Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Optimists who want better futures must not have a crisis of imagination

In my business, thinking and talking about the future is an important part of what we do. Somehow many of the conversations that I’m now in seem very dark and foreboding. There’s not much hope. Why? Because it’s easy to get depressed when contemplating the effects of higher energy costs, climate change, lack of water, displacing technologies and so on. And if you are from Generation Y, particularly from the developing world, you must be wondering how you can possibly survive, given the wealth accumulated by the baby boomers. All of this suggests that it is unlikely that the future will simply be an extension of what we have now. But before you throw yourself off the nearest cliff, could we use the challenges these disruptions bring, to create a better world than the one we live in now? Is that possible?

My argument is yes. Strategy design and optimism are, I think, two sides of the same coin. That is on the proviso that design includes, from time to time, not designing or simply allowing chaos and natural order to have its way. You see, even a cursory glance at the world we live in suggests that all is not well and that staying as we are is just not smart. Therefore the bigger and sooner the 'tsunamis' arrive the better off we might all be, as it will force change. Can we allow an ever increasing number of our cities to look like Hong Kong in January? What does it mean that the so called successful societies are also the most obese? How is it that we can improve our standard of living and drive quality of life down at the same time? In short is what we have now really that good?

A recent survey in Britain - “Chasing Progress - Beyond Measuring Economic Growth” - showed that despite the Gross Domestic Product , [that is wealth] increasing since the time of Margaret Thatcher, the Measure of Domestic Progress (MDP) or social domestic product has gone down. MDP measures the social progress of a society through things like crime rates, air quality, family breakdown and life satisfaction or happiness data. Obesity is perhaps the most telling symptom.

When you think about it, if this is the future that developing countries aspire to then both we, and they, are in deep trouble.

So better will mean change, and change means that we will feel a sense of loss. The upside though is great. As long as we can cope with diversity, openness and tolerance, all we have to do is to try and stand in the future and imagine what it might be like. We know that we have the technological smarts to provide the answers. As an aside, I can’t believe in a world that will soon approach 8 billion people some commentators are actually suggesting that we return to the way things were. That is simply not possible.

I’m suggesting that the optimists start becoming purposefully impatient with those, who argue that the status quo will suffice, unless the evidence suggests otherwise. I so often run across cynical public servants simply perpetuating their own games, some so-called business people acting in unethical and self serving ways, and many people seduced and obsessed by the next sports circus put in front of them. Optimists need to speak out now in very forceful ways, and encourage the navigation debate sooner rather than later.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Falling up the cliff

I sat through a fascinating presentation recently on generational behaviours. I was thinking about the implications of six generations being alive at the same time, until I saw a graph much like the one here.

It was I felt, not sufficient, as it developed from a simple extrapolation of what we know, now. What would this graph be like if science and technology could deliver a significant extension of living well? After all it has done it before so why not again? What if around 2030 we lived well to about 130? By 2100 we could expect it would go to at least 150. The idea is quite profound and it would sure change a lot of things. What it might mean, for example, is that people in their 50’s, leaving aside generational equity issues, should get interested in 2050 scenarios as they will still be around. By the way, my life extension thinking is probably at the more conservative end of what might be possible. The graph now looks very different. There is a rising cliff at 130 and clearly we would need to redefine retirement, assuming that we have some idea of what future work looks like. However I have no idea what the retirement graph would do!

What this quantum lift in life expectancy does is create a sudden upwards shift. This cliff, or disruption, would require us to rethink what we know, what’s important, and what we value. Perhaps we may even be faced with the interesting question of when and where life should finish! So are these cliffs common? Well yes they are.

Take for example the easily seen cliff of global population change, a trend so significant, that it will reshape where and how we live, what we eat, and how we will treat our environment.

Future technologies create many more, and there are a few sustainability and energy disruptions in front of us as well. As we can see, from the life extension idea, and the growth in world population example, we don’t spend a lot of time anticipating what life might be like at the top of these cliffs. But we should! And in my view very soon, as some of the issues will take time to work through. No doubt we’ll stumble through it somehow – hence the title of this blog!

Our ability to know what life at the top of the cliff is like is a little limited. But I think its something we should all start getting interested in. After all is it really smart to live life in the fast lane, while running headlong into the bottom of the cliff, at the same time?

Monday, May 08, 2006

All I really want my robot to do is bring me my red wine.

Later this week the renowned British futurist Ian Pearson will deliver the key note at the Australian Institute of Company Directors annual conference. His topic is conscious computers vs mankind. He will no doubt tell this most conservative of audiences what others like Ray Kurzweil have been saying for some time; that within 10 years there will be computers, or artificial intelligence entities, that will not only will be able to ‘think and feel’ but will be smarter than human beings. I’m hoping that, about then, for a very modest sum, I can finally get an early model. It will I think be as smart as the average dog, but a little more useful. Finally I will be able to ask it to go and get me a red wine as I contemplate the amazing ethical dilemmas that the newer smarter computers will undoubtedly bring.

As the time frame shortens the debates are likely to be intense. With such smart entities around what jobs will any of us, especially the knowledge workers do? What sorts of rights might they have? Will they have to buy a ticket for the football game? Might they become fans? Who drives if your robot wants to go to one game and you another? What happens if they take it upon themselves to ration my red wine out of concern for my wellness, the monitoring of which is built into their systems? It may spell the end of overindulgence, which I guess in a politically correct world is a good thing. Perhaps they will make great politicians and bureaucrats!

