Reflections on FutureFest

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Last weekend I attended an event run by Nesta called FutureFest. I’ll give a quick rundown of what the event was about, my reflections on it (both how it was run and the questions that emerged from it), and the emerging technologies that could shape our future in a big way.

Outline

As the name suggests, the whole event was based around futurism and looked to answer a few key questions:

Where are we headed?

What future do we want to create?

How do we create it?

In terms of format, it was part talk-fest, part interactive. The main room was used almost exclusively for quick fire (20 minute) talks, and then we had panel/audience debates in another room. Downstairs was used for the ‘Imaginarium’, which was a mix of funky technology and organisations engaging you about the future-related work they’re doing.

 

Reflections

The conference was pretty slick and immersive, helped by a great venue; Shoreditch Town Hall. Although for me it was over-curated. I don’t go to conferences so much to be talked at, but rather to talk with people, and there wasn’t much space or time provided for spontaneous interaction with other attendees, which I always find to be the richest part of events. The speakers were a real mix, some were engaging and focused, others seemed to forget what they were supposed to talk about and meandered aimlessly.

That said, I certainly found the event as a whole very thought-provoking. The main insights for me were:

Our default view is of technology is that it is progress, but each tech should be put under the microscope and analysed for whether it is making the world better (i.e. more socially just/environmentally sustainable), not just whether it can be sold. Whilst science and business have many strengths, they pay no heed to ethics and such decisions should not be left to the market. One of my concerns is that our technology is fast beginning to outstrip our maturity as a species to know what best to do with it.

It’s very difficult for us to make wise judgements about the costs/benefits of new technology. The main context from which we make decisions is to ask ‘what is best for us as an individual tomorrow?’ What we need to ask is ‘what is best for society in ten years?’ i.e. using long-term, big picture thinking to make decisions.

Optimism bias was definitely on show, and what I mean by this is that we judge good things unusually likely to happen to us, negative things unusually unlikely – it’s an important little trick our minds play on us to inspire us to get up in the morning and keep going. However, I was glad to see some speakers acknowledge that we face some sizable challenges ahead, and technology alone is not the answer to all of them – in fact new technology also causes new problems, especially if we continue to neglect the unintended and inevitable negative consequences of it. Every technology has downsides too; perhaps our greatest technological breakthrough of the last few centuries – the use of fossil fuels for energy – has also provided us with perhaps the biggest problem of the 21st century; climate change.

I felt there were a lot of speakers/panelists too concerned with trying to look like experts, and trying to take black and white stances on some messy, complex issues in which the truth lies somewhere in between two conflicting viewpoints. They were busy looking clever rather than trying to find a better answer.

There was a great deal of agreement that civilization’s current macro-institutions (economics especially, but also politics, business, education etc) are growing increasingly outdated and that new ones will spring up sooner or later that are more capable of handling the challenges we face. Unfortunately, the questions of what these should look like and what methods we use to create them were left largely unasked.

Another take home was just how spectacularly wrong a lot of futurists get things when they try to predict the future! Apparently futurists have been predicting fewer working hours for decades and decades, and yet it is going the opposite way. This is an example though of where technology is not the answer – it is economics that represents the main barrier to shorter working hours rather than technology; the technology is already there for us to be working very short weeks.

And one of my favourite lines from the conference; ‘If we want better answers, we need to ask better questions.’

 

Radical future trends

A few things to look out for (some of which aren’t so far away at all)…

Sir Martin Rees suggested that with developments in genetics, within the next couple of centuries we will be in charge of evolution – not natural selection any longer.

A man in Austria recently had voluntary amputation in order to have a robotic hand installed. The world in which we choose to replace parts of ourselves with robotics is perhaps not so far away. One of the speakers was Bertolt Meyer, who himself has a robotic hand, and he speculated that he could even see this becoming a sign of status.

In China they are using gene-mapping to see what people’s talents are and how they should be raised to cultivate this. This immediately got me thinking about Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

Soon we’ll be at a stage where 3D printers can print all the components necessary to make 3D printers!

 

And a few interesting technologies on show

Cancer Research UK found that, using their program, members of the public are 90-95% accurate in spotting cancer cells and will soon be opensourcing this out to the crowd to assist with finding cures for cancer.

The BBC have been working on surround visual TV, with images projected on the walls all around you whilst watching the program.

Potentially coming soon on Radio 5 Live (also from the BBC R&D department) listeners will be able to adjust the balance of volume between commentators and crowd, and choose which part of the crowd in the stadium they want to listen to.

