Blog Archive for the ‘Futures’ Category

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Long Bets – 02013 Update

Posted on Friday, February 8th, 02013 by Austin Brown
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futurehighway

Predicting the future is hard.

Long Bets is a project by The Long Now Foundation that is testing how hard it really is, and maybe making us just a little bit better at it. The site allows users to post Predictions of at least two years’ duration. Should someone disagree with the likelihood of a prediction, they are welcome to Challenge it and produce a Bet. Real money is put on the line and eventually goes to a charity nominated by the winner.

We’ve recently made judgments on several Bets and wanted to review the outcomes:

We’re also starting a Facebook Page for making and discussing predictions about the future.

Edge Question 02013

Posted on Wednesday, January 16th, 02013 by Andrew Warner
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This year’s Edge question is up, and it has the usual breadth of analysis we have come to expect over the years. For the uninitiated, Edge.org is one of the best not-so-secret secrets of the internet. Founded in 01996 by John Brockman, Edge asks a “big picture” question every year to scholars who think about systemic issues in creative ways. The answers have always been enlightening, and it has always been worth a few hours of time to read through them each year. This year, as in past years, the Long Now Board is well represented, as well as the scholars who’ve spoken in our lecture series.

The question this year is “What *should* we be worried about?”. Below you will find the responses of Long Now affiliates, although we also recommend reading through the rest of the responses.

Long Now Board:

SALT speakers:

How to Win at Forecasting – an Edge conversation with Philip Tetlock

Posted on Monday, December 10th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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Former SALT speaker Philip Tetlock spoke with Edge recently about his research into forecasting. In 02005, he published Expert Political Judgement: How Good is it? How Can We Know?, for which he spent over a decade recording and assessing the predictions made by public policy experts. He found them to be not much better than coin-flipping, but was also able to specify that “Hedgehogs” (those holding a single grand theory and fitting events into its framework) did much worse than “Foxes” (skeptical, flexible thinkers).

In his conversation with Edge, he expands on what makes Foxes better predictors, using Nate Silver as a jumping off point, and offers an update on his work since Expert Political Judgement:

Perhaps the most important consequence of publishing the book is that it encouraged some people within the US intelligence community to start thinking seriously about the challenge of creating accuracy metrics and for monitoring how accurate analysts are–which has led to the major project that we’re involved in now, sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activities (IARPA). It extends from 2011 to 2015, and involves thousands of forecasters making predictions on hundreds of questions over time and tracking in accuracy.

Exercises like this are really important for a democracy. The Nate Silver episode illustrates in a small way what I hope will happen over and over again over the next several decades, which is, there are ways of benchmarking the accuracy of pundits. If pundits feel that their accuracy is benchmarked they will be more careful about what they say, they’ll be more thoughtful about what they say, and it will elevate the quality of public debate.

By the way, the forecasting contest he mentions is accepting submissions.

The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk

Posted on Wednesday, December 5th, 02012 by Alex Mensing
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Human technology is undoubtedly getting more powerful every year, and our destructive potential is no exception. The Cold War notion of ‘mutually assured destruction‘ was unthinkable for most of human history, as was the ability to fundamentally alter the climate of the planet on which we rely. As the capabilities of our technologies continue to grow, what are the ways in which we become increasingly able to bring about our own demise as a species?

Martin Rees and Huw Price of the University of Cambridge and the Skype founder Jaan Tallinn teamed up to investigate and mitigate that very possibility. In founding the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University, they explain their motivation:

Many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole. Such dangers have been suggested from progress in AI, from developments in biotechnology and artificial life, from nanotechnology, and from possible extreme effects of anthropogenic climate change. The seriousness of these risks is difficult to assess, but that in itself seems a cause for concern, given how much is at stake.

Rees, Huw and Tallinn agree that scientists need to pay more attention to this issue. The long-term future of humanity is at stake, and we need to understand more clearly the power that we wield in the modern world, and how to avoid using it destructively. The issue can, in fact, be extended beyond our own species. As Stewart Brand concluded his summary of co-founder Martin Rees’ SALT talk:

Now that we are stewards of this planet, we are responsible for maintaining life’s possibilities in this cosmic neighborhood.

