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Posts Tagged future

Christmas 2024 Robert Hickson Dec 17

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I’m starting to get the hang of Holoblogging now, though usually the holographic images are more disquieting than informative and they leave me feeling queasy.

People don’t seem to spend as much time reviewing the “year that was” now. They’re more interested these days in sifting the data streams to predict what’s coming up.

But for me the four biggest events this year involved data, drugs or droids:

Google.govt.nz. It was only a matter of time. We’ve already had public private partnerships in roads, prisons, schools, and defence, so letting the private sector manage data from government wasn’t too big a step to take. Especially not after the continued data breaches from government agencies. Still, it’s one thing to let Google collect all my private online data and history, and another for them to also hold my salary, tax and medical histories.

Of course they say it’s all held separately, with the government data only in the new server farm down near Lake Manapouri. (How much cheaper would our power be if they’d diverted all that hydropower back into the national grid?) But surely there’s a backup or two elsewhere, that’s just good business practice. Both Google and the government are distinctly cagey about that.

I must say the service has been good though, and the Personal Data Display App is great for monitoring and controling which agencies have access to my data. No major breaches, or inappropriate targeted advertising yet. But it’s only been a year, and time will tell whether it has been a smart move.

The other big data story was, of course, the  “Data dairying” challenge. I wasn’t a player, but Fonterra’s MilkMade™ game App has they say helped them train their machine learning system (Ultimate Dairying Diagnostics for Environmental Reporting) to identify patterns and problems in the sensor data from their farming and processing operations. It’s encouraging that they’ve promised to keep making the data available online too.

“Cucumber solids”. Something good, at least, has come out of the offshore iron sands and rock phosphate mining. Sea cucumbers have thrived in some of the silt-laden sites near the mining operations. They may not be as familiar as milk solids yet, but their bioactive properties seem more likely to lead to greater economic returns if the compounds make it through clinical trials and regulatory approvals in the US and China. And the start-ups out of Victoria and Auckland Universities hold onto their IP. I’m guessing, though, that we’ll see more value out of the simpler natural health products that are starting to be produced from wee beasties.

DIY ‘Droid Army.  The severe tropical storms that hit Whangarei and other parts of Northland in June brought out the 64-bit maker crowd again (that’s still a clunky term, but not as bad as “Number 8 wire 2.0” that some started using). Of course most of the semi-autonomous homemade systems were hopeless in the rain and mud and rocks cleanup, and did more harm than good until civil defence shut them down.

But ShedWorx’s exoskeleton was the exception. The video clip of the Mayor’s mum in one helping reinforce a seawall will be gold to the company, as well as to the Mayor’s re-election campaign (though her mum may get more votes).

Trying to spot the artificially intelligent HBloggers this year has been an interesting distraction. It’s getting harder of course. I’m relieved that the blogger known as “Blubber” wasn’t an AI. That would be tragic, going to all that effort to create a “smart “system that was deliberately dumb just to bottom feed and cause offense. Still, my prediction for 2025 is that that it will happen.

Extreme futuring Robert Hickson Sep 04

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It would be a reliably accurate prediction that Zager & Evans’ “In the year 2525″ will not be at the top of most futurist’s best song ever written list

YouTube Preview Image

Looking 500 years & more ahead is unusual for your common or garden futurist. Most at the moment are only looking out to the year 2030 or 2050.

However, earlier this year “From Quarks to Quasars” created an infographic looking at a possible future of the Universe and parts there in. Its big, as you’d expect so here are just a few snippets. See the whole timeline in greater detail at their website.

They start out 36,000 years from now

fotu36k

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars
http://www.fromquarkstoquasars.com/the-future-of-the-universe/

 

Move quickly past 1 million years

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars

 

Beyond 1 billion too

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars

 

1 trillion (really?!)

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars

 

Till a bitter dark wimpering end maybe 100 trillion years into the future

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars

Copyright: From Quarks to Quasars

 

That’s more than enough cosmic physics to make most futurists humble.

 

“What’s next?” from General Electric Robert Hickson Sep 02

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General Electric links back 50 years to an article by Isaac Asimov to promote the technologies its betting on for the future.