BERG Cloud’s Little Printer, which is the smallest printer I’ve ever seen…

All in all, I’m really pleased I went – I learned a lot and made some great connections there. So a big thanks to Nesta for putting an event asking some very important questions.

On the privatisation of public services: An objection on principle

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Amidst all the excitement surrounding the recent privatisation of the Royal Mail, the delivery of public services has been on my mind*. It’s long given me a sense of unease watching the current government increasingly privatise our public services, and up until now I’ve been unable to put my finger on why. I’ve begun to realise that it’s essentially the contrasting bottom lines upon which private and public these sectors operate that troubles me.

Fundamentally the bottom line for private business is profit maximisation, rather than provision of quality services. To some extent the two go hand in hand, but it is crucial to acknowledge this motive for profit, because it prompts decision-making all the way down. Public services should be, as the name suggests, a service for the public, not a service provided to maximise private profit. Don’t blame the people at the top of corporates for making decisions with profit at heart, blame the legal business model (company limited by share) which means they are legally obliged to maximise shareholder profit. They’re just doing what they must.

You can see the problem in other public services e.g. provision of healthcare. There is no money in prevention, and from a business point of view prevention makes no sense – if successful enough you put yourself out of business. In contrast, there is a lot of money in pharmaceuticals though – a point made by a healthcare professional in a seminar I went to recently. In order for these pharmaceutical companies to survive they need to sell more drugs, it would be bad business if they prevented health problems from arising in the first place as they would soon find themselves out of business. There’s a real tension there between what is good for people and what is good for business.

A justification for privatising services is that competition drives up quality, and so the market naturally filters out all but the best services. There is truth in this, but it is a blinkered perspective. The market also favours companies with the best advertising, who are the best at making people feel inadequate without their product/service. The market favours companies manufacturing products with a short lifespan, so that people have to keep replacing their products every year irrespective of whether they are actually still adequate for the job (iPhone 11 anyone?). The market favours companies who use whatever methods they can get away with to maximise their shareholder profit, including exploitation and tax evasion. The market is not a barometer of what is in the best interests of the public, and a blunt tool when it comes to ethics in decision-making.

There is also the question of ownership to consider. Public services remain in the hands, in theory at least, of citizens. How do we feel about the Government of Singapore being one of the biggest shareholders in the Royal Mail?

Of course, I am in danger of taking a blinkered anti-business view myself. The private sector is less susceptible to the political infighting and jostling that can so harm public services. And it does open it up to competition, which drives up innovation and efficiency. Without this the quality of service can stagnate. Another advantage of using business to provide service for the public, is that if it is an effective service then it stands a good chance of making profit, and thereby growing as Michael Porter points out in this talk, and CSR is gradually becoming a much more fundamental part of how we do business. It is also important to acknowledge that government is responsible for regulating industries too, although it is debatable where the power of balance really lies here.

Public services have weaknesses too. They can end up as government cash cows, as occurred with our eastern rail services. The government, like business, is concerned with its economic turnover and operates each year with a budget deficit. The loans they attain from banks to make up this deficit grow in interest every year, increasing the pressure and forcing them to compromise around their implementation of public services.

In my view, social enterprise could have a crucial role to play here in the future in terms of providing a better balance of service. Community Interest Companies are worth keeping an eye on, as they balance public interest against economic goals. However, the social enterprise sector is not yet generally big enough to take on large public service contracts. B Corporations are also opening up the opportunities for business to serve the public.

Public sector, social enterprise and charity all have their flaws, but to me all are preferable models when it comes to delivering services for society compared to for profit business, simply because of the bottom line. So my objection is a philosophical one. Public services at least are somewhat democratic, and if the public are not happy they put pressure on government to improve. Charities will likely die out unless they are having a significant and demonstrable social impact now, likewise social enterprise. However business, at the moment at least, has one bottom line – maximise shareholder profit. In my view, that’s not a good enough motive from which to create a service for the public.

*This article has a good debate on the pros and cons of privatisation: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/debate/royal-mail-privatisation-the-pros-and-cons-8814217.html

Reflections on a future free of aging

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On Saturday I attended an insightful talk by Russian scientist and aging expert Alex Zhavoronkov at Birkbeck College. The talk was titled ‘Biomedical Discoveries and the Ageless Generation’.

 

Alex talked us through the scientific breakthroughs taking place in aging research at the moment, drawing attention to successful experiments that have significantly extended the life spans of mice and house flies. He explained that our understanding of the factors that cause aging has come a long way, and that this is one of the main reasons he is so confident that the current generation of 20-40 somethings will go on to live healthy lives until 150 years old.

