Robert Hickson

Robert Hickson has evolved from an evolutionist, looking backwards, into a futurist. Many of the skill sets are the same; looking for patterns, making sense of them, and trying to fill in the gaps. He's of the view that in New Zealand we don't do enough forward looking. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent the views of his current employer (if any), or Charles Darwin.

Future nation - Ariadne

Mar 22, 2019

Two centuries ago there was an allegory doing the rounds of England. A “New Zealander” – meaning a Māori  – at some latter date sat drawing the ruins of London. A sign that all great cities and civilisations eventually diminish and others take their place.   Detail from Gustave Doré. “The New Zealander” in London: a pilgrimage, Blanchard Jerrold (ed). London: Grant & Co., 1872   That hasn’t happened yet, although England’s power and influence are greatly diminished. And many today wouldn’t see, or perhaps want, New Zealand taking up the mantle of a great, or even middling, power. What is within our means is to be a great country. As the responses to the terrorist attack shows, there is much to be thankful for and proud of in New Zealand and its people. But … Read More

Revolutionary cycles - Ariadne

Mar 14, 2019

Like business and politics, futurism and foresight are susceptible to short-termism, shallow historical perspectives, and a focus on parts not the whole. That’s not necessarily bad, but you need to recognise what perspective you are taking. Good foresight needs to balance the tension between detail and distance. As one interviewee noted for the Thinking the unthinkable report: “I wish I learned how to have a microscope in one eye and a telescope in the other at the same time. You’d get a massive headache! It’s hard to do. But you have to do both”. Technological trends Most of the focus of reports on technological change (or disruption, or revolution, pick your preference) are closer to the microscopic end. Catalogues of technological trends, or deep dives into particular technologies, and what they’ll lead to. They populate a spectrum … Read More

One-way thinking on a two-way street - Ariadne

Mar 03, 2019

“One-way thinking on a two-way street” is a line from Ogden Nash’s poem “Oh, Stop Being Thankful All Over The Place.” I see it as particularly apt for a lot of the futures speculation and prediction going on all over the place. There is a rapidly expanding market of “futures pundits” who confidently predict what is going to come to pass. You know the sort; “the robots are coming for our jobs”, “the singularity is near”, “blockchain will change everything”, “the death of capitalism”. Simple messages for complex times. The historian and writer Jill Lepore has called futurists “modern-day shamans”. This probably confers on them too much status and capability. Rarely do they seem to enter an “altered state of consciousness” that characterises a shaman. They often just chant current trends and the Zeitgeist. Read More

New tools, old mindset - Ariadne

Feb 19, 2019

The recent report that machine learning is “causing a science crisis”  – giving misleading results from data analysis – brought to mind something my PhD advisor said over 20 years ago.   “The bad news is all the models are wrong. The good news is the journal editors don’t know it yet!”   This was in the early days of programmes to build evolutionary (or phylogenetic) trees. Lots of DNA sequence data were being produced, and geneticists needed methods to make sense of it. Happily, mathematicians and mathematically-inclined biologists were creating models that could do this. The problem was that the outputs were, initially, uncritically accepted without understanding the assumptions and limitations of the data and the models being used. It’s an age old problem. If someone is given a hammer for the first time, everything starts … Read More

The further future of healthcare - Ariadne

Oct 23, 2018

Following on from my last post, the UK has just released its Future of healthcare policy paper. It’s essentially a fluffy digital health information policy. No timelines and no systems-level thinking (apart from IT systems). Just add digital and other technological bits, encourage innovation, and it’s sorted is the short version. I found it a dispiriting read. It could have been written by a large consulting company. Some of the short case studies provide useful indicators of emerging digital approaches. TechCrunch was also critical of aspects of the paper, and has comments from others involved in healthcare. They also pointed out that the current UK Health Minister was previously the digital Minister, and it shows. New Zealand has its own vision for health technology. It name checks digital technologies du jour – AI … Read More

Healthcare in the future - Ariadne

Oct 14, 2018

When thinking about the future of healthcare, images of robot surgeons, predictive algorithms, nanoparticles and nanobots in your bloodstream, CRISPR, and wearable or ingestible sensors may come to mind. A future of big technological advances that help get rid of once acute conditions (like cancers, infectious diseases), and improve the monitoring and treatment of chronic ones (like heart disease, diabetes and obesity). Robot surgeons, diagnostic AI systems, new cancer treatments, and online health are sometimes called “technological disrupters” – they have the potential to displace (or work with) highly trained medical staff, or provide new methods of treatment. But there’s often more to significant change than just better technology. As illustrated by the problems Watson Healthcare is experiencing. How do you incorporate such technological advances into a human-centred healthcare system? Particularly one becoming more focused … Read More

Auckland’s possible futures – the simplistic version - Ariadne

Aug 01, 2018

Auckland Council’s long term spatial plan to 2050 is out. There seems to be lots of good data released with it that is worth exploring. But the thing getting the most attention at the moment is one of five scenarios in the brief Possible futures part that was released along with the plan. The “Two speed Auckland” scenario has been described as dystopian, with a highly deprived western side of the city and an affluent east. Sort of like Palo Alto vs East Palo Alto in Silicon Valley. Some, like the Salvation Army, say that rather than being a vision of the future it describes what parts of South Auckland already look like, as well as failing to understand that it isn’t the affluent that experience the most crime, but … Read More

Thinking beyond the impossible burger - Ariadne

Jul 12, 2018

The agricultural sector has long been called a “sunset industry”. If so, it’s more a long drawn out polar twilight than a quick tropical dusk. Rosie Bosworth has written about New Zealand becoming the ‘Detroit of Agriculture’. Scary stuff, for some. A welcome transformation for others, if you read the opinion pieces. But are predictions of the death of farming greatly exaggerated? The recent brouhaha over Air NZ promoting a vegetarian burger option on some of its flights highlights, again, some of the challenges facing farming. The challenges include: The ongoing transition from family farming to industrial farming systems. Attracting and retaining a skilled workforce. A growing proportion of the population with little connection to, or understanding of, rural New Zealand and agricultural practices. Growing concerns about the mental health of … Read More

Jetpack joyrides - Ariadne

Jun 19, 2018

The Jetpack has been a futuristic symbol of techno-utopia, and freedom, for a century. The first jetpack was conceived in 1919. It wasn’t until 1958, though, that the first working model was created. But they still seem further from general availability than the comparatively more pedestrian flying car, which I wrote about last year. There are some real jetpacks around, just not evenly distributed. Astronauts use them from time to time. And there are a few doing the public exhibition circuit, but nothing like the barnstorming days at the beginning of powered flight. The Martin Jetpack still hasn’t become a commercial success after decades of development. There is the flyboard air, which is a platform rather than a jetpack. The winged jetpack of … Read More

Lest we forget the future - Ariadne

Apr 25, 2018

As we always do this time of year in NZ we look back and honour past wartime sacrifices, and reflect on how they have shaped the national mindset and identity. That’s important to do, but it seems that as a country we spend a lot of time in reflection and too little looking forward. Well, you may say, the world is changing so quickly that it’s not much use looking ahead. That’s a weak excuse. As Louis Pasteur may have said “fortune favours the prepared mind” An important part of foresight is recognizing, in Sohail Inayatullah’s six pillars framework , the “weight of the past”. But another key aspect is the “pull of the future” – what are our dreams and aspirations. New Zealand’s not been great at that. Sure, some goals have been … Read More