Writing after a visit to the 1964 “World’s Fair” Asimov speculated in the New York Times, what technologies would be around in 2014. [World Fairs didn't survive that long, but Expo's have taken their place - Milan is hosting one next year]. You can read Asimov’s piece and note both things that he predicted fairly well (such as mini computers powering robot brains, autonomous vehicles, internet-like communication) and things he didn’t (underground cities with artificially lit vegetable gardens, levitating vehicles, experimental fusion reactors, moon colonies)

Serendipitously,  Arthur C. Clarke was also visiting the World’s Fair and making predictions in 1964.

But back to GE. They have created “What’s next?” and  #nextlist to generate discussion (and good PR, presumably) about future technologies

GE nextlist

Source: http://generalelectric.tumblr.com/post/94815605699/50-years-ago-famed-science-fiction-author-isaac

 

Their List has six technology areas that they have an interest in:

Extreme Machines:
Technologies will perform in any situation and any place, no matter how severe.

Super Materials:
What used to be heavy will be the lightest and strongest it’s ever been.

Industrial Internet:
Machines will help us make smarter decisions by talking with us and each other. We will be able to plan downtime, redirect resources and make entire industries from healthcare to power generation more efficient.

Mapped Minds:
We will see and understand the brain better than ever. As a result, severe neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s will become manageable.

Brilliant Factories:
The next industrial revolution will bring unseen level of productivity. With the cloud’s help, we will 3D-print any part, anytime, anywhere.

Energy Everywhere:
New forms of reliable power will reach places far off the grid.

No surprises there for future watchers – better, faster, stronger, lighter, connected.

The “mapped minds” item acknowledges their involvement in medical imaging. The term “brilliant factories” relates to having a “feedback loop from design to product engineering to manufacturing engineering to manufacturing and supply chain operation to services and back” so development and production occur more quickly, and smoothly.

In a companion paper on “The future or work” [Pdf] GE also discuss what they call brilliant machines, which  are “predictive, reactive and social”. They note, in passing, that some human jobs will go, but that they say just provides opportunities to shift to more creative and fulfilling jobs.

All is ultimately good:

it will reshuffle the competitive landscape for both companies and countries, and it will fundamentally change—for the better—the way we work and the way we live.

That’s a bit too glib, but of course they wouldn’t be saying otherwise. Its mostly about technology push, as you’d expect from a manufacturer. But as Asimov’s article 50 years ago shows, not everything will happen how or when you expect it to.

Meanwhile over at MIT’s media lab they are attempting to teach ethics to engineers via science fiction. That’s a start, but it would be useful to involve real ethicists and other humanities professors in their courses (if they don’t already) so the students get a proper academic grounding. Would an arts department put Arthur C. Clarke & Isaac Asimov on their reading lists to teach students about space ship design principles?

 

Signs from the near future Robert Hickson May 20

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A tumblr site called Signs from the near future by Fernando Barbella imagines what technologies may be widely used not so long from now. Its cleverly done, and gets you thinking. Although the strapline “We better get used to them …” implies a lack of control or choice, which I hope won’t be the case.

The Verge highlighted the work.

The signs cover autonomous vehicles, lab grown meat, “smart contact lenses,

Jet pack rentals (Yeah, right)

http://signsfromthenearfuture.tumblr.com/image/85813121025

http://signsfromthenearfuture.tumblr.com/image/85813121025

 

and synthetic biology and neural implants

http://37.media.tumblr.com/f700cc4cb5d0a3ba6ea7e97ea0bb13aa/tumblr_n5faakqs8S1tbaq2ro1_1280.jpg

http://37.media.tumblr.com/f700cc4cb5d0a3ba6ea7e97ea0bb13aa/tumblr_n5faakqs8S1tbaq2ro1_1280.jpg

 

 

Counting sheep scenarios Robert Hickson May 14

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I’ve just come across this research project – Counting sheep - being run by Anne Galloway at Victoria University’s School of Design. It is exploring how cultural studies and design research could support public engagement on the development & use of science and technology.

In a post last year I had asked if any NZ design groups were interested in foresight. It is good to see that there is interest.

Anne’s team is interested in what could be done with the increasing amount of information being generated by farming. They have developed four scenarios about possible futures of merino sheep farming, and are now soliciting feedback from the public to see what appeals and doesn’t about the particular uses of science and technology, and potential future farming practices.

