dw2

20 December 2012

An absorbing, challenging vision of near-future struggles

nexus-75-dpiTechnology can cause carnage, and in the wake of the carnage, outrage.

Take the sickening example of the shooting dead of 20 young children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. After that fearful carnage, it’s no surprise that there are insistent calls to restrict the availability of powerful automatic guns.

There are similar examples of carnage and outrage in the new science fiction novel “Nexus: mankind gets an upgrade”, by the noted futurist and writer Ramez Naam.

I met Ramez at the WorldFuture 2012 event in Toronto earlier this year, where he gave a presentation on “Can Innovation Save the Planet?” which I rated as one of the very best sessions in the midst of a very good conference. I’ve been familiar with the high calibre of his thinking for some time, so when I heard that his new book Nexus was available for download to my Kindle – conveniently just ahead of me taking a twelve-hour flight – I jumped at the chance to purchase a copy. It turned out to be a great impulse purchase decision. I finished the book just as the airplane wheels touched down.

The type of technology that is linked to carnage and outrage in Nexus can be guessed from the image on the front cover of the book – smart drugs. Of course, drugs, like guns, are already the source of huge public debate in terms of whether to restrict access. Events described in Nexus make it clear why certain drugs become even more controversial, a few short decades ahead, in this fictional but all-too-credible vision of the near future.

Back in the real world, public interest in smart drugs is already accelerating:

  • I hear more and more discussions when people talk about taking nootropics of one sort or another – to help them “pull an all-nighter”, or to be especially sharp and mentally focused for an important interview. These comments often get followed up by reflections on whether these drugs might convey an unfair advantage.
  • The 2011 film Limitless – which I reviewed in passing here – helped to raise greater public awareness of the potential of this technology.
  • Audience attendance (and the subsequent online debate) at the recent London Futurist event “Hacking our wetware, with Andrew Vladimirov”, convinced me that public appetite for information on smart drugs is about to greatly intensify.

And as discussion of the technology of smart drugs increases, so (quite rightly) does discussion of the potential downsides and drawbacks of that technology.

Nexus is likely to ratchet this interest even higher. The technology in the novel doesn’t just add a few points of IQ, in a transitory basis, to the people who happen to take it. It goes much further than that. It has the potential to radically upgrade humans – with as big a jump in evolution (in the course of a few decades) as the transition between apes and humans. And not everyone likes that potential, for reasons that the book gradually makes credible, through sympathetic portrayals of various kinds of carnage.

Nexus puts the ideas of transhumanism and posthumanism clearly on the map. And lots more too, which I shouldn’t say much about, to avoid giving away the plot and spoiling the enjoyment of new readers.

But I will say this:

  • My own background as a software engineer (a profession I share with Ramez Naam) made me especially attuned to the descriptions of the merging of computing science ideas with those of smart drugs; other software engineers are likely to enjoy these speculations too
  • My strong interest in the battle of ideas about progress made me especially interested in inner turmoil (and changes of mind) of various key characters, as they weighed up the upsides and downsides of making new technology more widely available
  • My sympathy for the necessity of an inner path to enlightenment, to happen in parallel with increasingly smart deployment of increasingly powerful technology, meant that I was intrigued by some of the scenes in the book involving meditative practices
  • My status as an aspiring author myself – I’m now about one third of the way through the book I’m writing – meant that I took inspiration from seeing how a good author can integrate important ideas about technology, philosophy, societal conflict, and mental enlightenment, in a cracking good read.

Ramez is to be congratulated on writing a book that should have wide appeal, and which will raise attention to some very important questions – ahead of the time when rapid improvements of technology might mean that we have missed our small window of opportunity to steer these developments in ways that augment, rather than diminish, our collective humanity.

Anyone who thinks of themselves as a futurist should do themselves a favour and read this book, in order to participate more fully in the discussions which it is bound to catalyse.

Footnote: There’s a lot of strong language in the book, and “scenes of an adult nature”. Be warned. Some of the action scenes struck me as implausible – but hey, that’s the same for James Bond and Jason Bourne, so that’s no showstopper. Which prompts the question – could Nexus be turned into a film? I hope so!

17 April 2011

Towards inner humanity+

Filed under: challenge, films, Humanity Plus, intelligence, vision — David Wood @ 11:06 am

There’s a great scene near the beginning of the film “Limitless“.  The central character, Eddie (played by Bradley Cooper), has just been confronted by his neighbour, Valerie. It’s made clear to the viewers that Valerie is generally nasty and hostile to Eddie. Worse, Eddie owes money to Valerie, and is overdue payment. It seems that a fruitless verbal confrontation looms. Or perhaps Eddie will try to quickly evade her.

But this time it’s different.  Eddie’s brain has been switched into a super-fast enhanced mode (which is the main theme of the film).  Does he take the opportunity to weaken Valerie with fast verbal gymnastics and put-downs?

Instead, he uses his new-found rocket-paced analytic abilities to a much better purpose.  Picking up the tiniest of clues, he realises that Valerie’s foul mood is caused by something unconnected with Eddie himself: Valerie is having a particular problem with her legal studies.  Gathering memories out of the depths of his brain from long-past discussions with former student friends, Eddie is able to suggest ideas to Valerie that rouse her interest and defuse her hostility.  Soon, she’s more receptive.  The two sit down together, and Eddie guides her in the swift completion of a brilliant essay for the tricky homework assignment that has been preying on Valerie’s nerves.

Anyone who watches Limitless is bound to wonder: can technology – such as a smart drug – really have that kind of radical transformative effect on human ability?

Humanity+ is the name of the worldview that says, not only is that kind of technology feasible (within the lifetimes of many people now alive), but it is desirable.  If you watch Limitless right through to the end, you’ll find plenty in the film that offers broad support to the Humanity+ mindset.  That’s a pleasant change from the usual Hollywood conviction that technology-induced human enhancement typically ends up in dysfunction and loss of important human characteristics.

But the question remains: if we become smarter, does it mean we would be better people?  Or would we tend to use accelerated mental faculties to advance our own self-centred personal agendas?

A similar question was raised by an audience member at the “Post Transcendent Man” event in Birkbeck in London last weekend.  Is it appropriate to consider intellectual enhancement without also considering moral enhancement?  Or is it like giving a five year old the keys to a sports car?  Or like handing a bunch of Mujahideen terrorists the instructions to create advanced nuclear weaponry?

Take another example of accelerating technology: the Internet.  This can be used to spy and to hassle, as well as to educate and uplift.  Consider the chilling examples mentioned in the recent Telegraph article “The toxic rise of internet bullies“:

At first glance, Natasha MacBryde’s Facebook page is nothing unusual. A pretty, slightly self-conscious blonde teenager gazes out, posed in the act of taking her own picture. But unlike other pages, this has been set up in commemoration, following her death under a train earlier this month. Now though it has had to be moderated after it was hijacked by commenters who mocked both Natasha and the manner of her death heartlessly.

