The future’s coming faster than ever, and David Houle wants Sarasota to be ready. The cable-executive-turned-academic-futurist serves as managing director for The Sarasota Institute, a think tank focused on navigating global challenges. The professional seer sees a chance to make Sarasota a brand not just for hospitality but for brilliance, the hottest spot in the world for the intellectual globe-trotter. But he also sees the need to prepare society for the impacts of climate change, the depletion of resources and the threats that come with a worldwide pursuit of prosperity.  Born out of conversations between Houle, retired marketing master Philip Kotler and financial fund manager Jason Voss, The Sarasota Institute in concept came about in 2017. The entity released its first white paper a year later, and in 2020 was set to begin a series of symposiums on those topics challenging mankind in the 21st century. Of course, there’s been challenges this past year even Houle could not predict, a pandemic being the most notable, that’s pushed the fledgling institute into virtual mode. But that’s also offered an opportunity to build a reputation extending beyond the Suncoast. We spoke with Houle and asked him to tell us the future.

SRQ:  You served for years as Ringling College of Art + Design’s resident futurist. What’s the relationship between the Institute for the Ages and our local colleges?

David Houle: It’s completely separate from Ringling. But in 2019, we saw the four university presidents, who you can see are now on our board. Carol Probstfeld, the dynamic leader of State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota (SCF), took me on a tour of the campus and showed me the Neel Performing Arts Center, and as a professional speaker I said this is the perfect auditorium for what we want to do, so she has contributed that. This was obviously all pre-COVID-19.  

What was the original vision for The Sarasota Institute?  

Sarasota is such an interesting place, kind of like a combination of Santa Fe , NM and Monterey, CA. Really interesting people come here to retire and to live. You go around the world, mention Sarasota and you get a lot of, “Oh, I have been there.” Phil wondered if we should ask the Aspen Institute to do something here. I said that doesn’t make sense. Let’s just call it The Sarasota Institute. We set up with 10 topics for the Gulf Coast of Florida, the United States of America and humanity. We want to lead framing these big questions, and then lead in coming up with answers for these questions. About a year ago, we started selling memberships and talking with local foundations. Of course, they had a bad experience with the Institute for the Ages, but I told them I wasn’t asking for money, just advice and counsel. We ended up selling memberships for $250 for 12 months, and we were planning to have four or five live events at the Neel Performing Arts Center, plus put out various white papers. We did one in January on what we would call an educated person in 2035. It was successful and drew about 250 people. Then on February 29, we had a leap year look at climate change.  My background includes setting up the nonprofit This Spaceship Earth, so that was great. But then we started getting details about people being treated at Doctors Hospital with COVID. Our average age of memberships is 60, so we were the first entity that canceled an event.

How has the pandemic changed operations?   

We had emergency online webinars. What is the future of education, post-COVID? What is the future of climate change post-COVID? The future of democracy or capitalism. As a futurist, I’m very trend-oriented and into pattern recognition. I was asking a lot of people about this and we are not going to be out of this anytime soon. We’re not going to be anywhere remotely in a post-COVID-19 environment until about a year from now. I converted it all to online and virtual and cut the price for memberships. For everybody who already bought at the original price, we gave them an extra year. That’s where we are. We also originally set up as a [limited liability corporation] and we’ve since converted to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit because we’ve got people who want to make donations even in this current environment. Now the interesting thing is, when we started the membership, it was a very Sarasota–and Bradenton-based thing because of the physical nature of it being on the campus of SCF. But we now have between 2,800 and 3,000 emails for people subscribing to us to get out notices and columns—and they are from 23 countries. The whole time, the idea wasn’t just to be another Sarasota Institute of Lifetime Learning, or a Ringling Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. We’re getting memberships from around the world, and the idea is to amplify Sarasota to the world and to be a 21st-century think tank.

You have stressed a desire to be nonpolitical even as you tackle these questions. How will you manage that, especially at a time when our politics have become so tribal? 

When people hear “think tank,” they think of something from the Beltway, you know, conservative or progressive. Or it’s the World Economic Forum or the Aspen Institute, which has kind of been corrupted by big corporations. Because we are of the 21st century, we’re not beholden to any corporations, and we are not restricted to any locale in our idea or our vision.

