Reflections on FutureFest

Leave a comment

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.

Do economics and business make unsustainability inevitable?

Leave a comment

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.

The process of learning

2 Comments

I believe the way that we learn roughly looks like this:

 

Process of learning image

We can gather information about the world from a whole range of sources – from books, conversations, videos, observation etc. Then some weird, wacky and wonderful process happens in our brains, in which information is analysed, compared and integrated, and this in turn forms our understanding of the world. This can generate original ideas about the world around us, which we can try out by conversing with people, by practically applying them in the form of creating products, launching organisations etc. Ultimately, by throwing our ideas out in to the world, we will gain feedback about our ideas, which provides further information about the world and on and on it goes…

 

This ties in with my view that learning is very much an iterative trial and error process in which we basically try something out, get it wrong but by doing so gain information, and at each stage our ideas become more refined and valuable to the world. This is counter to the dominant philosophy currently held in education which only values the first step – gathering information about the world. It does this by having us read books and listen to teachers tell us about the world. We are then tested on whether we are right or wrong – on our ability to retain and regurgitate knowledge. Even as begin to reach step 2 and develop our own ideas about the world, we do so within a very limited set of criteria. At university we are systematically evaluated and analysed on our ability to evaluate and analyse! Somehow there is even a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in the way we develop our own ideas about the world, by its very nature stifling creativity and learning. Steps 3 and 4 are not encouraged in schools and thus our learning process is sadly stunted.

 

My own learning about the world has accelerated since I left formal education, and this morning I was weighing up how my ideas have developed over time. At the moment I am living in Swindon and I notice that my learning is being stunted somewhat, because I am not in an environment in which I can practice the third stage; trialling my own ideas in the real world. I am consuming books at a vast rate, but in order to refine that information I need to have conversations with people – ideally people whose ideas are more developed than mine and who will challenge me and highlight the flaws in my thinking. I also need to be able to try launching initiatives of my own to see whether they have the real world value that in theory I believe they do. By doing this (and I know I need to get to London in order to do so) I will get some things right, more things wrong and overall gain feedback which will further the learning circle.

 

I’ll touch briefly here on a tension that exists between this natural learning process and the societal norms we experience. I grew up believing that to be wrong was basically akin to committing a sin, and my peers behaved in a similar manner. Making mistakes and ‘failing’ is hardly talked about in our society, but as I found in the entrepreneurial world, when it is talked about you can almost feel the relief in your peers as their shoulders visibly lighten. ‘Yes!’ they often say, ‘I made that mistake too!’. Why learn from our own mistakes if we can learn from the mistake of others? What a valuable learning experience. And why not share our own errors so that others can help see the lesson in them? To show us that our mistakes are not unnatural, but actually wholly to be expected? Amusingly, I still watch people as they vehemently argue that their point is right rather than acknowledging an opposing view and by doing so developing their ideas further. Their fear of being wrong is stunting their learning and growth, and will long continue to do so unless they can overcome it.

 

We are in a lucky position today whereby the information we can gather about the world is enormous. We have vast libraries of books, and then the biggest library of information ever known to man – that thing called the worldwide web. I notice the value of this in my own learning. I will start with a fairly broad subject, and as my ideas become refined I narrow down further and further. In a sense it can be frustrating, because just as I think that I have developed an original and valuable idea, someone will point me towards an individual or organisation who has already developed this. And so I gather more information from them, and in time I will be able to generate my own original and valuable ideas about the world. This same process has been practised by every person in every discipline in the history of humanity’s understanding about the world, as we build up our global knowledge bank. It was Einstein who said it best, ‘If I have seen a little further, it is only because I have been able to stand on the shoulders of giants’. This is how it sometimes feels, that as I read a great mind like EF Schumacher I am able to integrate his exceptionally developed ideas in to my own understanding of the world and then build further upon that – not because my mind is in anyway comparable to Schumacher’s, but because his ideas are accessible to me. I feel incredibly fortunate that libraries and the web offer me free, easy access to these ideas and these minds; this is a unique period in history that many do not appreciate.