“Natasha wasn’t bullied, she was just a whore,” said one, while another added: “I caught the train to heaven LOL [laugh out loud].” Others clicked on the “like” symbol, safe in their anonymity, to indicate that they agreed. The messages were removed after a matter of hours, but Natasha’s grieving father Andrew revealed that Natasha’s brother had also discovered a macabre video – entitled “Tasha The Tank Engine” on YouTube (it has since been removed). “I simply cannot understand how or why these people get any enjoyment or satisfaction from making such disgraceful comments,” he said.

He is far from alone. Following the vicious sexual assault on NBC reporter Lara Logan in Cairo last week, online debate on America’s NPR website became so ugly that moderator Mark Memmott was forced to remove scores of comments and reiterate the organisation’s stance on offensive message-posting…

It’s not just anonymous comments that cause concern.  As Richard Adhikari notes in his article “The Internet’s Destruction of Critical Thinking“,

Prior to the dawn of the Internet Age, anyone who wanted to keep up with current events could pretty much count on being exposed to a diversity of subjects and viewpoints. News consumers were passive recipients of content delivered by print reporters or TV anchors, and choices were few. Now, it’s alarmingly easy to avoid any troublesome information that might provoke one to really think… few people do more than skim the surface — and as they do with newspapers, most people tend to read only what interests them. Add to that the democratization of the power to publish, where anyone with access to the Web can put up a blog on any topic whatsoever, and you have a veritable Tower of Babel…

Of course, the more powerful the technology, the bigger the risks if it is used in pursuit of our lower tendencies.  For a particularly extreme example, review the plot of the 1956 science fiction film “Forbidden planet”, as covered here.  As Roko Mijic has explained:

Here are two ways in which the amplification of human intelligence could go disastrously wrong:

  1. As in the Forbidden Planet scenario, this amplification could unexpectedly magnify feelings of ill-will and negativity – feelings which humans sometimes manage to suppress, but which can still exert strong influence from time to time;
  2. The amplication could magnify principles that generally work well in the usual context of human thought, but which can have bad consequences when taken to extremes.

For all these reasons, it’s my strong conviction that any quest to what might be called “outer Humanity+” must be accompanied (and, indeed, preceded) by a quest for “inner Humanity+”.  Both these quests consider the ways in which accelerating technology can enhance human capabilities.  However the differences are summed up in the following comparison:

Outer Humanity+

  • Seeks greater strength
  • Seeks greater speed
  • Seeks to transcend limits
  • Seeks life extension
  • Seeks individual progress
  • Seeks more experiences
  • Seeks greater intelligence
  • Generally optimistic about technology
  • Generally hostile to goals and practice of religion and meditation

Inner Humanity+

  • Seeks greater kindness
  • Seeks deeper insight
  • Seeks self-mastery
  • Seeks life expansion
  • Seeks cooperation
  • Seeks more fulfilment
  • Seeks greater wisdom
  • Has major concerns about technology
  • Has some sympathy to goals and practice of religion and meditation

Back to Eddie in Limitless.  It’s my hunch he was basically a nice guy to start with – except that he was ineffectual.  Once his brainpower was enhanced, he could be a more effectual nice guy.  His brain provided rapid insight on the problems and issues being faced by his neighbour – and proposed effective solutions.  In this example, greater strength led to a more effective kindness.  But if real-life technology delivers real-life intellect enhancement any time soon, all bets are off regarding whether it will result in greater kindness or greater unkindness.  In other words, all bets are off as to whether we’ll create a heaven-like state, or hell on earth.  For this reason, the quest to achieve Inner Humanity+ must overtake the quest to achieve Outer Humanity+.

10 October 2010

The 10 10 10 vision

Filed under: BHAG, leadership, Symbian, vision — David Wood @ 10:19 am

The phrase “10 10 10” first entered my life at a Symbian Leadership Team offsite, held in Tylney Hall in Hampshire, in early January 2007.  We were looking for a memorable new target for Symbian.

A few months earlier, in November 2006, cumulative sales of Symbian-powered phones had passed the milestone of 100 million units, and quarterly sales were continuing to grow steadily.  It was therefore a reasonable (but still bold) extrapolation for Nigel Clifford, Symbian’s CEO, to predict:

The first 100 million took 8 years [from Symbian’s founding, in June 1998],  the next 100 million will take under 80 weeks

That forecast was shared with all Symbian employees later in the month, as we gathered in London’s Old Billingsgate Hall for the annual Kick Off event.  Nigel’s kick off speech also outlined the broader vision adopted by the Leadership Team at the offsite:

By 2010 we want to be shipping 10 million Symbian devices per month

If we do that we will be in 1 in 10 mobile phones shipping across the planet

So … 10 10 10

Fast forward nearly four years to the 10th of October, 2010 – to 10/10/10.  As I write these words at around 10 minutes past 10 o’clock, how did that vision turn out?

According to Canalys figures reported by the BBC, just over 27 million Symbian-powered devices were sold during Q2 2010:

Worldwide smartphone market

OS Q2 2010 shipments % share Q2 2009 shipments % share Growth
Symbian 27,129,340 43.5 19,178,910 50.3 41.5
RIM 11,248,830 18.0 7,975,950 20.9 41
Android 10,689,290 17.1 1,084,240 2.8 885.9
Apple 8,411,910 13.5 5,211,560 13.7 61.4
Microsoft 3,083,060 4.9 3,431,380 9.0 -10.2
Others 1,851,830 3.0 1,244,620 3.3 48.8
Total 62,414,260 100 38,126,660 100 63.3

Dividing by three, that makes just over 9 million units per month in Q2, which is marginally short of this part of the target.

But more significantly, Symbian failed by some way to have the mindshare, in 2010, that the 2007 Leadership Team aspired to.  As the BBC report goes on to say:

Although Symbian is consistently the most popular smart phone operating system, it is often overshadowed by Apple’s iPhone and Google Android operating system.

I’m a big fan of audacious goals – sometimes called BHAGs.  The vision that Symbian would become the most widely used and most widely liked software platform on the planet, motivated me and many of my colleagues to prodigious amounts of hard work over many years.

In retrospect, were these BHAGs misguided?  It’s too early to tell, but I don’t think so. Did we make mistakes along the way?  Absolutely. Should Symbian employees, nevertheless, take great pride in what Symbian has accomplished?  Definitely. Has the final chapter been written on smartphones?  No way!

But as for myself, my vision has evolved.  I’m no longer a “Symbian smartphone enthusiast”.  Instead, I’m putting my energies into being a “smartphone technology enthusiast“.

I don’t yet have a new BHAG in mind that’s as snappy as either “10 10 10” or “become the most widely used and most widely liked software platform on the planet”, but I’m working on it.

The closest I’ve reached so far is “smartphone technology everywhere“, but that needs a lot of tightening.

Footnote: As far as I can remember, the grainy photo below is another remnant of the Symbian Leadership Team Jan 2007 Tylney Hall offsite.  (The helmets and harnesses were part of a death-defying highwire team-building exercise.  We all lived to tell the tale.)