If these AI entities are, in part biological, does that make them alive? All fascinating stuff. None of it of course is believable until it really occurs. Then again if you had told a person living circa 1900, that within seventy years hundreds of ordinary people would routinely fly in giant planes they wouldn’t have believed you either. What bothers me though is how the Defence Forces in the United States, and I’m sure other countries, have begun to develop smart AI entities with the sole intention of inflicting directed harm on human beings. If successive generations of such computers become conscious, and can feel, and they are really really smart, it will be foolhardy to give them such power. But wasn’t that what Issac Asimov was trying to tell us so long ago when he promulgated the three laws of robotics?
  • A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

I have a feeling that if this past wisdom isn’t hard wired into the future then the ritual of drinking a good red wine might become a little sad.

Friday, May 05, 2006

We are all prisoners of a future created by the infrastructures of the past.

In the mid 19th Century London was arguably the greatest city in the world. However many of is citizens were poor and their life expectancy was really affected by sanitation. There is evidence to suggest that if people got past the dangers of infancy, they could expect to live somewhere between 17 and 45. All that changed for the better under the genius of the civil engineer Joseph Balzagette. He oversaw the development of the first large scale sewerage system and the beginnings of the London underground. From then on, the design of modern cities was tied to large scale distributed systems linked to quality of life as we know it. Utilities of all kinds including electricity, water, transport and telecommunications have all developed from the same model. Their success as ‘open systems’ is tied to large volume use. We use them all the time every day. We never think about them at all unless they fail to deliver, or access to them costs us more than we can afford. They are for the most part designed to provide us with the 'necessities' often for at least 100 years. They are so inextricably entwined in how we work, live and play, that we don't often see that in their size, scale, and reach, they imprison all of us in the future they have created.

Rapid urbanisation, environmental sustainability and advancing technology is challenging this paradigm. There is now the opportunity particularly for domestic and small scale industrial operators to deploy ‘closed systems’ that allow them to use the immediate environment and free energy like, the sun, to deliver in cheaper and more sustainable ways the utilities that make life comfortable. Most of these systems are lighter in environmental terms than the industrial strength utilities we now use.

These emerging closed systems challenge the very basis of how we design cities and create communities. They have the potential to significantly impact the vested interests of governments and large utilities. Importantly these systems allow people to move from a dependency to an interdependency relationship with utility providers. While open systems will always be important they are becoming increasingly costly in both financial and natural terms. This shift seems to be producing an uncomfortable tension between the pro-environmental rhetoric of governments and their mindset as owners and builders of large scale infrastructure. Of course while they continue to think in silos the inconsistencies are easy to gloss over!

Could it be that perhaps for the first time since the Romans and the Incas we have the opportunity to rethink the systems that support intensive human habitation? Could it be that an over investment in open systems is dumb, not smart, design? Is it possible that the very systems, that have until now been linked to quality of life and life extension, might in fact lock in an unsustainable world that creates the exact opposite? Critically, are there enough people that care one way or the other anyway?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

I met someone recently who told me that he had once been a spy.

Over yet another cup of coffee with an old friend I was introduced to a most interesting man who had once been one of Australia’s leading spies. Now retired, he had been trained in the ‘old school’ with Britain’s MI6. As we talked over his most interesting life he told me that the best spies, as they worked their sources, always encouraged them to share with them the most important things that they knew. He maintained that no matter how outlandish the idea it should always be encouraged with a “really, tell me more,” response. His view was that the modern approach was the exact opposite. Now everything is examined with a sense of disbelief and cynicism. He went on to say that what this sense of disbelief does is cause ‘sources’ to filter information to a level where they know its acceptable and believable to their handler. And in the process, what goes missing is that half piece of information that might be critical. My spy believed that this change in approach was at the heart of many of the modern intelligence failures.

The same mechanism of cynicism and scepticism is alive and well in modern organisations, particularly at a leadership level. Too often businesses require proof that the large shapers of the future will really impact. Few act on the half piece of information as the basis for future exploration, especially if it challenges current success. In the process they abdicate future creation to others.

Nowhere is this truer than with the great issues of our time like climate change, technological convergence, energy shifts and geopolitical shifts despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Maybe what we need to do is retrain ourselves to suspend disbelief and, like the spies of old, encourage exploration of big ideas as a virtue.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The politics of anaesthesia

When a person undergoes any significant type of medical emergency they are normally given some kind of anaesthetic to help them manage the pain. Over time the anaesthetic is reduced and they emerge from the post operative state hopefully better than when they started. Since time immemorial anaesthetic has been used to mange pain as we transition from one state to another. However if we apply the metaphor to governments everywhere they seem to be using anaesthetic not to mange transitions, but to prevent them occurring at all.

The story runs a bit like this. A section of the community is being impacted by one or other of the powerful future forces now in place in our society. These people complain of their pain and most wise governments listen. What then happens though is that far from using the mechanisms of government to manage the transition, the change is prevented from happening at all. When the next potential change comes the pattern is repeated. At this point the community has an expectation that in any time of pain the government will stop it. They have become addicted to the anaesthetic and wary of change. They will punish any government that suggests otherwise. Regrettably with few exceptions what we see now is political parties of all persuasions competing not on their change management abilities but for their persuasiveness in the amount of anaesthesia they can apply.

The examples of where this occurs are many. For some reason many communities believe it is important that their name is stuck on the side of an aeroplane. They expect governments to protect this image at a time where airlines are consolidating into post national entities. The Swiss government poured millions into trying to keep Swissair afloat and recently, the most profitable of all airlines, Qantas used the government to stop Singapore Airlines flying on the profitable transpacific route. Important as these examples are nowhere do we see some governments using anaesthetic more liberally than in the challenges around the environment and oil. Have we become addicted to a world where the environment doesn’t matter and fossil fuels are ours to use in whatever careless way we chose? And what over time might be the consequences of such an addiction?