 

By not making the most of this information, by not listening to talks by or having conversations with thinker-doers at the cutting edge of field, or by reading their writing, working alongside them etc we are essentially declining to learn anymore about the world than someone could have in the past. And even those whose ideas were developed many decades ago but still have great value like EF Schumacher and whose ideas are accessible to us, if we do not learn from them then we are declining to learn more about the world than someone could have many years ago.

 

The neatest way to sum this article up is to turn this theory of learning on to it and weighing up its place within that. It is obviously an attempt to trial my ideas in the real world. Next I will get some feedback which will further inform my ideas & knowledge. Someone may point out flaws, or more likely tell me that I’ve basically just regurgitated a theory someone else has already pioneered. In which case I’d look at their theory, assess its flaws and my ideas will be developed further.

 

And on and on it goes…

Time to re-think our values?

Leave a comment

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

Leave a comment

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?

Leave a comment

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

Why equality is fundamental to a sustainable future

4 Comments

If we want to live sustainably within the limits of our planet, we must address global inequality in standard of living. Relieving poverty is not just a good outlet for guilty westerners who want to do something that makes them feel good, but a necessity if we want to preserve a sustainable future for ourselves.

One of the main stumbling blocks in the current global discussions around any international actions on sustainability is that it is not at all a level playing field. The unsuccessful Copenhagen conference is testament to this, as unlike in the past it was the developing countries – namely China and India – who were the most resistant.

The western lifestyle is absurdly unsustainable. The demand we place on the planet for fish, meat, fuel, electricity is extreme and proportionately far higher than the majority of the people on the planet. Likewise, the impact we have through our carbon footprint, and the poisonous effect of the excessive waste we generate is also grossly disproportionate. As quoted from the article I am going to reference in this blog, Americans ‘…make up 5 percent of the global population, but use 20 percent of the world’s energy…eat 15 percent of the world’s meat… produce 40 percent of the world’s garbage.’

That sounds quite concerning to me.

This infographic brings home just how concerning it is. Costa Rica don’t put much demand on the planet right? Well, we’d need 1.4 planets to sustain the world’s population if everyone lived like Costa Ricans. If everyone lived like the French, we’d need 2.5 planets to sustain it (probably more if we’re taking in to consideration snails or frog legs). If we all lived like they do in the US? 4.1 planets. And that is at current rates. There are two further complications:

1) The population of the planet is increasing

2) The standard of life and demand on the planet is increasing across the globe

People across the world look at pictures of the USA on their TV screens, in the newspapers, on their computers and they aspire to that. For those of us privileged enough to live in the west, who the hell are we to tell them they can’t? What gives us the right to tell China to cut their excessive carbon emissions, when their per capita environmental impact/demand is far lower than that of us in the west. Who are we to tell them they can’t continue to increase their quality of life when 70% of its people live on less than $5 per day? I didn’t see many four-bed detached houses when I was in Southeast Asia, but I did see a lot of tin shacks that people called home.

Us humanfolk measure our state of wellbeing on relative, and not absolute terms. We look at those who seem better off and aspire to that. Most of the world is looking at the west and feeling as though they want that standard of living. As long as this is the case, those of us in the west will get almost nowhere in telling the rest of the world they need to reduce their environmental demand/impact. It’s hypocritical. It is us who need to radically alter the way we live if we’re interested in preserving a sustainable future.

Problem is, even if we manage across the world to make the enormous shift to a way of life that is clean, renewable and that places a demand that is within the planet’s limits, developing countries will not be satisfied knowing that their quality of life and per capita demand is far lower than those of us in the rich west. They will never accept that. Nor can we reasonably expect them to.

This asks some deeply painful questions. Are we committed enough to the future to be willing to reduce our material standard of living? To be willing to share more equally with the developing world that makes up the majority of the world’s population? Is this in human nature to do? I have my doubts.

Older Entries