 

Yes, you did that right – 150. A bold prediction, but one that Alex confidently believes will come true and I’d pay attention too – he’s the expert and is really at the leading edge of this research at the moment. I won’t go in to much detail about the scientific context, but you can find out more by reading the book that Alex has recently released.

 

What I would like to do is share a few reflections I had following the talk on a possible future in which our lives are greatly extended. I’m always a bit sceptical of technological breakthroughs and all the potential they promise to transform our lives for the better. Technology has long promised this ‘life of abundance’ in which we have lots of time for leisure and family, and we are free of suffering. If anything though, I see our lives getting more stressful – indeed in Andrew Simms’ book Cancel the Apocalypse he highlights the fact that in the UK our working weeks have actually grown since the 1980s, despite all the technological development supposedly making our lives easier. The techno-optimist perspective seemed to be the dominant one though amongst the attendees. I feel that now it is more our cultural mindset and economic system that stand in the way of this easier life, rather than the technology itself. I’m not sure we’ve made much progress in these areas over the past few decades. So like any technological development, I believe prolonged lives will solve some problems, and create others.

 

First reflection: Any discussion of extending quantity of life should include a discussion of quality of life. We live in a time where ‘more is better’ is a dominant philosophy. What will we do with all these extra years? What new possibilities will they enable in our lives? A couple of friends I spoke with afterwards turned their noses up at the prospect of living an extra fifty years just to spend it all working – and this is what our economy would demand.

 

Second reflection: As someone who is rather concerned about our current overshoot of environmental resources and the consequences this will have for the future, the idea of us living longer brings some obvious worries. Of course technology could come to our rescue, but at the moment we are using up 1.4 Earths to sustain ourselves and so far technology seems to be enabling this to worsen. Ultimately, the effects of overshoot will be felt in poorer countries first, who would not be the beneficiaries of any breakthroughs in aging science. The rich will benefit, and by living longer put more demand on resources, with the impacts of this felt first in poorer countries. My concern therefore is that breakthroughs in aging science will likely increase global inequality, which is not something I am a great fan of.

 

I have to say though, I love the idea of having an extra 70 healthy years. What would you do with that time?

Do economics and business make unsustainability inevitable?

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I believe that the most fundamental root cause of many of our current social and environmental problems lies with our institutions – primarily our institutions of economics, business and governance. Poverty, climate change, mounting debt…these can all been attributed, to greater or larger extents, to the institutions that modern civilization is built upon; institutions that are cracking and creaking as they prove increasingly insufficient for the challenges of the modern world.

Let’s look at sustainability. We have an economic system that requires constant growth in order to survive. We have a business system that has to play by these economic rules and thus also requires constant growth. This is a model of business (the corporation) whose bottom line and primary purpose is to maximise its profit. Neither of the business or economic institutions take any consideration of social or environmental impact, although this is very slowly changing. Both of these institutions in fact treat our environment as unlimited income (rather than finite capital) and, it could be argued, require natural resources in order to run effectively – in order to meet their inherent need for constant growth. Neither institution takes in to consideration the possibility of limits.

So, our economic institution, and by extension our institution of business, requires constant growth yet takes no consideration of limits. Our civilization and entire way of life is dependent on such institutions. Every nation (with the possible exception of Bhutan) and business on the planet is chasing economic growth, with almost no acknowledgement of the possibility of limits. When this is understood, it seems of little surprise that our path is so unsustainable. It seems quite clear that our impact on the planet, particularly in the form of climate change, and our inability to manage our resources sustainably is a result of the institutions we have built our world upon. Such problems represent a very serious threat. Overshooting limits has had a role in every civilization collapse in history. And here we are, building modern civilization upon institutions which take no consideration of limits. Clever.

It does not take a physicist to tell you that infinite growth in a finite system is impossible. Simple common sense is enough. And yet, this is what our institutions demand. Currently, in order to achieve sustainability we are fighting against the institutions which define modern society. They have served us well for a long time, but are becoming increasingly outdated. To succeed, it seems clear that these institutions will need to undergo significant change.

Time to re-think our values?