The scenarios are:

Boneknitter – using merino wool as a knitted cast to help fix broken bones

Grow Your Own Lamb – you choose how to have a lamb raised on a farm on in a lab for your later dining pleasure.

Kotahitanga Farm – high tech farming on the urban fringe, where you can monitor animal and farm performance through a suite of sensors

PermaLamb – a genetically modified and cyborg lamb to look after at home, and receive tax credits

The last scenario is particularly off the wall. Boneknitter and Kotahitanga reach back to include some more traditional practices. If they tweak the Kotahitanga scenario by providing cheap-ish shepherd cottages that could also help address housing affordability near major centres. But I can imagine the price of lamb if it was growing next to Auckland. Grow your own lamb seems to offer the potential for a reality TV spin-off.

Great to see this imaginative approach being taken here. I’ll look forward to reading the results.

A myopic vision of the future Robert Hickson May 05

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The New York Times has a disappointing short article/graphic titled “A vision of the future from those likely to invent it“.

Disappointing because they interview only 7 people, all from/associated with Silicon Valley, who are supposedly “driving the technological transformation”. Sure the internet is likely to have a large role in our future lives, but they have taken a very limited view of the future – technologically and geographically. Energy, food, demographics, urban environment, health care, manufacturing and the social sciences hardly get a look in.

Granted we only get brief sound bites from the interviewees, but its all fairly unsurprising – drones, wearable computing, personalised medicine, implantable chips, virtual reality.

They do add a twist by asking what jobs technology will get rid of in the short term. But again, fairly trite. I think we’ll still have pilots on commercial flights 10 years from now (though probably with less actual flying to do).

They touch on “what’s next to undergo a sea change in social acceptance” as well. Marc Andreessen makes a good point, I think, about  ”… a more generalised acceptance of widespread variations in human behaviour”. But Peter Thiel’s big issue seems out of left field –  (american) football becoming unacceptable. (Boxing seems to be under going a small revival despite the known dangers, and there is an awful lot of money, and university prestige tied up in football).

Ev Williams suggests factory farming will disappear. That seems optimistic – how will americans be able to rapidly shift to a new way of food production?

In a companion piece, the Times redeems itself, somewhat, by noting how the views of Silicon Valley greats vary from starry-eyed to pragmatic when talking about how “Tech” (aka information technology) can “save the world”.

Its often more useful not to talk to inventors about how they think their inventions will change the world. The BBC highlights some wonderful (and some not so) inventions, on display at Dublin’s Science Gallery that failed to succeed.

Future war & peace Robert Hickson Apr 29

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While this past weekend the country has looked back on wars past, what of the future of war?

There are two questions here – will there be wars in the future, and if so, how will they be fought?

Armed conflicts have been declining (both in terms of number of wars and casualties) over recent decades, particularly following the end of the cold war.

Source: Center for Systemic Peace - http://www.systemicpeace.org/conflicttrends.html

Source: Center for Systemic Peace – http://www.systemicpeace.org/conflicttrends.html

 

Source: The Economist

Source: The Economist

 

The amount spent by western nations on their armed forces is also declining, although other countries are increasing their military budgets.

But will this continue?

Conflict tracker monitors current areas of conflict, while the Asia Foundation has a report on potential conflicts within the Asian region

Others are attempting to predict future conflicts - although they didn’t flag the recent Ukrainian crisis, so more work on their models is required. But what to do to prevent these conflicts erupting?

Some suggest we won’t see the scale of last century’s wars again, due to spreading globalization and democracy, fewer colonies seeking independence, the end of the cold war, and/or a range of other factors.

However, the Economist  has noted that some conditions now are similar to those 100 years ago just before the onset of WWI  (also available here). They see the biggest danger as complacency, where leaders in both the public and private sectors don’t act beyond their own narrow self-interests, and consequently let madness over run rationality. Wars usually occur because one or both sides think that they are in a more powerful position.

There is also debate over whether competition for resources by rapidly developing countries, and the effects of changing climates may exacerbate or create new conflicts.  The Economist also reports on a study by Hsiang, Burke & Miguel that looks at the historical evidence for links between climate and conflict. The recent IPCC report also suggests climate change may drive conflicts.