(From left to right: Standing: Andy Brannan, Charles Davies, Nigel Clifford, David Wood, Kent Eriksson, Kathryn Hodnett, Thomas Chambers, Jorgen Behrens; Squatting: Richard Lowther, Stephen Williams.)

9 October 2010

On smartphones, superphones, and subphones

What comes next after smartphones?

There’s big league money in smartphones.  In 2009, around 173 million smartphones were sold worldwide.  IDC predicts this figure will jump to nearly 270 million in 2010.  According to Informa, that represents about 27% of the total mobile phone unit sales in 2010.  But as Informa also point out, it represents around 55% of total market value (because of their high average selling price), and a whopping 64% of the mobile phone market’s profits.

As well as big money from sales of smartphones themselves, there’s big money in sales of applications for smartphones.  A recent report from Research2Guidance evaluates the global smartphone application market as being worth $2.2 (£1.4) billion during the first half of 2010, already surpassing the total value of $1.7 (£1.1) billion for all 12 months of 2009.

  • What’s next? If there’s so much money in the rapidly evolving smartphone market, where will the underlying wave of associated technological and commercial innovation strike next?  Answer that question correctly, and you might have a chance to benefit big time.

Three answers deserve attention.

1. More smartphones

The first answer is that the smartphone market is poised to become larger and larger.  The current spurt of growth is going to continue.  More and more people are going to be using smartphones, and more and more people will be downloading and using more and more applications.  This growth will be driven by:

  • Decreasing costs of smartphone devices
  • Improved network connectivity
  • An ever-wider range of different applications, tailored to individual needs of individual mobile consumers
  • Improved quality of applications, networks, and devices – driven by fierce competition
  • Burgeoning word-of-mouth recommendations, as people tell each other about compelling mobile services that they come across.

Perhaps one day soon, more than 50% of all mobile phones will be built using smartphone technology.

2. Superphones

The second answer is that smartphones are going to become smarter and more capable.  The improvements will be so striking that the phrase “smartphone” won’t do them justice.  Google used a new term, “superphone”, when it introduced the Nexus One device:

Nexus One is an exemplar of what’s possible on mobile devices through Android — when cool apps meet a fast, bright and connected computer that fits in your pocket. The Nexus One belongs in the emerging class of devices which we call “superphones”. It’s the first in what we expect to be a series of products which we will bring to market with our operator and hardware partners and sell through our online store.

Blogger Stasys Bielinis of UnwiredView takes up the analysis in his recent thought-provoking article, “Nokia’s doing OK in smartphones. It’s superphones where Apple and Google Android are winning”:

Smartphones and superphones share some common characteristics – always on connectivity, ability to make phone calls and send SMS/MMS, access the internet and install third party software apps.  But the ways these devices are used are very different – as different as iPads/tablets are different from laptops/netbooks.

The main function of a smartphone – is a mobile phone.  You use it primarily to do voice calls and send/receive short text messages via SMS/MMS.  Yes, your smartphone can do a lot more things – take pictures, browse the Web, play music, stream audio/video from the net, make use of various third-party apps.  But you use those additional functions only when you really need it, or there’s no better option than a device in your pocket, or when there’s some particularly interesting mobile service/app that requires your attention – e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, or other status updaters.   But they are secondary functions for your smartphone. And, due to the design limitations – small displays, crammed keypads/keyboards, button navigation, etc – using those additional “smart” capabilities is a chore…

Superphones, on the other hand, are not phones anymore. They are truly small mobile computers in your pocket, with phone/texting as just another app among many. The user experience – big displays, (multi) touch, high quality browsers, etc – is optimized to transfer big screen PC interaction models to the limitations of mobile device that can fit in your pocket. While the overall experience doing various things on your superphone is a bit worse than doing those same things on your laptop, it’s not much worse, and is actually good enough for the extensive use on the go…

There’s scope to quibble with the details of this distinction.  But there’s merit in the claim that the newer smartphones – whatever we call them – typically manifest a lot more of the capabilities of the computing technology that’s embedded into them.  The result is:

  • More powerful applications
  • Delivering more useful functionality.

3. Subphones

The first answer, above, is that smartphones are going to become significantly more numerous.  The second answer is that smartphones are going to become significantly more powerful.  I believe both these answers.  These answers are both easy to understand.  But there’s a third answer, which is just as true  as the first two – and perhaps even more significant.

Smartphone technology is going to become more and more widely used inside numerous types of devices that don’t look like smartphones.

These devices aren’t just larger than smartphones (like superphones).  They are different from smartphones, in all kinds of way.

If the motto “smartphones for all” drove a great deal of the development of the mobile industry during the decade 2000-2010, a new motto will become increasingly important in the coming decade: “Smartphone technology everywhere”.  This describes a new wave of embedded software:

  • Traditional embedded software is when computing technology is used inside devices that do not look like computers;
  • The new wave of embedded software is when smartphone technology is used inside devices that do not look like smartphones.

For want of a better term, we can call these devices “subphones”: the underlying phone functionality is submerged (or embedded).

Smartphone technology everywhere

The phrase “smartphone technology” is shorthand for technology (both hardware and software) whose improvement was driven by the booming commercial opportunities of smartphones.  Market pressures led to decreased prices, improved quality, and new functionality.  Here are some examples:

  • Wireless communications chips – and the associated software
  • Software that can roam transparently over different kinds of wireless network
  • Large-scale data storage and information management – both on a device, and on the cloud
  • Appealing UIs on small, attractive, hi-res graphics displays
  • Streaming mobile multimedia
  • Device personalisation and customisation
  • Downloadable and installable applications, that add real value to the base device
  • Access to the Internet while mobile, in ways that make sense on small devices
  • High performance on comparatively low-powered hardware with long battery life
  • Numerous sensors, including location, direction, motion, and vision.

The resulting improvements allow these individual components to be re-purposed for different “subphone” devices, such as:

  • Tablets and slates
  • Connected consumer electronics (such as cameras and personal navigation devices)
  • Smart clothing – sometimes called “wearable computers” – or a “personal area network”
  • Smart cars – including advanced in-vehicle infotainment
  • Smart robots – with benefits in both industrial automation and for toys
  • Smart meters and smart homes
  • Smart digital signs, that alter their display depending on who is looking at them
  • Mobile medical equipment – including ever smaller, ever smarter “micro-bots”.

By some estimates, the number of such subphones will reach into the hundreds of billions (and even beyond) within just a few short years.  As IBM have forecast,

Soon there will be 1 trillion connected devices in the world. A smarter planet will require a smarter communications infrastructure. When things communicate, systems connect. And when systems connect, the world gets smarter.

This will be an era where M2M (machine to machine) wireless communications far exceed communications directly involving humans.  We’ll be living, not just in a sea of smart devices, but inside an “Internet of Things”.

Barriers to benefits

Smartphone technologies bring many opportunities – but these opportunities are, themselves, embedded in a network of risks and issues.  Many great mobile phone companies failed to survive the transition to smartphones.  In turn, some great smartphone companies are struggling to survive the transition to superphones.  It’s the same with subphones – they’re harder than they look.  They’re going to need new mindsets to fully capitalise on them.

