Part four of Anticipating 2025 summarizes the fourth section of the book, focusing on redesigning society. Once again, we see how innovation, business, Government, and society converge over the next 20 years. There is an interesting historical pattern emerging that helps explain this phenomenon, while providing a mechanism to predict the future with a higher degree of certainty (more on that in a future post). As you read this, look at how innovation that we normally view through a business lens, is playing out at the societal level. Let’s take a look at each of the topics within this section.
The author describes electricity as an enabler that fuels personal empowerment, production and economies. In places like Africa, people without access to power become stuck in a poverty trap, with millions of low income households locked into long term poverty. Access to power is the catalyst for unwinding this poverty trap, progressively increasing the amount of available technology. It starts with basic lighting and grows to consumer devices, with even a small amount of additional power per household delivering a transformative benefit to a large amount of people.
Combinatorial innovation is playing out in Africa. The combination of mobile, payment systems, data and renewable energy is enabling pay-as-you-go solar power as a service. For example, the Azuri rent-to-own model allows customers to progressively pay for their lighting as they use it. Consequently, people are moving up an energy escalator to gain access to higher levels of electricity and ultimately, improving their quality of life. The authors provide examples of the impact that access to solar lighting is having:
- In a fishing village, people haul the lights up to the top of their mast so they can go fishing at night
- Children get a better education with an additional 1.5 to 2 hours of study time per night on average
- Access to energy and technology allow the extension of outreach programs that train leaders in agriculture to help famers in Africa improve their performance
Smarter policy making through improved collective cognition
The issue of governance is an interesting one. Whether we’re talking about government or business, the issues are the same. Both institutions have to deal with a more diverse population, where values, preferences, experiences, and ideas vary. We know that our businesses now have four generations of employees – moving towards five. If research around healthy and radical life extension delivers on its promise, then who knows how many generations contribute to future diversity of thought. Policies and structures that worked in a different era are increasingly obsolete; making large scale structural change inevitable. This section on policy making provides a great example:
Regulated taxi drivers might be necessary if there is no easy way of guaranteeing driver and customer safety and that payments are properly made and taxed, but the introduction of app-based transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft resolves many of these problems and casts doubt on existing policies. Often technological changes lead to old policies becoming roadblocks, sometimes maintained by incumbent interests (as witnessed by the fierce resistance against the TNCs in many places).
The authors call for governance innovation, but they warn that even with far more rapid social change than in the past, it will take years or decades before we invent and adapt to the governance innovations that come out of the information revolution. Technology is an important enabler of this innovation, as described through examples from the book:
- Improving group cognition is a key challenge for handling a more complex world and technology can be used to improve group problem solving
- Innovation in media is occurring at a high rate, and new forms of media will no doubt affect policy making. New technologies are needed to manage the noise cycle
- Over the next decades, the authors believe we will see dramatic improvements in the ability to reliably design crowdsourcing systems for particular purposes. As such, crowdsourcing can be applied to policy making in a number of ways explored by the authors
- Reputations could be a mechanism to stabilize online collaboration and crowdsourced policymaking. A world of global and easily checked reputations means that leaders and other people involved in the policy process will be scrutinized to a degree never seen before
By 2025, the authors believe we will leverage new innovation in a way that allows us to set better agendas, evaluate and formulate better policies, and make better decisions.
Convergent Risk, Social Futurism, and the Wave of Change
The author of this topic starts with the growing understanding that technologies often do not develop in isolation, but instead affect and frequently accelerate each other’s development. The same can be said for broad disruptive scenarios – they intersect and impact each other. This convergent and intersecting behavior forces us to assess risk and opportunity in an interdependent and convergent manner. This author believes we stand at a crossroads where another decade of convergence drives a choice to use technologically-driven change to solve problems, or allow it to destroy us. The broad categories of convergent risk discussed are:
- Technological and environmental – Technological risk includes any situation in which the misapplication of or lack of appropriate control over a technology creates danger. Think about the danger of artificial super intelligence if not pursued in a thoughtful manner. This type of risk is accelerating side by side with the exponential acceleration of technology, and there is a seamless relationship and connection between risk categories. The author draws the connection between technology and environmental risk by using climate change as an example
- Economic Failure & Civil Discord – this category is very relevant to current events. Financial and economic crises do not play out in isolation from social and political factors. Economic strife can give rise to civil discord, potentially radicalizing those who once were satisfied, and giving voice to radicals who once were ignored. It often favors extremist elements, if discord is allowed to run unchecked for too long.
- Resource Issues & War – It is not hard to see at least some of the ways in which economic and civic health is related to reliable access to resources. That is true on the level of an entire society which will run into trouble if resources (such as oil and gas) become scarce and therefore expensive, but also on the level of individual citizens who will often react badly if they feel they do not have equitable access to resources. The final and greatest risk is perhaps the one most often historically linked to resource issues: the risk of war
Beyond risk, the author focuses on social futurism, or the intelligent and compassionate application of new technologies to individual and societal improvement, with an emphasis on voluntarism and personal freedom. The premise is that problems we face today cannot be solved without technology, and technology is now too dangerous to simply abandon and hope for the best. The acceleration we are seeing will ultimately take the institutions that compose our societal system and render them obsolete. Social Futurism drives this accelerating cascade of disruptive technological innovations to sweep away these old institutions. The authors posit that although technology can drive the solutions to our problems, we cannot simply ignore the social, political and economic issues. Their vision is of a society which embraces technology and positive values, but does so in an actively engaged manner. There are a number of examples provided throughout this discussion.
Culture-lag is another area explored, representing a term first coined by anthropologists to describe the gap between an invention and the society’s ability to use it. The benefits of technology only become available with an accompanying shift in values or outlook, or as Clay Shirky put it: “[ r] evolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies – it happens when society adopts new behaviours.”
The authors takes this notion of new behaviors a step further. Several examples are provided to support the notion that historically, every society’s worldview has held that it is the truth, that the societal basis upon which it claims to be founded is unimpeachable – no matter how false the basic assumptions of any past worldview have turned out to be later on.
So our current thinking is the product of our preceding requirements during the industrial revolutions, which formed the basis for the institutions of our day. Our current unimpeachable system is therefore a group of learned behaviours, which as history has proven, can be altered if we achieve the perspective required. These centralised institutions: education, legal organizations and codes, and hierarchical organizations with their top-down structures are the necessary requirements of the prior era – driven primarily by the pursuit of energy sources that required this kind of central organization. The remainder of this topic focuses on examples that support this argument.
That wraps up part four of this look at 2025 based on the book Anticipating 2025. Part five will focus on re-designing humanity. The first posts in this series can be found here:
- Part One: Setting the Scene
- Part Two: The Future of Medicine
- Part Three: Redesigning Artificial Intelligence
Futurist contributing to the book include: David Wood, Mark Stevenson, Rohit Talwar, Calum Chace, David Pearce, Sonia Contera, Natasha Vita-More, Anders Sandberg, Ben McLeish, Amon Twyman, Iva Lazorova, Maneesh Juneja, Peter Morgan, Martin Dinov, Elias Rut, Zolton Istvan, David Levy, Andrew Vladimirov, Michael Nuschke, Alex Zhavoronkov, by Riva-Melissa Tez, Victor Anderson, Jerome Glenn