DISCUSSION Staring wide-eyed at the future

by Michael Wise _______15th June 2018
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Tomorrow’s Company co-sponsored an event in York in which sixth-formers discussed the world they will inherit – and what sort of world they might pass on. But will changes in science, technology, society and culture also indicate a change in how we view progress itself?

to see a video of this event please click here

There is nothing new about wanting to talk about the future, or about progress. Visions of the future proliferate in culture, from great works of literature, through sci-fi cinema and comic books to rock music. They are informed by, and inform, the constant stream of discoveries made in the fields of science and technology.

Yet there are periods in human history when the discoveries are not constant, or don’t appear to be. Everything speeds up in a relatively short space of time, new discoveries lead to newer inventions – they explode and fizz in all directions, it seems. And everything is affected: society, culture, politics. It begets a bewildering array of information, so we know more about the world than ever before (or think we do).

Depending on your view, the effect might seem like a pristine white snowball growing ever bigger, or a nuclear power plant that feeds off its own waste. The new epoch is being hailed as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ which, broadly speaking, is ‘characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres’. People want to talk about it: newspaper and magazine articles abound; podcasts pontificate about cryptocurrencies and ‘big data’; Artificial Intelligence and Universal Basic Income are discussed on the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2. And – quite naturally with a name like ours – we at Tomorrow’s Company want to talk about it too…whatever it is.

Monday June 11th saw us co-sponsoring an event at Bootham School in York. Called ‘All Our Futures’, it brought together about 100 sixth-formers from schools all around the UK, with keynote speakers addressing topics that, in the context, are of real importance: Rohit Talwar, CEO of Fast Future Research, asked how, in a world where ‘singularity’ between man and machine is expected to be achieved by 2035, science and tech can serve humanity; Kresse Wesling, of Elvis and Kresse, a company that turns old firehoses into handbags and rugs (and makes them look eminently desirable) discussed the circular economy, in which waste is minimised; Nik Gowing, the former BBC journalist and author of the book ‘Think the Unthinkable’, pointed out the Strangelovian absurdity of hierarchical leadership in a time when huge changes can happen in 10 minutes; Mike Shaw, an academic, teacher and self-acknowledged geek, told the assembled throng that they will have 140,000 more hours of healthy living than their parents, will change careers several times in their lives and better get saving since, the way things are going, pensions will stretch next-to-nowhere.

Perhaps understandably, Jules Evans, a philosopher and author of ‘The Art of Losing Control’, was the last to speak, asking whether schools can teach wisdom. By the sounds of it, the latter is going to be needed more than ever.

So that’s the future: exponential yet fractured; longer in span for us humans yet less certain. Exhilarating? Perhaps. Frightening? maybe. Whether it all happens is anyone’s guess, although the feeling must be that some of it will, since it already is. The shoots are already poking through the soil; whither the beanstalk?

And what of progress? Tomorrow’s Company is embarking on an enquiry called ‘Voices of Progress’, in which we ask a cross section of society what progress means to them in such a climate. Since the companies of tomorrow will be run by the sixth-formers of today, it made sense to have a dry-run:

Saatwick Gupta, Dulwich College

“For me its short-term success and achieving day-by-day and week-by-week goals, yearly goals. I don’t try to look too far ahead. But, in a broader sense, maybe [it’s] just trying to help lives of people in extreme poverty a little bit better.”

Livvy Thew, Bootham School

“I think it means change and advancement…for the better. I think of it in terms of society progressing rather than myself; as an individual I don’t see it. I see society working together.

“I don’t think working on yourself can help. We need to work on the bigger picture.”

Dorian Marak, Bootham School

“I think today we focus a lot on progress as a global society and I think that’s a fair way of looking at progress. I think that if we can achieve more as a society then that’s obviously a good thing. But I think progress can mainly be done on an individual scale, and I think that’s where progress should be aimed at because we mustn’t forget about those who do not receive that immediate global, broader progress.

“It’s really hard. Aside from progress, I think it’s also really important to maintain a certain degree of humanity. Even maintaining some things will be very important, because progress is going to come: development of certain technologies is obviously facing us. But maintaining some other things is also the way to think about the future. We can’t only think progress, progress, progress and disregard everything else we’ve achieved so far.”

Anjola Abimbola, Woodhouse Grove School

“I would say that progress is looking at where you were and getting to the next point in your life that’s better than where you are now. It’s about self-seeking opportunities: where do you want to go and how far you want to go with yourself.

“I would say that progress in society would mean that everyone can say what they want without being attached to stereotypes. Progress in society is me saying what I have to say and it would be deemed as Anjola’s opinion rather than the opinion of a general girl.”

Liana Palas, Woodhouse Grove School

“If you’re looking at what happened today then this is progress. Getting students to talk about things and having amazing people that give lectures on things is progress in society, and I think progress will only be achieved if people start to be open-minded with different ideas.

“That’s the beginning of progress: getting people to become open-minded and then talk with each other and interact, then form a community and then from a community a better society. Because at the beginning of the day they were talking about what’s the purpose of improving education, is it about having a better world and, yes, it is. But we need to take small steps, getting people there.”

The encouraging thing here is that, even in the space of a few vox pop-type interviews, it’s possible not just to elicit fresh perspectives, but to also see the emergence of common themes. So if we extrapolate AI-style, as is our intention via 100-plus in-depth interviews with business leaders, binmen, bishops and boat builders (you get the picture) then the perspectives should become broader while, so far as the themes are concerned, flesh will add to the bones.

That’s the expectation. Yet the hope is that the process will be such that it might indicate how the very notion of progress – dissected by people with ideas and opinions that have been shaped by their own life experience up to this precise point – is being re-imagined; that the things commonly considered to constitute progress might themselves be changing. Not just a change for the better, but a step towards the meta.

More important than any of this, though, is the hope that this counts for more than mere talk: we advocate action. Not just action on the part of business leaders, for whom the eventual Voices of Progress report is intended, but also on the part of all stakeholders – those with ‘skin in the game’, such as the sixth formers who attended the All Our Futures event.

Three particularly refreshing points were made during the course of the day. One was the huge importance of teaching young people how to make and maintain strong relationships. The second was the idea of the ‘safe space’: that, in any environment, everyone should have a voice and not be afraid to speak their mind. And, finally, that we should do more than just pay lip service. “Pick an issue and stick with it,” said Kresse Wesling, whose company gives 50% of its profits to a firefighters’ charity. The pace of life might be speeding up – speeding out of control, according to some – but Kresse reckoned she’d slept soundly every night since her company was founded in 2005.

On a day when one’s thoughts couldn’t help but lurch between extreme visions of the world we might pass on, it was the most comforting thought of all.

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