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Over the last few years I have watched enormous resources (human, financial, material) thrown at various social and environmental issues. Organisations coordinating the programs all report back with tremendous positivity about the impact they are having. And yet…at a holistic level we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. I recall working on a project attempting to tackle homelessness, and we were told by the experts that homelessness has actually increased, quite remarkably, in parallel with the resources invested in tackling it. Have we really made such great progress in areas like health, education, economy, environment, poverty? There have been many leaps forward (we have met some of the Millennium Development Goals already), and yet personally I do not feel that we are making particularly impressive progress given the resource investment. Perhaps we are tackling the symptoms, and not the cause.

 

I believe to understand where all of humanity’s problems come from we must first accept a most uncomfortable truth:

 

We are the cause of every single one of them.

 

I have learned from my experience of depression as well as my time in social enterprise that we must first accept a problem in its entirety before we attempt to tackle it. Taking responsibility is perhaps also an important step, given how inclined we seem to be individually and collectively to absolve blame and point the finger elsewhere. By taking responsibility for a problem, we can then take responsibility for tackling it.

 

I am not telling you of course to take responsibility yourself for the entire 2 billion people living in poverty. A problem of such scale is not the fault of one individual, or even one nation, but the fault of billions of individuals collectively. Whether you like it or not, you have had a role to play though, as have the people you see around you. By buying materials and produce made by those living in poverty at such a reduced rate you are contributing. We buy from corporations whose greed-driven purpose is to maximise profit, by nature then exploiting those who have so little. On a systems level we are all players in the game of capitalism, which polarises wealth.

 

I see the fault for many problems we face lying within our cultural values. Here are some of the values that define mainstream society today:

Greed

Throwaway culture

Short-term interests maximised at long-term cost

Break down of close-knit communities

Quantity over quality

Demand for constant growth

Consumerism

Lack of respect for environment we wholly rely on

 

Unfortunately many of these values have spread from the ‘dominant’ west which much of the rest of the world aspires to imitate. The west looks impressive on the surface with its big shiny buildings, fancy technology and 2 cars per household, but that conceals the rotten core beneath. Record levels of obesity, stress and mental illness are hardly symbols to me of a flourishing civilization. I can think of few who feel particularly satisfied or purposeful in how they are living their lives. And all this for a lifestyle which is, quite simply, unsustainable.

 

The car crash of our misplaced values is playing out in slow motion, right before our eyes, as our economy wobbles with little sign of recovery, the climate inches ever closer to dangerous levels of warming, and ever more of us find ourselves fighting over ever fewer resources on this planet.

 

Such a state of things has been caused by contemporary approaches and contemporary values. To chart a more sustainable and prosperous course for ourselves going forward requires a new approach. It requires new values.

Why we need to drop GDP as a measure of progress

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How do we measure progress? There’s no question that the indicators we use to achieve this are of utmost importance as they underpin key high-level decisions. Since 1944, the measurement indicator we have used is GDP. I am going to work through the flaws of this measure, and suggest alternatives that would more accurately and universally reflect human progress.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) can be defined as the value of a country’s overall output of goods and services at market prices, excluding net income from abroad.* In other words, the economic value placed on the amount of stuff a country produces. GDP has become the measure of progress. Countries use it to compare how they are doing against other countries. Governments use it to compare how they are doing against past governments.

In truth, it was never intended to be used in the way it is now. Simon Kuznets, the creator of GDP, said of it that, “the welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measure of national income.”** He disputed its accuracy as an indicator of standard of living. I’m inclined to agree, and I have serious reservations about GDP; honestly I find it astonishing that it is used as it is now. And that’s without even going in to the copious number of methods that governments have come up with allowing them to doctor GDP and present a falsely optimistic picture.

Pure production output fails to take in to consideration the physical or psychological well-being of the citizens, and indeed GDP has often been criticised for this recently. Some have called instead for ‘Gross National Happiness’ as a measure. I object to this, although it does have some merit. I take issue with happiness as a measure, because happiness is a fleeting emotion and my neuroscience background tells me that it exists (like any emotion) purely as a feedback mechanism rather than a long-term state of being that we can attain. I would argue that ‘Gross National Well-being’ is preferable, as our general sense of well-being is less transient than happiness. Perhaps for some people they are one and the same though and I am simply being pedantic.

GDP also fails to consider two concepts which I feel will become of increasing importance given current global trends. Those concepts are resource efficiency and environmental footprint. As we bump harder and harder against the natural limits of the planet, both of these will have to be used as measures of progress. How efficient we are at using resources and minimising waste will matter because of the growing scarcity of global resources. Countries ought to be incentivised to be as efficient as possible with the resources available to them. Similarly, we are making living conditions increasingly precarious through runaway climate change. Widespread deforestation is a danger given the crucial role that trees play in regulating the delicately balanced composition of elements in our atmosphere that we depend on. These are just two examples of environmental footprint; there are many others.