While imperial colonialism is supposedly on the way out, “land grabs” by rich countries of agricultural land in poorer countries is likely to be an additional conflict trigger.

It’s sometimes said that the military always plans with an eye directed backward – the next war will be just like the previous one (or the current one) but with new weapons.  That seems to be the case with a recent war game the US Army played which was set 15 years hence.

The US National Intelligence Council has, though, noted a likely different geopolitical environment in the coming decades. The Sydney Morning Herald is also urging the Australian government to produce a more forward looking Defence white paper to guide the future shape and purpose of their military forces.

A lot of attention has been given to the possibility of future conflicts (and armed forces) being more about the use of unmanned autonomous vehicles (even printed ones), cyborg soldiers, robots, and artificial intelligence ,and/or being undertaken in cyberspace (see here too). The military industrial complex is already gearing up for these.

Some consider that robots and enhanced soldiers will reduce casualties because they’ll be more precise, although there is likely to be a reluctance (socially, politically and militarily) to have robots and drones make their own decisions to use lethal force. While the manufacturers of military robots and software are typically confident that they’ll be safe and controllable, others are concerned that the development of AI and robotics will outstrip ethical and moral safeguards, and so more caution is required.

While we honour and lament the tragic loss of life and destruction in past wars, what will be our attitude to future conflicts where fewer humans may have to fight or die? Will we be more comfortable sending in robots and make less effort in preventing conflicts reaching a lethal level? Will we honour injured and fallen military robots (some soldiers already do)? Do we lose some of our humanity by allowing machines do the thinking and killing for us?

The warnings already gone out that a new approach to peace keeping is also necessary.

 

Canada’s emerging technologies metascan Robert Hickson Apr 09

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The Canadian Government’s just released a report on emerging technologies. It looks out over the next 15 years and focuses on digital technologies, biotechnologies, nanotechnologies and neuroscience technologies, which they consider have the potential for disruptive rather than incremental innovation. As you’d expect they consider biological enhancements, nanofactories, robots, wired-up everything.

There are no major surprises in their findings. Some of which include:

  • fewer carbon-based workers, but greater productivity
  • many areas of the economy will need to adapt as the technologies spread out across the sectors
  • the need to look at regulatory and risk management practices and requirements
  • the need to develop a better “innovation ecosystem” [the policy-speak du jour]

The report examines the impacts across a range of sectors – agriculture, manufacturing, services, energy, transportation, home, etc. The intention is to stimulate discussion, rather than predict.

The report is only 45 pages long and readable. It provides a good overview of some of the technologies and how they are or may be applied. They include a range of videos to illustrate some of the trends and developments. It would be nice to see New Zealand do something similar to help inform and stimulate discussion here.

The Ministry of Research, Science and Technology’s Biotechnologies to 2025 [Pdf], produced nearly a decade ago, was a great example of creative and  good quality futures analysis government agencies can (but rarely do) produce. It would be nice to refresh and broaden the scope of that report (which I had a small role in helping to develop) so the country as a whole can better consider what we may be facing.

The Royal Society’s recent green economy information paper is aimed at such informing, but it would be great to see the bigger picture and interconnections across the economy rather than just sector-specific analyses.

What I liked most about the Canadian report, and still need to delve into, are the visualisations they produced in conjunction with a company called Envisioning which estimate timeframes for some of the developments. Business Insider has made these zoomable, which is quite handy.

envisioning future tech

Envisioning’s composite visualisation of emerging technologies (http://www.envisioning.io/horizons/index.php)

 

 

A sufficiency of trends Robert Hickson Nov 21

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Two recent reports highlight a range of trends affecting governments, but they take different approaches. The report from IBM – Six Trends Driving Change in Government – has a focus on the US but the trends are generally applicable.

Their six (some more accurately considered drivers rather than trends) relate to:

  • Performance – using data to inform “real-time” decision making on strategic goals
  • Risk – fiscal constraints and complex operating conditions create the need to adopt different cultures and frameworks to be better able to assess and managing emerging public sector risks
  • Innovation – rapid change in technologies and operating models, processes and services means that the public sector needs a better “culture of innovation” – experimentation, alignment of innovations with agency missions, connection with non-government innovators, and monitoring of outcomes
  • Mission – centralisation of organisation-support functions (HR, IT, finance) can lead to detachment from key agency goals. There are opportunities to better link these support functions to organisational goals or missions.
  • Efficiency – financial constraints are prompting a rethink of traditional processes. Technologies can help improve efficiencies and service deliveries, but there is a need to be transparent about costs, savings and outcomes.
  • Leadership – public sector leaders are adopting different ways of working with each other collaboratively.