To make successful products via disruptive new combinations of technology typically requires more than raw technological expertise.  A broad range of other expertise is needed too:

  • Business model innovation – to attract new companies to play new roles (often as “complementors”) in a novel setup
  • Ecosystem management – to motivate disparate developers to work together constructively
  • System integration and optimisation – so that the component technologies join together into a stable, robust, useable whole
  • User experience design – to attract and retain users to new usage patterns
  • Product differentiation – to devise and deploy product variants into nearby niches
  • Agility – to respond rapidly to user feedback and marketplace learnings.

The advance of software renders some problems simpler than before.  Next generation tools automate a great deal of what was previously complex and daunting.  However, as software is joined together in novel ways with technologies from different fields, unexpected new problems spring up, often at new boundaries.  For example, the different kinds of subphones are likely to have unexpected interactions with each other, resulting in rough edges with social and business aspects as much as technological ones.

So whilst there are many fascinating opportunities in the world beyond smartphones, these opportunities deserve to be approached with care.  Choose your partners and supporters wisely, as you contemplate these opportunities!

Footnote 1: For some vivid graphics illustrating the point that companies who excel in one era of mobile technology (eg traditional mobile phones) sometimes fail to retain their profit leadership position in a subsequent era (eg superphones), see this analysis by Asymco.

Footnote 2: On the “superphone” terminology:

It wasn’t Google that invented the term “superphone”.  Nokia’s N95 was the first phone to be widely called a superphone – from around 2006.  See eg here and here.

In my own past life, I toyed from time to time with the phrase “super smart phone” – eg in my keynote address to the 2008 Mobile 2.0 event in San Francisco.

Footnote 3: I look forward to discussing some of these topics (and much more besides) with industry colleagues, both old and new, at a couple of forthcoming conferences which I’ll be attending:

  • SEE10 – the Symbian Expo and Exchange – in Amsterdam, Nov 9-10
  • MeeGo Conference – in Dublin, Nov 13-15.

In each case, I’ll be part of the Accenture Embedded Software Services presence.

23 March 2010

The search for big political ideas

Filed under: democracy, Humanity Plus, innovation, politics, vision — David Wood @ 1:07 am

On Saturday, I attended an event called “The Battle for Politics“, organised by the Institute for Ideas as a “pre-election public summit”.

The publicity material for this event gave me reason to look forward to it:

Party politics no longer seems to be about clear ideological differences, or indeed any kind of substantial debate reflecting competing visions for a better society. Nonetheless, many pressing issues remain unresolved.

So though it might be tempting to write off mainstream politics as irrelevant, and to take a ‘none of the above’ position in the coming election, this can only feed the pervasive cynicism about the possibility of social change and progress. History has not gone on standby, but continues to throw up new challenges.

The Institute of Ideas wants to take the opportunity of this election to re-enfranchise the electorate and put each candidate on the spot by asking them to declare where they stand on a range of key questions.

And yes, there were some worthy discussions during the day:

  • The electorate seem still to be deeply interested in political matters, even though they are alienated from existing political parties and politicians;
  • Changing the way voting takes place might engender better discussion and buy-in from the electorate to the political process;
  • The ever growing costs of the welfare state – coupled with our current financial shortfalls – mean that some significant change is needed in how the welfare state operates;
  • Insights from social sciences (such as behavioural economics) possibly have at least some role to play in improving political governance;
  • Wider adoption of evidence-based policy – where appropriate – probably will also improve governance.

However, at the end of the day, I felt underwhelmed by what had taken place.

For example: at the event, the Institute of Ideas had launched their “21 pledges for progress 2010“.  This included the following gems:

  • Limit the police’s power to detain people without charge to 24 hours rather than 28 days, in the interests of civil liberties and due process.
  • Declare an amnesty for all illegal immigrants presently in the UK, whether asylum seekers or economic migrants, in the interests of recognising the positive aspirations of those who seek to improve their lives by moving countries.
  • Open the borders, revoking all immigration controls, in the interests of the free movement of citizens.
  • Get rid of police Tsars and unelected ‘experts’ from government decision-making in the interests of parliamentary sovereignty and democratic accountability.
  • Abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords in the interests of a fully elected legislature and executive.
  • Direct state funding of schools into providing universal access to the highest standard of education in academic subjects, rather than politicised cross curricular themes like sustainability or citizenship, in the interests of passing on real knowledge to our children.

I applaud the Institute of Ideas for catalysing debate on a series of important topics, but I saw little evidence of political ideas that are likely to deservedly capture the imagination and the enthusiasm of the electorate.

The material I liked best, from what was on display, was something entitled “The London Manifesto for Innovation”, created by a group called “The Big Potatoes“.  This made the following assertions:

  • We should “think big” about the potential of innovation, since there’s a great deal that innovation can accomplish;
  • Rather than “small is beautiful” we should keep in mind the slogan “scale is beautiful”;
  • We should seek more than just a continuation of the “post-war legacy of innovation” – that’s only the start;
  • Breakthrough innovations are driven by new technology – so we should prioritise the enablement of new technology;
  • Innovation is hard work and an uphill struggle – so we need to give it our full support;
  • Innovation arises from pure scientific research as well as from applied research – both are needed;
  • Rather than seeking to avoid risk or even to manage risk, we have to be ready to confront risk;
  • Great innovation needs great leaders of innovation, to make it happen;
  • Instead of trusting regulations, we should be ready to trust people;
  • Markets, sticks, carrots and nudges are no substitute for what innovation itself can accomplish.

I’d like to build on these insights, with some concrete suggestions.  These are suggestions for items that should become national priorities – items that deserve a larger amount of attention, analysis, resourcing, and funding.  Borrowing some of the “big potatoes” language, I see these items as potentially having major impact over the next 10-20 years.  As such, they deserve to be national priorities during the decade ahead.

I’m not sure exactly what belongs on this list of national priorities, and look forward to feedback.  But here’s an initial proposal:

  1. Preventive medicine – since the costs of prevention will in many cases dwarf the cost of cures;
  2. Anti-aging treatments – an important special case of the previous point;
  3. Better than well – just as there are many benefits to avoiding ill-health, there are many benefits to promoting super-health;
  4. Cognitive enhancement and intelligence augmentation – to help everyone to become smarter and more sociable (both individually and collectively);
  5. Artificial general intelligence – an important special case of the previous point;
  6. Improved rationality (overcoming biases, in all their forms) – another important special case of the same point;
  7. Freedom from fundamentalism – diminishing the hold of dogma, whether from “scripture” or “tradition” or “prophets”;
  8. Education about accelerating technology – so people become fully aware of the opportunities, risks, context, and options;
  9. Robotics supporting humans – providing unmatched strength, precision, and diligence;
  10. Nanotechnology – the use of atom-level engineering to create highly useful new materials, compounds, and tools;
  11. Synthetic biology – techniques of software and manufacturing applied to biology, with huge benefits for health;
  12. Largescale clean energy – whether solar, nuclear, or whatever;
  13. Patent system reform – to address aspects of intellectual property law where innovation and collaboration are being hindered rather than helped;
  14. Smart market regulation – to handle pressures where social forces lead to market failures rather than genuinely useful products;
  15. Expansion of voluntary enterprise (the domain of not-for-profit contribution) – since not everything good is driven by financial motivation;
  16. Expansion of human autonomy – supporting greater choice and experience – in both virtual and physical reality;
  17. New measures of human accomplishment – an attractive vision that supersedes economic measures such as GDP;
  18. Geo-engineering capability – to equip us with tools to wisely restructure the planet (and more).