When you discuss issues like climate change, will you focus on immediate issues facing the Gulf Coast, like sea-level rise? Or will you try and focus on issues of importance all around the world? 

The answer is in our URL, which is I don’t want a .com or a .org. “Global” is a prerequisite for anything we do. Yeah, we’re going to be American-centric to some degree right now because of the fact that’s the predominance of our membership. But we talked about democracy on December 3, and it was top of mind because of everything that was going on here [postelection challenges], but it’s a global issue. Everything about natural resources is a global issue. You know I’m a big climate change person, and I can tell you sustainability is a meaningless word unless you talk about it from a global point of view. Yes, we’re going to talk about sea-level rise, but we’re going to talk more about the fact that between now and 2030, there’s going to be between 50 to 100 million climate change refugees, mostly from South and Eastern Asia. And while our membership is American-centric, we are global with our perspective. But the problem with climate change in the climate justice thing is that, you know, post World War II, Americans sold the “American way of life” to the world. If everybody on the planet had the American way of life, we’d have to have five planets to sustain us. So, America has to take the lead because we set up the false narrative that everyone can live a materialistic life. So, you know, India and all the other poor countries have come along and said, “Well, why should you keep on doing what you already did?” The viewpoint is how do you go forward with a global singularity of a single focus on climate?

How do you tackle these issues in a way that transcends our traditional political lines?  

I have taken a position as our managing director and editor, so to speak, that there is no partisanship. If you want an example, we just did something on the future of democracy on December 3. But it wasn’t about Donald Trump or Joe Biden or the things in the headlines at the time. It was about how we could have the most transparent and secure election in history even in the time of the COVID pandemic. We talked about the Millennial generation showing up and working the polls. Then we talked about what it would mean in the future having the highest turnout since 1908. This was a spectacular story about the success of democracy, but the media is dumbing it down to what Trump is doing today or tomorrow. We talked about the state of democracy globally. We were talking about the global, the rise of authoritarianism and how democracy confronts that. And we talked about whether America is ready now for Nordic capitalism. All of this is not really about party at all. 

What’s the hope for what The Sarasota Institute can do for the Sarasota brand globally?

I was set to talk to Visit Sarasota County until COVID hit. We were going to work with that organization and the stronger voices in the seasonal tourism community to talk about how we can promote people coming here. We talked about working things out with hotels or on passes. We want people to come down here in the nonseasonal months because there’s intelligent conversation here. Part of my vision with this was always that Sarasota is a unique place. We have two presidents of Harvard that live here, and the greatest president of ABC ever is here. I live in Florida because it’s cultural, it’s educational. The Aspen Institute was formed in 1949 and was initially embraced by guys who owned the ski industry. The original idea was just to bring people in the summertime and make them into year-round resorts. So, we want to talk about coordinating with the tourism bureau and putting together “smart people packages.” We’ve already gone online and started promoting the area in that way.

Is there anything you can emulate in terms of raising awareness of the intellectual cache that exists here?

The Cross College Alliance has that as its mission, and I’m not getting in their way. But we have the college presidents on our advisory board, so obviously the future of education is a major focus. With half of our advisory board as educators, we have that orientation.

Can you explain a little bit about what futurists do and how that shapes the Institute? 

I’ve written a series of books, and the first was titled The 2020s: The Most Disruptive Decade In History. I’m working on another now called The 2020s: The Decade of Cognitive Dissonance. We’re at a time of incredible transition, and there’ll be more change in the next 10 years and in a 30- or 40-year period. So I know this think tank had to be about the future. It’s much more future-oriented than the Aspen Institute, which is much more about ideas; the first few years of the Aspen Institute were based on the great books and on getting philosophers and professors to talk together. The other model I looked at was the World Economic Forum. The idea there was embraced by central bankers and world leaders to come together in Davos, Switzerland,  a cool place, once a year. This is like that but very much future-focused. Being a futurist simply means I am much more future-focused. We’re trying to lead the thinking about the future of humanity.   SRQ