Looking Back on the 21st Century

Posted on Monday, November 5th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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“These days, excess energy is very expensive, but for most people it just doesn’t matter. Most communities are locally self-sufficient. Everyone grows food using permaculture principles. Agricultural monoculture became deeply unfashionable during the great GM disease outbreaks of the 2030s. During the chaos, we were smart enough to keep the Internet going. Giving up broadcast television meant wireless broadband really took off. That, combined with holographic conferencing, meant that people finally could really live anywhere they liked while working somewhere else. With no need to travel for meetings, commuting vanished like a bad dream. Of course, the need for real human contact didn’t. most towns, villages, and districts have communal working areas, paid for out of local taxes in local currencies, which let you work together with your friends and neighbors these mix/meet spaces are incredibly creative.”

Perhaps this is how the people of the year 02100 will look back at the developments of the 21st century. Or maybe it’ll look more like this:

“It is five minutes to midnight on New Year’s Eve at the end of the last day of the twenty-first century. In Dar es Salam, one of the wealthiest cities in the United States of Southern Africa (USSA), revelers from across the region have traveled on the Trans-Africa high-speed train network to witness the arrival of the new century at a massive fireworks display and international gathering in East Africa’s “harbor of peace.” Wearing a variety of light, thermo-regulated fabrics in bright, fashionable colors, party-goers and families mill around in droves at the city’s popular waterfront overlooking the Indian ocean, its warm waters an ancient conduit of intercontinental trade.”

These scenarios appear in The Futurist’s series on Exploring the year 2100. The magazine recently invited members of the World Future Society to imagine what human life might look like in 02100, and the result is a diverse collection of essays that offer colorful glimpses of possible futures. The collection also features an article by futurist and Long Now Board member Paul Saffo, who predicts that we’ll live longer, more curious, and more spiritual lives:

“In 2020, science’s relentless explanatory logic had believers on the run, but in the decades that followed, it became clear that an ever stranger, more capacious universe had ample room for the divine, the spiritual, the mystical, and the mysterious.”

To read more about these and other glimpses of the future, pay a visit to the World Future Society’s corner of the web!

Paul Saffo on The Great Turbulence

Posted on Friday, August 24th, 02012 by Alex Mensing
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Forecaster and Long Now board member Paul Saffo will be speaking at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club on Thursday, September 6th about the next few decades of global economic trends.

The talk, entitled “The Great Turbulence: Economics and the New Global Order,” begins at 6pm and will be moderated by Matt Richtel, author of Our Brain on Computers. Check here for directions and ticketing information.

The 2008 crash was more than a downturn: It marked the end of the “Great Moderation,” a two-decade period of mild business cycles and growth. Now many fear we are headed toward a prolonged recession (or worse), while others predict a new boom just around the corner. Who’s right? Saffo, with over two decades of experience exploring the dynamics of large-scale, long-term change, thinks that both groups miss the point. Rather, he foresees that we have entered a new era defined not by boom or bust, but by a new kind of volatility.

What could take the internet down?

Posted on Thursday, July 12th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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In April 02010, Dr. David Eagleman addressed the Seminars About Long-term Thinking with a lecture called “Six Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization.”

Central to Dr. Eagleman’s proposal for a resilient global society was the internet. As a high-volume, distributed communication system, the net offers new ways to contain disease, back-up information, share knowledge, work around oppressive regimes, collaborate, and save energy. Together, he argued, these features make the internet one of humanity’s best inventions and one of our best bets against the things that toppled previous civilizations.

It’s not, however, a perfect system. Dr. Eagleman recently outlined some of the vulnerabilities we’ll want to patch if the internet is really going to be our civilization’s failsafe. Solar flares make an appearance; here’s a great feature on them from a recent issue of National Geographic. Read the rest at CNN.