To give this list a name: I tentatively call this list “The Humanity+ Agenda“.  I propose to say more about it at the Humanity+, UK2010 event in London’s Conway Hall on 24th April.

The list is driven by my beliefs that:

  • Humanity in the 21st century is facing both enormous challenges and enormous opportunities – “business as usual” is not sustainable;
  • Wise application of technology is the factor that will make the single biggest difference to successfully addressing these challenges and opportunities;
  • If we get things right, human experience in just a few decades time will be very substantially better than it is today – for all people, all over the world;
  • However, there’s nothing inevitable about any of this;
  • Getting things right will require us becoming smarter and more effective than ever before – but, thankfully, that is within our grasp;
  • This is worth shouting about!

Footnote: Some people say that big political ideas are dangerous, and that a focus on effective political management, pursuing pragmatic principles, is far preferable to ideology.  I sympathise with this viewpoint, and share an apprehension of ideology.  But provided rationality remains at the forefront, and provided people remain open to discussion and persuasion, I see great value in vision and focus.

17 March 2010

Complementary currencies

Filed under: Economics, sustainability, vision, Zeitgeist — David Wood @ 11:49 pm

Recently, I mused about a world economy without money.

Two replies – from Peter Jackson and from Marios Gerogiokas – independently drew my attention to a different notion: complementary currencies.

In brief:

  • Rather than seeking to fix our current economic and social dilemmas by reducing the number of monetary systems from one to zero – as proposed by the Zeitgeist Movement – this alternative idea proposes increasing the number of monetary systems, from one to more-than-one.

Marios drew my attention to a TEDxBerlin talk by Belgian economist Bernard Lietaer, “Why this crisis? And what to do about it?“:

The talk takes a bit of time to get going, but it makes an increasingly interesting series of points:

  • We need resilience in our economic structures, as well as efficiency;
  • One way to achieve resilience is to avoid mono-culture;
  • Having “complementary” currency systems running in parallel is one way to avoid monetary mono-culture;
  • Without adoption of complementary currencies, we risk repetitions of the recent economic crash.

Here’s one quote that struck me:

Complementary currencies are now where open source software and microfinance were 10 years ago.

And another:

It would be crazy to believe that we’re going into the information age, and the most important information system – our money – will not change.

Personally, I see it as much more likely that our monetary system will evolve and improve rather than it will be removed altogether.

Of course, there are risks in any such evolution (just as there are risks with the status quo).  Some of the reasons for the recent economic crash, after all, were the innovative financial systems (with an alphabet soup of acronym names) that turned out to be insufficiently understood.

Footnote: There’s more about the concept of complementary currency on Wikipedia.

15 March 2010

Imagining a world without money

Filed under: Economics, futurist, motivation, politics, Singularity, vision, Zeitgeist — David Wood @ 11:48 am

On Saturday, I attended “London Z Day 2010” – described as

presentations about futurism and technology, the singularity and the current economic landscape, activism and how to get involved…

Around 300 people were present in the Oliver Thompson Lecture Theatre of London’s City University.  That’s testimony to good work by the organisers – the UK chapter of the worldwide “Zeitgeist Movement“.

I liked a lot of what I heard – a vision that advocates greater adoption of:

  • Automation: “Using technology to automate repetitive and tedious tasks leads to efficiency and productivity. It is also socially responsible as people are freed from labor that undermines their intelligence”
  • Artificial intelligence: “machines can take into account more information”
  • The scientific method: “a proven method that has stood the test of time and leads to discovery. Scientific method involves testing, getting feedback from natural world and physical law, evaluation of results, sharing data openly and requirement to replicate the test results”
  • Technological unification: “Monitoring planetary resources is needed in order to create an efficient system, and thus technology should be shared globally”.

I also liked the sense of urgency and activism, to move swiftly from the current unsustainable social and economic frameworks, into a more rational framework.  Frequent references of work of radical futurists like Ray Kurzweil emphasised the plausibility of rapid change, driven by accelerating technological innovation.  That makes good sense.

I was less convinced by other parts of the Zeitgeist worldview – in particular, its strong “no money” and “no property” messages.

Could a society operate without money?  Speakers from the floor seemed to think that, in a rationally organised society, everyone would be able to freely access all the goods and services they need, rather than having to pay for them.  The earth has plenty of resources, and we just need to look after them in a sensible way.  Money has lots of drawbacks, so we should do without it – so the argument went.

One of the arguments made by a speaker, against a monetary basis of society, was the analysis from the recent book “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.  Here’s an excerpt of a review of this book from the Guardian:

We are rich enough. Economic growth has done as much as it can to improve material conditions in the developed countries, and in some cases appears to be damaging health. If Britain were instead to concentrate on making its citizens’ incomes as equal as those of people in Japan and Scandinavia, we could each have seven extra weeks’ holiday a year, we would be thinner, we would each live a year or so longer, and we’d trust each other more.

Epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett don’t soft-soap their message. It is brave to write a book arguing that economies should stop growing when millions of jobs are being lost, though they may be pushing at an open door in public consciousness. We know there is something wrong, and this book goes a long way towards explaining what and why.

The authors point out that the life-diminishing results of valuing growth above equality in rich societies can be seen all around us. Inequality causes shorter, unhealthier and unhappier lives; it increases the rate of teenage pregnancy, violence, obesity, imprisonment and addiction; it destroys relationships between individuals born in the same society but into different classes; and its function as a driver of consumption depletes the planet’s resources.

Wilkinson, a public health researcher of 30 years’ standing, has written numerous books and articles on the physical and mental effects of social differentiation. He and Pickett have compiled information from around 200 different sets of data, using reputable sources such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organisation and the US Census, to form a bank of evidence against inequality that is impossible to deny.

They use the information to create a series of scatter-graphs whose patterns look nearly identical, yet which document the prevalence of a vast range of social ills. On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable “low” end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable “high” end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.

This has nothing to do with total wealth or even the average per-capita income. America is one of the world’s richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence – murder, in particular – that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality – within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging…

The anxiety in this book about our current economic system was reflected in anxiety expressed by all the Zeitgeist Movement speakers.  However, the Zeitgeist speakers drew a more radical conclusion.  It’s not just that economic inequalities have lots of bad side effects.  They say, it’s money-based economics itself that causes these problems.  And that’s a hard conclusion to swallow.

They don’t argue for reforming the existing economic system.  Rather, they argue for replacing it completely.  Money itself, they say, is the root problem.