The other report – from the Mowat Centre and KPMG – comes up with nine “Global Megatrends Shaping Governments” . They take a bigger picture view, examining:

  • Demographics – longer lives and fewer kids in the west are placing pressure on health and social welfare
  • Growing individualism – increasing demand for transparency and broader participation in public decision-making
  • Technology – ICT creating new types and styles of work and opportunities, while also challenging organisational performance and oversight
  • Increasing economic interconnectedness – leading to more trade, capital and labour flows, and creating the need for better policy and regulatory connections between states.
  • Rising public debt – will constrain what governments are able to do in the face of social, economic and environmental challenges
  • Shifting geopolitical power – will affect existing international institutions and agreements, and may challenge existing comparative economic advantages of some countries.
  • Climate change – will influence economic, political, and social activities and aspirations. Adapting and mitigating effects will require both national and international cooperation, and longer-term planning.
  • Increased resource stresses – rising energy, mineral, food, and water demands will challenge governments abilities to maintain prosperity and develop sustainably
  • Spreading urbanization – can also place stresses on infrastructure, services, resources and the environment

These, of course, aren’t discrete but can interact with and influence others, and the megatrends in the Mowat report are often the factors influencing IBM’s six trends/drivers.

The common factors between these two reports (and other recent trend reports – like Ernst & Young’s Six Global Trends Shaping the Business World, and Rick Boven’s transcribed speech posted on Sciblogs) are significant demographic, energy, economic and geopolitical changes, rapid developments in information and communication technologies, and the global financial crisis.

All recognise that new governance and business models are necessary to adapt to these changes. They provide steps to be taken, or questions to be asked that are designed to encourage the changes. Though I expect they are probably sceptical of the abilities for many governments (and some sectors) to change quickly and consistently enough. History shows us that there’s no ideal, clear sighted and committed government that has done this. Democracies, in particular, wander back and forth between successes and failures.

But you’ve gotta try. And the Mowat Centre report is good at identifying some of the policy, regulatory, program, strategy, structural and skill changes that they think are necessary.

What’s starting to worry me, though, is the growing number of these reports that are appearing – each with an overlapping, but slightly different, set of trends and drivers, and pitched to slightly different sectors. While they usually point out the increasing uncertainties in our future as we move from decades of relative stability and certainty, there’s the risk that setting out a nice set of six or so trends and helpful key questions will give a false sense of managerial comfort to the overworked executives.

The trends are a starting point for more detailed thought and engagement. What’s needed are fewer reports and more action (hah, you say, that’s ironic coming from a blogger, and former/future consultant – you have a point).

Before a gaggle of other government departments and industry sectors get enthused (or not) about creating their own trends reports, scenarios, roadmaps, strategic action plans, etc. lets stop. There’s certainly been a lot of duplication, and unnecessary expenditure, producing similar data sets and reports.

New Zealand is small enough and well connected enough that a common set of trends and scenarios (or other tools for imagining potential futures) should be generally applicable for many planning purposes, as well as having the benefit of illustrating that we’re all in this together. The major trends and drivers that I think most have some agreement over (demographics, energy, technologies, social changes, etc) will be important (perhaps in different ways) to the public and private sectors. Neither sector is isolated from the other and will need to collaborate to meet some of the challenges and create some of the desired futures.

So lets get a few well informed and influential people together from a representative range of sectors and groups to craft a common set of futures scenarios and critical questions for the whole country to think about, discuss, argue and act upon with more of a collective purpose. Or maybe a couple of sets, competition can be good. Save money and have the broader discussions that we need to have, rather than concentrating on own own narrower bespoke set of trends and possible futures. This appraoch can help address those needs to address performance, risk, mission, efficiency and leadership that the IBM report notes.

We seem to have the ability to quickly become proficient discussing sailing (or soccer, netball, etc) terms and strategies when we think it matters. Lets put some of that passion and energy into cheering on our future.