Spotting the Future

Posted on Monday, May 21st, 02012 by Alex Mensing
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Wired’s Epicenter blog, which covers the technology business, recently asked eight visionaries about their strategies for looking at and into the future. How do they see what’s on the horizon? What distinguishes important technologies before they become important?

Among those questioned were Long Now board members Esther Dyson, Paul Saffo and Peter Schwartz. The respondents represented fields ranging from futurism to publishing, computer science to venture capitalism. There was, however, a common thread in the commentary: the importance of observation. Look for the unexpected, and look for it everywhere.

“There are four indicators I look for: contradictions, inversions, oddities, and coincidences.” -Paul Saffo

“The first thing I do is go where other people aren’t. […] I love traveling because I love seeing how many different ways there are to do things.” -Esther Dyson

“You look for technologies that are likely to create major inflection points – breaks in a trend, things that are going to accelerate.” -Peter Schwartz

And what might make a particular technology or project likely to succeed? Vint Cerf, co-inventor of TCP/IP, points out that the future needn’t be something to sit back and wait for: “Sometimes spotting the future is really a question of realizing what’s now possible and actually trying it out.”

You can read the complete responses here.

Esther Dyson on Charter Cities

Posted on Wednesday, April 18th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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In a recent article on Slate, Long Now Board member Esther Dyson takes up the concept of Charter Cities – Paul Romer’s model for the creation of prospering, sustainable zones of urban life, about which he spoke at a 02009 SALT lecture. Dyson suggests that Romer’s business-model approach to the construction and functioning of urban centers could work not only for new cities, but for old ones as well.

Cities already behave a bit like corporations, she writes. With greater flexibility and open borders, cities can compete for “customers” in a way that countries cannot, and are more directly involved in the daily lives of citizens. Dyson argues that a little more market-style competition can compel existing metropolises to improve their infrastructure and resources as a way to attract potential citizens. This investment will pay off in the form of flourishing residents, who in turn will bring in additional resources and allow the city to prosper. On a larger scale, a prospering city will then compel its neighboring towns to improve their own functioning as well, to become better competitors on the market of citizens and resources.

In the end, it’s all about the long view: it’s about encouraging civilization to prosper as a whole. Cities are an appropriate unit of civilization to work with, Dyson writes, because they have shown more long-term stability than countries or empires:

“Most cities have grown, through evolution, from unpremeditated beginnings. Moreover, they rarely die. Cities (and their imperfections) persist in a way that large political entities, even those of which they are a part, do not. Compare, say, Athens, Jerusalem, Vienna, Beijing, Moscow, or Istanbul, to the Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Imperial Russia, the Third Reich, or the Soviet Union. And, as we are seeing worldwide nowadays, national governments are difficult to overturn and also difficult to (re)build. Democracy does not always lead to liberty or good outcomes. So, perhaps cities are the right place and have the right scale for massive social change.”

Future food for thought

Posted on Tuesday, March 27th, 02012 by Stuart Candy
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Our friends over at Institute for the Future in Palo Alto recently released a report to help people think about possible futures of food for the next decade.

Four Futures of Food serves up a quartet of scenarios plotting out alternative descriptions of how America, as well as the wider world, could be eating in the year 02021. Each is based on a different trajectory that change could describe — Growth, Constraint, Collapse, or Transformation.

In the Growth scenario, ‘Consumers can get practically anything they want, whenever they want, and without much concern for cost.’

In Constraint, a food poisoning outbreak triggers massive loss of confidence in internationally traded food and meat, as the global rallying cry becomes “Know your farmer. Eat local. Eat plants.”

Collapse is a future in which previously ignored stresses on pollinator bee populations cross a critical threshold to cause widespread crop failure and scarcity.

In Transformation, people embrace lab-grown meats and domestic 3D-food printers which are networked to share recipes. Much as social media and blogging have upended the mediasphere, in this future, food supply chains and restaurants are suddenly reinvented.

The narratives are recounted in just enough detail to help readers see how they could really happen, and further thought is invited by accompanying vignettes of a typical dinner in each world. The plausibility of the Four Futures is further underlined by examples, from the history of food, of each of the four classes of change.