The same dichotomy arose time and again during the day.  Speakers highlighted many problems with the way the world currently operates.  But instead of advocating incremental reforms – say, for greater equality, or for oversight of the market – they advocated a more radical transformation: no money, and no property.  What’s more, the audience seemed to lap it all up.

Of course, money has sprung up in countless societies throughout history, as something that allows for a more efficient exchange of resources than simple bartering.  Money provides a handy intermediate currency, enabling more complex transactions of goods and services.

In answer, the Zeitgeist speakers argue that use of technology and artificial intelligence would allow for more sensible planning of these goods and services.  However, horrible thoughts come to mind of all the failures of previous centrally controlled economies, such as in Soviet times.  In answer again, the Zeitgeist speakers seem to argue that better artificial intelligence will, this time, make a big difference.  Personally, I’m all in favour of gradually increased application of improved automatic decision systems.  But I remain deeply unconvinced about removing money:

  1. Consumer desires can be very varied.  Some people particularly value musical instruments, others foreign travel, others sports equipment, others specialist medical treatment, and so on.  What’s more, the choices are changing all the time.  Money is a very useful means for people to make their own, individual choices
  2. A speaker from the floor suggested that everyone would have access to all the medical treatment they needed.  That strikes me as naive: the amount of medical treatment potentially available (and potentially “needed” in different cases) is unbounded
  3. Money-based systems enable the creation of loans, in which banks lend out more money than they have in their assets; this has downsides but also has been an important spring to growth and development;
  4. What’s more, without the incentive of being able to earn more money, it’s likely that a great deal of technological progress would slow down; many people would cease to work in such a focused and determined way to improve the products their company sells.

For example, the Kurzweil curves showing the projected future improvements in technology – such as increased semiconductor density and computational capacity – will very likely screech to a halt, or dramatically slow down, if money is removed as an incentive.

So whilst the criticism offered by the Zeitgeist movement is strong, the positive solution they advocate lacks many details.

As Alan Feuer put it, in his New York Times article reviewing last year’s ZDay, “They’ve Seen the Future and Dislike the Present“:

The evening, which began at 7 with a two-hour critique of monetary economics, became by midnight a utopian presentation of a money-free and computer-driven vision of the future, a wholesale reimagination of civilization, as if Karl Marx and Carl Sagan had hired John Lennon from his “Imagine” days to do no less than redesign the underlying structures of planetary life.

Idealism can be a powerful force for positive social change, but can be deeply counterproductive if it’s based on a misunderstanding of what’s possible.  I’ll need a lot more convincing about the details of the zero-money “resource based economy” advocated by Zeitgeist before I could give it any significant support.

I’m a big fan of debating ideas about the future – especially radical and counter-intuitive ideas.  There’s no doubt that, if we are to survive, the future will need to be significantly different from the past.  However, I believe we need to beware the kind of certainty that some of the Zeitgeist speakers showed.  The Humanity+, UK2010 conference, to be held in London on 24th April, will be an opportunity to review many different ideas about the best actions needed to create a social environment more conducive to enabling the full human potential.

Footnote: an official 86 page PDF “THE ZEITGEIST MOVEMENT – OBSERVATIONS AND RESPONSES: Activist Orientation Guide” is available online.

The rapid growth of the Zeitgeist Movement has clearly benefited from popular response to two movies, “Zeitgeist, the Movie” (released in 2007) and “Zeitgeist: Addendum” (released in 2008).  Both these movies have gone viral.  There’s a great deal in each of these movies that makes me personally uncomfortable.  However, one learning is simply the fact that well made movies can do a great deal to spread a message.

For an interesting online criticism of some of the Zeitgeist Movements ideas, see “Zeitgeist Addendum: The Review” by Stefan Molyneux from Freedomain Radio.

7 January 2010

Mobiles manifesting AI

Filed under: AGI, Apple, futurist, intelligence, m2020, vision — David Wood @ 12:15 am

If you get lists from 37 different mobile industry analysts of “five game-changing mobile trends for the next decade“, how many overlaps will there be?  And will the most important ideas be found in the “bell” of the aggregated curve of predictions, or instead in the tails of the curve?

Of the 37 people who took part in the “m2020” exercise conducted by Rudy De Waele, I think I was the only person to mention either of the terms “AI” (Artificial Intelligence) or “PDA” (Personal Digital Assistant), as in the first of my five predictions for the 2010’s:

  • Mobiles manifesting AI – fulfilling, at last, the vision of “personal digital assistants”

However, there were some close matches:

  • Rich Wong predicted “Smart Agents 2.0 (thank you Patty Maes) become real; the ability to deduce/impute context from blend of usage and location data”;
  • Marshall Kirkpatrick predicted “Mobile content recommendation”;
  • Carlo Longino predicted “The mobile phone will evolve into an enabler device, carrying users’ digital identities, preferences and possessions around with them”;
  • Steve O’Hear predicted “People will share more and more personal information. Both explicit e.g. photo and video uploads or status updates, and implicit data. Location sharing via GPS (in the background) is one current example of implicit information that can be shared, but others include various sensory data captured automatically via the mobile phone e.g. weather, traffic and air quality conditions, health and fitness-related data, spending habits etc. Some of this information will be shared privately and one-to-one, some anonymously and in aggregate, and some increasingly made public or shared with a user’s wider social graph. Companies will provide incentives, both at the service level or financially, in exchange for users sharing various personal data”;
  • Robert Rice predicted “Artificial Life + Intelligent Agents (holographic personalities)”.

Of course, these predictions cover a spread of different ideas.  Here’s what I had in mind for mine:

  • Our mobile electronic companions will know more and more about us, and will be able to put that information to good use to assist us better;
  • For example, these companion devices will be able to make good recommendations (e.g. mobile content, or activities) for us, suggest corrections and improvements to what we are trying to do, and generally make us smarter all-round.

The idea is similar to what former CEO of Apple, John Sculley, often talked about, during his tenure with Apple.  From a history review article about the Newton PDA:

John Sculley, Apple’s CEO, had toyed with the idea of creating a Macintosh-killer in 1986. He commissioned two high budget video mockups of a product he called Knowledge Navigator. Knowledge Navigator was going to be a tablet the size of an opened magazine, and it would have very sophisticated artificial intelligence. The machine would anticipate your needs and act on them…

Sculley was enamored with Newton, especially Newton Intelligence, which allowed the software to anticipate the behavior of the user and act on those assumptions. For example, Newton would filter an AppleLink email, hyperlink all of the names to the address book, search the email for dates and times, and ask the user if it should schedule an event.

As we now know, the Apple Newton fell seriously short of expectation.  The performance of “intelligent assistance” became something of a joke.  However, there’s nothing wrong with the concept itself.  It just turned out to be a lot harder to implement than originally imagined.  The passage of time is bringing us closer to actual useful systems.

