diversity” theme common in much of Indian culture, symbolizing that all apparently separate and different things are actually connected and, at deeper levels, have much in common. And I believe that this theme with be significant in the work of PFN.

Of course, I’m not really sure what will become of PFN. Perhaps many people will become members, it will come to cover a wide range of topics, and many will consider it to be a valuable source of long-term policy ideas. I’m hopeful, and this sort of success would be great in many respects. It could also be challenging, as growth would likely cause PFN to evolve in some surprising ways.  

It’s also possible that PFN won’t get much traction. In this case, PFN might not become more than “Harry’s Blog” – something like a nerd’s (and much less popular) version of goop. But it would still reflect the realizations that led me to start PFN, and happily, I’d be able to include movie and music reviews and other fun features on the website. (For example, here are a few movies I really like: 12 Angry Men, Memento, Vertigo, Blood Simple, Moulin Rouge!, and O Lucky Man!

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