 

[Thanks to John P for putting some of these thoughts into my head]

Now for the Long Term Robert Hickson Oct 21

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The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations have just released a report – Now for the Long Term.  In addition to laying out the megatrends and challenges facing the world, they also propose some solutions.

 

Megatrends

 

The report does a generally good job in setting out concisely some of the  ”megatrends” (ie long lasting trends that are likely to have significant, but not immediately apparent impacts), although the discussion on technology megatrends is disappointingly mostly about information technologies.

It links these megatrends to five types of challenges that are likely to shape the future of human societies:

  • How can growth and development be made more sustainable and inclusive?

  • How can food, energy, water and biodiversity be made more secure?

  • How can public health infrastructure and processes respond to the needs of all?

  • How can power transitions be the basis of fresh forms of collaboration?

  • How can businesses, institutions and governments contribute to more inclusive and sustainable growth?

The second part of the report looks back to see if there are historical precedents for how societies have handled crises well or badly. I found this section, by summarising a range of different events and developments – involving past crises, shared interests, leadership, inclusive governance, and collaborative institutions – particularly useful. Some of the examples include the global financial crisis, genocides in Somalia and Rwanda, Y2K, the EU’s Single Market Programmes, the Helsinki Accords, the Montreal Protocol banning ozone-depleting chloro-fluoro carbons, tobacco control, and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations.

I got the sense though that the examples were, unsurprisingly, chosen to support their proposals for how to address the challenges.

The report does a very good job in highlighting that there isn’t a quick and easy fix to what we, the world, are facing. They note the factors that make change hard are:

  • 20th century structures and institutions are poorly equipped for 21st century challenges

  • Political and business timeframes encourage short-sightedness

  • Declining trust in politics and limited opportunities for constructive public engagement

  • Issues are becoming more complex and evidence may be less certain

  • Cultural barriers within and between societies are a big hinderance

Their proposed solutions are neither easy, nor often particularly appealing or exciting at first (or even second) glance. They place a lot of emphasis on developing standards, having better data, and greater transparency.

More multi-stakeholder partnerships – what they call a “Coalition of the Working – bringing together countries, companies and cities to counteract climate change. While of some merit, I feel their selection of which groups to involve is restrictive. Only companies affiliated with the World Business Council on Sustainable Development, for example. No constructive NGOs or smaller community organisations that could have useful experience and insights to contribute.

They also propose the creation of new, or at least re-invigorated, global institutions, that focus on long-term resilience. Not exciting stuff, but they do point to existing institutions that can form the basis of the new ones.

Other proposal include:

  • Reduce fossil fuel and agricultural subsidies.
  • Establish a Voluntary World Taxation and Regulatory Exchange so to encourage harmonise taxation systems for multinational corporations are more transparent about .
  • Implement existing proposals for long term accounting frameworks, so that there isn’t a bias against future generations.
  • Develop a long-Term Index to measure governance.
  • Break inter-generational poverty through greater focus on social protection schemes.
  • Address the youth unemployment crises.
  • Articulate a common global vision and shared values for global civilisation.

All in all a liberal agenda. Some, like a common global vision, may be unachievable, or of little actual utility even if they were.

The Commission responsible for the report is impressive, but in my view would benefit from having a few more hard-headed business leaders involved.

As a Guardian columnist noted following the report’s release, building more institutions may not create the most agile, innovative and effective means of addressing some of the problems. But she also noted that currently available alternatives made her queasy too.

Still, as Rick Boven noted in his Guest Work here on Sciblogs, the top down approach by itself won’t work. More attention could be paid to the ability of individuals and small(-ish) groups to effect change at the local level.

The report does a good job of indicating where we can pick up on some smaller scale activities and institutions that may work at larger scale. But that isn’t a given. With the scale and range of challenges we are facing, more experimenting rather than lock-in is necessary. However, time and money for exquisitely designed randomised controlled trials isn’t available.

The Oxford Martin Commission is to be commended for bringing together a lot of information into a useful compilation, and suggesting solutions. They may not be the best solutions, but they can stimulate the discussions and thinking.

My question to the Commission is “what next?” A lot of effort went into the report, what’s your encore? There is no indication of that at the moment.

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