Many of the interfaces on desktop computers already show an intelligent understanding of what the user may be trying to accomplish:

  • Search bars frequently ask, “Did you mean to search for… instead of…?” when I misspell a search clue;
  • I’ve almost stopped browsing through my list of URL bookmarks; I just type a few characters into the URL bar and the web-browser lists websites it thinks I might be trying to find – including some from my bookmarks, some pages I visit often, and some pages I’ve visited recently;
  • It’s the same for finding a book on Amazon.com – the list of “incrementally matching books” can be very useful, even after only typing part of a book’s title;
  • And it’s the same using the Google search bar – the list of “suggested search phrases” contains, surprisingly often, something I want to click on;
  • The set of items shown in “context sensitve menus” often seems a much smarter fit to my needs, nowadays, than it did when the concept was first introduced.

On mobile, search is frequently further improved by subsetting results depending on location.  As another example, typing a few characters into the home screen of the Nokia E72 smartphone results in a list of possible actions for people whose contact details match what’s been typed.

Improving the user experience with increasingly complex mobile devices, therefore, will depend not just on clearer graphical interfaces (though that will help too), but on powerful search engines that are able to draw upon contextual information about the user and his/her purpose.

Over time, it’s likely that our mobile devices will be constantly carrying out background processing of clues, making sense of visual and audio data from the environment – including processing the stream of nearby spoken conversation.  With the right algorithms, and with powerful hardware capabilities – and provided issues of security and privacy are handled in a satisfactory way – our devices will fulfill more and more of the vision of being a “personal digital assistant”.

That’s part of what I mean when I describe the 2010’s as “the decade of nanotechnology and AI”.

6 January 2010

Mobile trends for the next decade

Filed under: futurist, m2020, smartphones, vision — David Wood @ 5:04 pm

A few days ago, I received an interesting invitation from mobile strategist and innovator Rudy De Waele:

It’s the end of the decade and for many of us it has been a very actively ‘mobile’ decade, a lot of the efforts and projects of our peers have become real and succesful during this decade.

As for the start of a new decade, I’ve had this idea of asking some of the people I met during the last decade  to write down their five game-changing mobile trends for the next decade.

The format is to list your 5 trends for the next decade, in words, a sentence or a pagaraph, no links.

It was a great question – especially the requirement to stick to just five trends.  Here’s the set which, after some thought, I emailed back to Rudy:

  1. Mobiles manifesting AI – fulfilling, at last, the vision of “personal digital assistants”.
  2. Powerful, easily wearable head-mounted accessories: audio, visual, and more.
  3. Mobiles as gateways into vivid virtual reality – present-day AR is just the beginning.
  4. Mobiles monitoring personal health – the second brains of our personal networks.
  5. Mobiles as universal remote controls for life – a conductor’s baton as much as a viewing portal.

No fewer than 37 different people from throughout the mobile and IT industries contributed answers.  The entire set of answers is now available for viewing on Rudy’s m-trends.org blog and is also posted onto slideshare.net, from where you can download a PDF version.

Each of the 37 sets of answers has at least one item (usually more!) that’s a good conversation starter.  The ongoing “#m2020” dialog that Rudy has started is likely to cast a long shadow.

Some of the predictions are very encouraging – like the set from Katrin Verclas covering mobiles in social development, transformation of politics (for example, in Africa), mobile payments, mobile healthcare, and mobile environmental monitoring.  Other sets of predictions foresee difficulties and backlashes as well as progress.  Some of the destruction foreseen could be counted as “creative destruction”, as in the prediction by Alan Moore:

The communications revolution accelerates, destroying businesses that refuse to think the unthinkable.

The predictions include many “first order effects” (technologies or products that people already foresee and desire, and which are already under development), but also several interesting comments on what Tom Hume calls “second order effects“.  Tom comments:

No-one predicted the loosening of time and space that Mimi Ito has noted. Similarly, what happens to our social arrangements when every photo can be face-recognised, geolocated and individuals tracked? What happens to shops when every price can be compared? What happens to conversation when it’s all recorded, or any fact is a 5-second voice-search away from being checked?

The full effects of ever-wider usage of mobile technology are, indeed, hard to predict – especially when we bear in mind the following forecast from Carlos Domingo:

Ubiquity of mobile broadband will lead to an explosion of connected devices (à la Kindle, not just phones) and M2M services (machines to machine services, without a human behind the device). In 10 year, there will be more devices/machines connected to the mobile network than humans.

In similar vein, Nicolas Nova predicts:

Non-humans (objects, animals, places) will generate more data than humans.

Mobile handsets will very likely look quite different, at the end of the decade, than they do at the beginning.  As Marek Pawlowski forecasts:

Keyboard dimensions and screen size cease to be the primary limiting factors in handset design as new input and display technologies free designers to radically change the form factor of personal communication devices.

I’ll end by sharing one of the predictions from Jonathan MacDonald, which seems to me particularly compelling:

Convergence of physical, augmented and virtual reality: augmented and virtual reality will become an increasingly standard method for search, discovery, gaming, eyesight, healthcare, retail, entertainment and most other experiences in life. Location and other contextual functions will grow so our 2D mobile experiences become 3D and ‘real’. To such an extent that the prefixes ‘augmented’ and ‘virtual’ will eventually become redundant.

The items I’ve picked out above are just scratching the surface.  There’s much, much more to read and ponder in the entire slideshow – click over to Rudy’s blog to explore further!

Rudy De Waele

31 December 2009

The constant economy

Filed under: books, Economics, green, leadership, market failure, vision — David Wood @ 2:54 pm

I’ve had mixed thoughts when reading Zac Goldsmith‘s “The constant economy: how to create a stable society” over the last few days.  It makes some useful contributions to an ultra-important debate.  However, the recommendations it makes frequently strike me as impractical.

Zac has been one of the advisors to the UK Conserative Party on environmental matters.  He is now the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate for the Richmond Park constituency, which is adjacent to the one I live in.  It’s possible that his views on environmental matters will have a significant influence over the next UK government.

Some of the examples in the book made me think, “Gosh, I didn’t realise things were so bad; things can’t be left to go on like this“.  I had these thoughts when reading, for example, about the huge decline in fishing stocks worldwide, and about the enormous swathe of plastic waste in large parts of the Pacific Ocean.

Other parts, however, made me think, “Hang on, there’s another side to this story” – for example, for some of the incidents described in the chapter about the Precautionary Principle, and for the section about nuclear power.

This book is like a manifesto.  Mixed in with real-world anecdotes and analysis, each chapter contains a list of “Voter Demand Box” items.  For example, here’s the list from the chapter on “A zero waste economy”:

‘Take back’

People should have a legal ‘take back’ right enshrined in consumer law.  This would give everyone the right to take any packaging waste back to the shop it was bought from, and impose an obligation on retailers to recycle that waste once it was received.

Paying people to recycle

No more landfill

Using the right materials

Built to last

Government buying power

Incineration, a last resort

And from the chapter “An energy revolution”:

Find out the truth about oil

A cross-party taskforce should be established immediately to draw up a risk assessment.  It should not invite the traditional fuel industry to take part, as it would effectively be studying a risk scenario that says their maths is incorrect.  The taskforce should be required to publically report its findings within a year.

