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.

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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.

Changemaking: A flaw and an opportunity to do good better

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This recent article from Nesta sheds light on a worrying observation for those working to create social or environmental change. Despite the consistent increase in resources (human, financial, tech) invested in social and environmental issues, the underlying trends that we are trying to reverse continue to worsen. The article ends by asking whether we are willing to ‘abandon Business-As-Usual approaches’ and embrace new approaches to social innovation. In attempting to ‘do good’, ethics dictates that we must be critically assess our approaches, and aim to invest resources in the most effective manner possible.

I’ve observed a clear and worrying trend during the time I’ve split between Australia and the UK. It’s certainly not the root of the issues outlined above, but it is a clear opportunity. It is as follows:

The concept of being an agent of positive change, of ‘changemaking’ has become far too synonymous with social entrepreneurship. I see this as a fundamental flaw in our approach to generating change, and with that an excellent opportunity to do things better. I will explain.

I define ‘changemaking’ as the act of generating social or environmental change with the aim of improving upon current circumstances. Or more simply if you like, trying to make the world better. There are clearly a great many techniques one could use for achieving this, but one approach has taken on an excessive and unjustified prominence; social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship is the act of building a new organisation with a social or environmental purpose. I have nothing against social entrepreneurs and would apply that label to myself – I have  founded two organisations myself and have had a significant hand in the establishment of two others. The title of this blog is a bit of a giveaway. I would, however, suggest that this makes me well-placed to critique.

In Australia I searched for programs that develop my ability as a changemaker. Overwhelmingly, they support or prioritise social entrepreneurs; The Foundation for Young Australians’ Young Social Pioneers program, Centre for Sustainable Leadership program and of course the School for Social Entrepreneurs. When I was invited to attend the Foundation for Young Australians’ ‘Young and Extraordinary’ event, most of the delegates were attempting to start their own initiatives. Likewise as I have searched further afield for leadership development programs or networks, it is rare to find one that doesn’t expect you to be working with an organisation that you have founded. In other words, they expect you to be a social entrepreneur.

This learning towards social entrepreneurship is not just evident in the programs that cater for them, but also in how we praise them. Founding an initiative is seen as a stamp of approval, and to some extent I felt as though I wouldn’t be perceived as credible within the changemaking community unless I did so. In Australia, many of the winners of the ‘Young Australian of the Year’ awards had founded their current organisations. Social entrepreneurship is seen as sexy and we place these people on a pedestal.

And yet…social entrepreneurship is just one piece of the complex puzzle that is changemaking. It has its place yes, but setting up a new organisation is hardly the solution to every problem we encounter. In fact, I feel it irresponsible to assume that it is, given the resources we then expect people to put in to it, and given that every positive step will have some negative side effects. There are only so many resources to go around, so splitting them between ten organisations (there are over 50 breast cancer charities in Australia) with identical missions is hardly ethical or efficient. A little competition is healthy and valuable yes, but it has gone to to absurd levels. We must weigh up our options carefully if we are serious about generating positive change, and there are other approaches we can use. Perhaps this particular social or environmental problem needs more public awareness. Perhaps it needs corporate resourcing. Perhaps it needs a different systemic approach from government. Perhaps what it definitely doesn’t need is a new organisation launched to tackle it.

So what about intrapreneurship – generating powerful change from within an organisation that already has resources waiting to be put to use? There’s collective impact, which recognises that real change is only possible when corporates, governments and nonprofits are all sat around the table. And what about politics? Whether we like it or not, government and politicians run the country (along with banks and heavyweight corporates, depending on what you read). What about campaigning and rallying people around certain issues that matter – empowering social movements? Or how about producing and publishing research that moves our understanding forward? There are other subtle ways too, like speaking or writing where we can reach many people and have a positive impact. These are the different techniques I speak of.

I’ve had to search out these other areas myself. There is no School for Social Intrapreneurs. No course for people who want to make a positive difference through politics (and my goodness could we do with one). I’ve learned about collective impact by searching out organisations who have this at their core and getting involved. I’m learning now about politics by chasing up and spending time with my local Councillors and MP. There are two barriers here:

1) We do not encourage changemakers to explore these areas.

2) We do not have the programs to cater to these interests.

These issues I feel are especially poignant for young changemakers entering the space with good intentions and uncertainty around how to channel them. Currently, they will get pushed towards social entrepreneurship as a default, which I firmly believe to be a mistake.