Somehow, it is in our human nature to keep on developing and moving forward; to learn and to create. Improving our sense of well-being and standard of living would seem to be at the heart of this, as we continue to make our lives more comfortable, more safe and more efficient. So this sense of well-being must remain in any measure of progress. Well-being does not go hand in hand with material wealth/output however, and yet GDP as a measure of progresses incentivises material production. By removing material production from progress indicators, you free up other means of improving well-being such as sense of purpose, sense of community, and leisure time to name a few.

So I believe a better measure of progress would incorporate well-being, resource efficiency and environmental impact. In this sense you are capturing the key indicators of progress – the country’s ability to sustain itself and its citizens’ well-being.

The Happy Planet Index developed by the London-based think tank New Economics Foundation is an excellent example of what a true measure of progress could look like – check it out. I would also recommend looking in to the recently launched Social Progress Index.

 

 

 

 

*Taken from The Business Dictionary http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/gross-domestic-product-GDP.html

**Taken from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Kuznets

Are we destined for an international government?

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Some time ago, life was organised in to community living. People lived in small villages, everyone knew one another and they sourced all that they needed from the land in the village. We then started building towns and cities; great population and resource hubs. This required more sophisticated governance and management. Nations came next, made of multiple cities and towns and requiring yet another level of governance and management. I believe that we are approaching another stage, that of international governance.

 

For one, it seems a natural next step forward from the progression listed above. From community governance to city governance to nation governance to international governance.

 

Secondly, never before has our world been more interconnected. Few (if any) countries are entirely independent, as countries have come to rely on others for crucial resources such as food and oil. Nations now are even buying farmland in other countries to use for crops. Now if one nation struggles, then it has a knock-on effect on the rest of the world. We also feel empathy for those in other parts of the world, an empathy that goes beyond the borders of our nation. We are truly interdependent. The bizarreness of North Korea is the only obvious exception to this interconnectedness, but I’m sure that too will change in time (peacefully, I very much hope).

 

Thirdly, we are already seeing international bodies that represent something not so far off international governance*. Perhaps the closest example is the European Union, with its parliamentary process and shared currency – tying these nations closer together. The United Nations of course comes to mind as an international political body. The UN is a membership body rather than a governing body however, and has little power to issue directives to other nations, thus it can easily be undermined by the actions of a single nation (more so than the EU). Its charter is built around the principles of global peacekeeping, building relations between nations and solving international problems. It is the last principle here that I feel makes international governance inevitable.

 

Never before have we faced planetary limits as we do now. In the past, when a nation or civilisation has exceeded its natural limits it has collapsed largely in isolation. Now is very different, as any environmental crisis we face will be international in nature and thus require an international solution.

 

Climate change is perhaps the greatest threat humanity has ever faced, and requires every nation to commit to action on it. Yet we saw what happened in Copenhagen. With the whole world watching, no agreement was made. Even if every country but China were to drastically reduce carbon emissions, then so long as China continued their rate of emissions the disastrous impact would affect all of us and the good work would be undone. China have been obstinate on reducing carbon emissions, because providing a decent standard of living to their citizens requires continued industrial output and thus continued emissions. That would be all well and good if China had an atmosphere to itself, but unfortunately the atmosphere is not divided up by nation and we all must share the same one. International cooperation is imperative to tackle carbon emissions and we must commit to action as a global community; nation borders only prove an obstacle and lead to mixed motives. I could have used deforestation instead of carbon emissions as a very similar example.

 

The above is an example of our environmental impact, but the other side of the coin is our resource consumption. Our current consumption is beyond what the planet can regenerate, and we are overshooting by about 40% (and rising). Obviously, this cannot continue. And again, this requires international cooperation. Population size requires stabilisation, resource consumption needs regulation and global efforts need to be directed towards more efficient resource usage.

 

The UN in its current guise does not have the power to tackle the global challenges laid out above. How you would do it I have no idea and it would be plagued with issues, but international governance is required if we are to all live together on this planet. Nationhood is no longer sufficient in a global interdependent world facing global challenges.

 

The UN was born out of the most devastating international tragedy in human history. It will take something similarly catastrophic born out of the environmental sphere to mobilise nations in to international governance, but it will happen. It must happen if we are to work with the necessary international urgency and cooperation to tackle the global challenges we now face.

 

 

 

*Other examples are regional bodies such as the Arab League and ASEAN, and international membership institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund

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