At the same time, we should also expect our government to put pressure on the UN or International Energy Authority to undertake a review of the world’s oil reserves.  If the economic models of every nation on earth are based on the assumption of everlasting oil supplies, it is reasonable that they should know how much oil actually exists.

Capture the heat

Reward the pioneers

Break the rules

Invest!

We urgently need a renewable energy fund to provide substantial grants for the research and development of radical new clean energy technologies.  From wave power to clean coal technology, potential solutions remain in the pipeline due to a lack of investment.  Government should provide that investment.  Diverting money that would otherwise be spent subsidizing fossil fuels or the nuclear energy could provide billions of pounds for research, support and, crucially, for upgrading the national grid.

Stop paying the polluters

Whilst there are elements of good sense to all (or nearly all) of these recommendations, this set of items needs a lot more work:

  • The items are uncosted, and generally open-ended;
  • It’s often unclear how the recommendations differ from policies and processes that are already in place;
  • There’s no prioritisation (everything is equally important);
  • There’s no roadmap (everything is equally urgent).

Despite this weakness, this book still has merit as a good conversation starter.

The book’s introduction provides a higher-level picture.  Here’s the opening paragraph:

The world is in trouble.  As human numbers expand and the resource-hungry economy grows, the natural environment is suffering an unprecedented assault.  Forests are shrinking, species are disappearing, oceans are emptying, land is turning to desert.  The climate itself is being thrown out of balance.  In just a few generations, we have created the biggest threat to the natural world since humanity evolved.  Unless something radical is done now, the world in which our children grow up will be less beautiful, less bountiful, more polluted and more uncertain than ever before.

The top-level recommendations in the book are, in effect:

1.) The need for first-class political leadership on environmental issues

We need political leaders who can free themselves from the constraints of pressure groups, whose vision extends far beyond the next election, and who can motivate strong constructive action (rather than just words):

Politicians in Britain, as elsewhere, can see the rising tide of concern over green issues, and in many cases know what solutions are required.  The environment has never been so high on the political agenda…

Yet few politicians are prepared to take the action needed.  Nothing happens.  Time ticks by, the situation becomes more urgent – and government does nothing.  Why?

Politicians are terrified of acting because they believe that tackling the looming crisis will involve restricting the electorates choices.  They believe that saving the planet means destroying the economy, and that neither business nor voters will stand for it.  They fear the headlines of a hostile media.  They fear, ultimately, for their jobs.  It always seems easier to do nothing – and to let the situation drift and hope that someone else takes the risk…

2.) The need to adapt market economics to properly respect environmental costs

Our defining challenge is to marry the environment with the market.  In other words, we need to reform those elements of our economy that encourage us to damage, rather than nurture, the natural environment.

The great strength of the market is its unique ability to meet the economic needs of citizens.  Its weakness is that it is blind to the value of the environment…

Other than nature itself, the market is also the most powerful force for change that we have.  The challenge we fact is to find ways to price the environment into our accounting system: to do business as if the earth mattered, and to make it matter not just as a moral choice but as a commercial imperative

Note: this is hardly a new message.  For one, Jonathon Porritt covered similar ground in his 2005 book (with a new edition in 2007), “Capitalism as if the world matters“.  However, Zac has a significantly simpler writing style, so his ideas may reach a wider audience – whereas I confess I twice got bogged down in the early stages of Jonathon’s book, and set it aside without reading further.

3.) The need for better use of market-based instruments such as taxation

We need to change the boundaries within which the market functions, by using well-targeted regulation.

Taxation is the best mechanism for pricing pollution and the use of scarce resources.  If tax shifts emphasis from good things like employment to bad things like pollution, companies will necessarily begin designing waste and pollution out of the way they operate…

The other major tool in the policymakers’ kit is trading.  Carbon emissions trading is a good example of a market-based approach which attaches a value to carbon emissions and ensures that buyers and sellers are exposed to this price.  As long as the price is high enough to influence decisions, it can work…

Note: it’s clear that the existing carbon trading scheme has lots of problems (as Zac describes, later in the book).  That’s a reason to push on quickly to a more effective replacement.

There’s also a latent worry over Zac’s confident recommendation:

It’s crucial that wherever money is raised on the back of taxing ‘bad’ activities is used to subsidise desirable activities.  For example, if a new tax is imposed on the dirtiest cars, it needs to be matched, pound for pound, on reductions in the price of the cleanest cars.

The complication is that once the higher taxation drives down usage of (in this example) the dirtiest cars, the amount of tax earned by the government will be reduced, and the “pound for pound” balance will break.  It’s another example of how the ideas in the book lack detailed financial planning.  Presumably Zac intends these details to be provided at a later stage.

4.) We need a fresh approach to regulation

Direct controls force polluting industries to improve their performance, and can eliminate products or practices that are particularly hazardous…  Markets without regulation would not have delivered unleaded petrol, for instance, or catalytic converters.  Without regulations requiring smokeless fuel, London’s smogs would still be with us.

This approach, however, needs to be effective.  With some products and processes, the regulatory bar needs to be raised internationally to avoid companies chasing the lowest standards globally.  We also need a change in our regulatory approach, away from an obsessive policing of processes towards a focus on outcomes.  If the regulatory system is too prescriptive, there is no room for innovation, and no real prospect of higher environmental standards…

5.) We need to measure what matters

Almost every nation on earth uses gross domestic product (GDP) to measure its economic growth.  The trouble is, expressed as a monetary value, GDP simply measures economic transactions, indiscrimately.  It cannot tell the difference between useful transactions and damaging ones…

Chopping down a rainforest and turning it into toilet paper increases GDP.  If crime escalates, the resulting investments in prisons and private security will add to GDP and be measured as ‘growth’.  When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground and spilt its vast load of oil on the pristine Alaskan shoreline, US GDP actually soared as legal work, media coverage and clean-up costs were all added to the national accounts…

US Senator Robert Kennedy said something similar:  “GDP does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play”, he said.  “It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

But the pursuit of economic growth, as measured by GDP, has been the overriding policy for decades, with the effect that the consequences have often been perverse…

A number of organisations have tried to assemble a new tool for measuring progress.  But the result is invariably a toolkit that is monstrous in its complexity and too impractical for any government to use.  A neater approach would be for the government to establish a wholly independent Progress Commission, staffed by experts from a wide variety of fields: economists, environmentalists, statisticians, academics, etc…

Whichever indicators are selected, the results would be handed each year to Parliament and the media.  The government would be required to respond…

Note: again, the suggested practical follow-up seems weaker than the analysis of the problem itself.  The economy has been ultra-optimised to pursue growth in GDP.  That’s how businesses are set up.  That’s going to prove very difficult to change.  Attention to non-financial matters is very likely to be squeezed.

However, it’s surely good to have the underlying problem highlighted once again.  Robert Kennedy’s stirring words ring as clearly today, as when they were first spoken: March 1968.

Let’s keep these words in mind, until we are confident that society is set up to pursue what matters, rather than simply to boost GDP.

Further reading: The book has its own website, with a blog attached.

« Newer PostsOlder Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.