The Ise Shrine, rebuilt every 20 years since 00692 AD

Learning from the World’s Longest-lived Organizations

How can companies and organizations that have survived through centuries help us understand how to build the multi-generational institutions needed for today's civilizational challenges?

One of Long Now’s founding premises is that humanity’s most significant challenges require long-term solutions. Projects like long-term ecosystem management or space exploration require follow up over the course of hundreds of years. Historically, projects and solutions enacted without some type of support infrastructure often dissipate within a generation, their noble goals relegated to the obscurity of history books. Similarly, civilization’s most critical knowledge is often housed in and cared for by institutions —such as the United Nations and various national archives — that are not designed to withstand predictable natural disasters and social upheaval. In the business world, average company life spans are shrinking at a rate of nearly one year per year. In a world where civilization now has the power to alter the planet on millennial timescales, we lack the long-term institutions to work effectively over generations.

However, there are a small number of companies and organizations that have managed to stay stable over many centuries, and in some cases, over millennia. Surprisingly, there are few data-driven studies of what makes these organizations succeed.

Hoshi Ryokan, founded in 00718 AD and currently on its 47th generation of ownership

Long Now has been informally tracking these organizations for years, and in 02019 I began a more formal study these long-lived institutions. These range from universities and martial arts communities to guesthouses and breweries. Early research shows that a vast majority of them are in the alcohol, food, and hospitality sectors, and the largest majority geographically are in Japan.

While the historical record will be our best teacher, I also hope to learn from newly emerging organizational structures that may change our conceptions of what companies or institutions could be. I hope to collect all of these lessons and stories into a book that distills them in an accessible way for contemporary institutions, companies, and governments.

Maharaja Gaj Singh, whose family has been in power since the 13th century AD.

In February 02019, Long Now held Long Lived Institutions, a special event at The Interval focused on organizational continuity. The group consisted of Long Now board members, staff, and outside experts.

Scenario Planning for the Long-term
Peter Schwartz, a founding board member of Long Now and author of The Art of the Long View, distills the lessons learned from his work in scenario planning for organizations.

Intellectual Dark Matter
Samo Burja, a Long Now Research Fellow and theorist, explores how civilizations have historically lost knowledge, information, and, in some cases, even the foundations of their entire societies. These examples underscore the pitfalls that any organization aspiring for long-term survival must avoid.

The Data of Long-Lived Institutions
Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose shares his preliminary research into what type of organizations last, what they have in common, and which elements and strategies they developed that have contributed to their survival.

The Longevity of Nature
Dr. Eric Berlow, a complexity researcher focused on mapping the health of ecological systems, broadens our thinking about the mechanisms of long-term systemic success in nature.

Language, Meaning, and Culture
Dr. Laura Welcher, Director of Long Now’s Rosetta Project, explores one of the longest lived human systems — language itself.

Generational Transitions and Governing Systems
Katherine Fulton, Co-Chair of Long Now’s Board of Directors and a leading thinker on the future of philanthropy, tackles generational change, which is often one of the most critical moments in any organization that hopes to last.

Further reading

A CHANGE WAS MADE ON APR 29, 02024: The article was updated to reflect Alexander Rose's plans for continuing his organizational continuity work indepedently following his tenure as Long Now's Executive Director.
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The Long Now Foundation is a nonprofit established in 01996 to foster long-term thinking. Our work encourages imagination at the timescale of civilization — the next and last 10,000 years — a timespan we call the long now.

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