Ok, so I’ve mostly covered the flaws. What’s the opportunity? The opportunity of course is to channel the tremendous energy, skills and good will of people to make things better in a much more effective way. I have some suggestions for how, but I would turn to people with more experience in changemaking to critique these and generate their own. So in the context of the two issues I highlighted above…

Encouraging changemakers to explore other means of generating change

I’d like to see individuals who are using these other techniques to generate change celebrated more and given a higher profile. Intrapreneurs, those working in government, campaigners, speakers. Leaders in change who are not just social entrepreneurs. I’d like to see these other techniques given more attention at changemaking events. I’d like to see programs and organisations that cultivate changemaking build in to their program at an early stage a lot more learning and information about these techniques. To critically ask; ‘is setting up a new organisation really the best and most responsible way to tackle this issue?’

Catering to other means of generating change

Here I’d love to see existing programs for changemakers start to build in these other techniques. To give those on the program a flavour for collective impact, for politics, for intrapreneurship. In time, to see programs in place that specialise in these other techniques, just as there are so many excellent programs now that specialise in social entrepreneurship.

If we are serious about generating change in a more efficient and effective manner, then we need to move away from our flawed obsession with social entrepreneurship and take advantage of this great opportunity to do things better.

Why equality is fundamental to a sustainable future

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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.

Why is global compassion on the rise?

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This article really resonated with me. Yes, like all ‘science journalism’ its scientific credibility is somewhat dubious, but this exploration of mankind’s compassion and the wider picture of why it might be growing has had me hooked for a while.

A couple of years back I came across some research demonstrating that we’re growing more inclined to admire those who have strong compassion, empathy and kindness rather than traits of ruthlessness and manipulation that have worked well for many leaders – both past and present.. And it was Darwin who claimed that sympathy is our strongest instinct.

Science aside, you observe trends in the world. Now more than ever I hear the word ‘collaboration’ come up. This was evident both in the UK and now here in Australia. This is particularly amongst the younger generation and younger organisations, but those that are a bit older are also warming to it. Charitable, altruistic work is on the rise. I meet so many more people choosing to set up or get involved with organisations that set out to solve problems faced by people in the world that they have no obvious connection to, and devote their lives to this. That’s pretty remarkable isn’t it?

There’s no denying that our lives are becoming more global and technology means that we can connect globally, instantly and at any time. I’m able to speak to and see my friends and family over on the other side of the world instantaneously, which still astounds me.

What this also means, as the article rightly says, is that the issues we face are more global than before, and it will require more global collaboration in order to solve them. Working within our local communities is hardly likely to solve the lack of renewable energy, overpopulation or food shortages, which are all global issues on the rise. Yet all of these are big challenges of the 21st century and will all spill over to affect every single one of us in time if they are not addressed.

Unless we work together, and have compassion for those with whom all we share is our humanity, rather than nationality, religion, politics…then the great challenges of the 21st century may be too complex overwhelming. Attention must be given to similarities, not differences. Our reasons for cooperation, not conflict. Conflict within species is a part of nature, but for no other species in the planet’s history (to our knowledge) has come close to having such a profound impact in such a short space of time.

When I look at this whole picture, I can’t help but wonder whether we are indeed evolving to be more compassionate, more altruistic and more connected on a global scale. Humans have fought one another for millennia, but now we’ve reached the stage where any large-scale conflict would have potentially devastating consequences. Cooperation must be the first option. And some of the challenges we face are so vast and complex that it needs people coming together from all over the world to tackle them.

I see growing movements of people actively seeking out more fulfilling and altruistic lives, challenging our money and consumption obsessed values, prioritizing the positive impact they have in the world over the money they earn. It’s a slow trend, but it’s there, and I can’t help but wonder why. Perhaps evolution – our own fundamental drive for survival as a species – is the answer?

But hey, I’m only speculating…

6 a Day for Greater Good: How small changes can lead to big impact

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I started working on this blog a little while back, the inspiration coming from a conversation with Avis Mulhall and oddly, the marvelous music of Stevie Wonder. Avis and I touched on her monthly event, Think Act Change, and how inspiring it is to see a community of people out there interested in making the world a little bit better. But good intentions matter little and it is after all, actions that count. So the question is how you translate such intention in to meaningful action. A tough one.

For many, the obstacle to doing so seems be that they don’t know how, or that the task seems too daunting that they may want to contribute to. What can one person possibly do about shortages of clean water in Africa? Or widespread poverty? Or malnutrition? Seemingly, not a lot.

So perhaps they look in to it, decide they might like to support an NGO working in this area, either financially or with their time. They turn on the computer (ok, it’s probably already on, but this reads better…), open Google and search ‘Africa poverty organisation’. On the first page there are no less than seventeen organisations listed… “Well UNICEF I’ve heard about, oh and All for Africa sound like nice people…catchy name etc.” Already this whole ‘doing something good’ is getting a bit more complicated.