This set of alternative stories about the future describes a wide range of outcomes, yet each clearly grows out of specific seeds of change that can readily be found in the present, if we know how to look.

Overall it is a really interesting, accessible, and usefully provocative piece of work from IFTF, shedding light on a critical subject; the viability and vulnerability of food systems. This appears to be a topic of great public interest and concern, as attested by the works of Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, as well as by recent popular documentaries including Food IncKing Corn, and The Future of Food.

The Long Now has also made a contribution to long-term public thought and discussion around these issues, notably through Jim Richardson’s recent SALT talk ‘Heirlooms: Saving Humanity’s 10,000-year Legacy of Food‘ and Pollan himself on ‘Deep Agriculture‘.

But I want to take a moment to comment on the story behind the stories that IFTF puts forward in its food futures briefing.

As the report indicates, the framework used for generating these four ‘generic’ or ‘archetypal’ scenarios originated with Jim Dator, a Professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. It was brought to IFTF in 02008 by their Technology Horizons director Jake Dunagan, an alumnus of the graduate program in Futures Studies which Dator has run in Hawaii for the past four decades. (I know this from having studied alongside Dunagan and Dator in that same program.)

Through working extensively with student and community groups in the then-embryonic field of futures since the ’60s, Dator’s key insight, which he published in the late 1970s, was that the countless disparate notions about the future could be grouped into these four categories. This made possible a different kind of conversation. From the chaos of incommensurate notions about possibilities emerges a way of characterising both the landscape of future narratives and individual elements in it.

Similarly, devotees of the analysis of storytelling have long realised that although the specific narratives presented in various media are innumerable (plays, books, movies, TV, comics, etc), underpinning that huge set is a very small number of basic plots.

The four futures can be used not only descriptively, but also generatively, Dator realised. Starting from the generic descriptor, such as Transformation, you can creatively ‘deduce’ specifics of a hypothetical future that tells a Transformation story. That’s not all you need, of course; to craft a premise for the story and details that are suitably thought-provoking, and then to express these compellingly, all are elements of a scenario-producing artform. But what the four futures offer is a valuable starting point for testing our thinking across the widest conceivable array of potential outcomes.

Dator was among the first to develop curriculum around futures studies. Until the early ’70s, there was no such thing as a university program that taught thinking systematically about the ways the world could change. Since that time, a small yet lively and internationally distributed community of futures scholars and practitioners has emerged — although in many ways it has been disconnected from mainstream public discussion of ‘the future’.

There’s a profound irony here: a critical starting point for futures thinking is rejection of the artificially siloed way in which university disciplines produce and share knowledge, and yet until recently, the silo of academia itself prevented insights from the field from making their way into the wider culture.

The net result is that even after almost half a century of futures studies, mainstream thinking about the future remains tragically shallow. Perhaps its principal shortcoming is an obsession with prediction (THE singular future), which the field of futures studies has recognised from the outset as a fatal limitation.

Which brings us back to the excellent contribution of the Four Futures report. As the introduction notes, “When imagining the future, we often assume things will keep moving in the direction they have been in the recent past.” It goes on to use Dator’s four generic futures to create four radically divergent stories about the future of food, as a basis for encouraging the reader’s further exploration.

Many ways other than this are of course available for generating scenarios (such as the well-known 2×2 matrix developed by Jay Ogilvy and his colleagues at GBN), and many methods other than scenarios for thinking both rigorously and imaginatively about possible futures. The point is that wherever such methods are used engagingly, competently and transparently for a public audience, there is some possibility of collective learning.

The usefulness of mainstreaming methods such as Dator’s archetypal futures is that it moves towards a futurist equivalent of teaching people to fish, rather than feeding them fish already caught — scenarios mysteriously cooked up somehow behind the scenes.

Thus, both this IFTF report, and its coverage in mainstream journalism (by the always excellent Ariel Schwartz over at Fast Company, for example) can be seen as small but significant signals, not only for the future of food, but for the future of futures.  They are small steps in a gradual cultural process of open-sourcing deeper, longer, and wiser thought processes — or so we may hope.