It prompted me to begin working on some ideas; how about a simple collection of guidelines that are easy to implement and each of us could do to have a positive impact every day? I drafted a few up, and then the document was left in the library of my computer to gather dust (it didn’t really get dusty, that would be ridiculous) for a while.

It was Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography that prompted me to take another look at this; as he had produced a lovely list of virtues for man to work towards. Applicable to anyone, and all in the name of bettering ourselves and the world.

The other principle guiding this is the butterfly effect. That one small positive action, such as listening to someone when they are really struggling could go on to have a much greater impact as that person’s life progresses than we might have thought. I’m also of the view that small but regularly practiced changes can add up to have significant impact, especially thr0ugh their influence on others.

Now I’m not so interested in whether the guidelines I’ve produced are the de facto best ones, but what I really would like is some other suggestions from people. I believe the concept has some value and perhaps even application.

So, a few ideas then. I tried for 5 but ended up with 6…

Care for the environment

Recycle, walk or cycle when you don’t need to drive, turn the lights and power off.

Attitude

Flick your thought pattern from ‘oh, there’s something that needs changing’ to ‘how can I change it’? Start a conversation with someone about it. Spend time in company of others who want to make things better.

Limit consumption  

Buy from companies who you know are ethical and socially responsible where possible. Practice collaborative consumption – rent or borrow rather than buy.

Show compassion

Listen first (someone may really need you and want to share what is happening in their life. We are not great at trying to understand). Ask people how they are and really engage with the answer. Smile at somebody!

Individual

Strive to better ourselves and keep improving. Look after your needs (we need to look after ourselves before looking after others) – eat well, sleep, get exercise, indulge in hobbies and passions. Be a light, not a judge. Acknowledge and understand your prejudices.

Causes

Give a little bit (financially or with time) to an organisation doing valuable work you believe in, but do your research first!

Thoughts?

The dangers of a ‘cult’ of entrepreneurship

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A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the rising trend of entrepreneurship. On reflection, I’m not really sure what I was trying to say with that blog, apart from perhaps that entrepreneurship is good. Or cool. Or something.

Because of events over the last couple of weeks, I’ve swung round to take a different perspective on it.  One of the developments is that I’ve lost some of my attachment to the concept, and have therefore I think a slightly more objective and balanced view on the matter.

Entrepreneurship has its place and is hugely important. It’s important for economic development, although I don’t care too much about that. My interest is more in its societal value, and in that sense it drives new solutions to social problems and new ways of thinking. But the answer to every problem is not to set up a new organisation. A new enterprise is not always the answer. I do think a lot of socially minded entrepreneurs are aware of this – some definitely more than others – but I have noticed a definite trend in social entrepreneurship becoming more fashionable.

Recently I was chatting with Tom Dawkins about how we’ve observed more people aspiring to be a social entrepreneur. It is the concept they are attached to, rather than a specific cause (great article here). Many, Tom included, stumbled in to social entrepreneurship without knowing the term, but simply because it was their way of tackling a social need they had identified. Social entrepreneurship is not an end in itself, it is a means, a toolkit for getting good done.

Now I think it’s great that more people want to learn the tools to get good done and people are drawn towards it. The problem is, you don’t just need social entrepreneurs to tackle social problems and you potentially draw people away from other roles that are hugely valuable.

What about the social ‘intrapreneurs’ who are working within existing organisations to leverage greater good? The social activists raising awareness and challenging thinking/policy on areas that need change? The connectors who unite people around a cause and do greater good as a result? The innovators who see ways to link together existing organisations and programs, in a way that is more efficient than starting up a whole new one?

When I spoke with Gina May Diana, who is one of the co-founders of an awesome new enterprise called ‘OneCanGrow’ she put a Cheshire cat smile on my face when she spoke about teaching young people to become ‘social changemakers’ through their project rather than just social entrepreneurs. This is the way to do it, not just limit them to one means of creating social change.

I think it’s important to teach young people the following:

1) Awareness of the social problems out there in the world

2) That it is possible to make a difference

3) That doing so is potentially hugely rewarding

4) That you can earn a living doing so

5) The tools and mindset to create social change

And here’s where I will make a crucial distinction. I think that what is typically considered ‘entrepreneurial thinking’ has widespread value for anyone. By that, I mean creative problem-solving, commitment, accepting the possibility of failure, bringing people together.

Such thinking can help on a number of levels. But actually being a social entrepreneur; setting up new enterprises to tackle social problems, is only one way to solve these problems.

I’m going to end up with a horrible cliché!

There are many ways to skin a cat…

(yes, I did just compare a cat to a social problem)

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