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.

Game of Futures - Ariadne

May 27, 2019

No one needs telling that the Future is Coming. But there are different perspectives and attitudes toward it. Some see the future as “dark and full of terrors” – The machines are taking over; Democracy is dying; We are doomed! Others see nothing but light – Technological utopianism; Singularities; Becoming an interplanetary species; Or a delight for the “world of yesterday”. Still others resist facing up to change, or have an unrealistic hope that a wall, real or metaphorical, will keep it at bay. Sociological vs Psychological Stories I got on this train of thought after reading Zeynep Tufekci’s commentary, in Scientific American no less, about Game of Thrones. She notes that a sociological style of narrative is more powerful than a psychological one. A psychological narrative is one … Read More

The elephants not in the room - Ariadne

May 09, 2019

Elephants can be an important futures symbol. The “elephant in the room” – also, unnecessarily pigmented, called a “black elephant” by some futurists – is the well known large and obvious issue that people refuse to address.  Then there is the parable of the “blind men and the elephant”, which illustrates the misconceptions that result if we only focus on one part of a situation. A useful reminder when considering how narrow or broad you want to be when doing environmental scans or crafting scenarios. The “elephant and the rider” analogy can be used to help decision-making. It portrays the elephant as our emotional side and the rider as our rational side. Both need to work together to bring about change, a critical factor to … Read More

NZ scenarios for technological change - Ariadne

Apr 20, 2019

New Zealand’s Productivity Commission has developed draft scenarios to examine the future of work. The  scenarios are intended to describe a range of future impacts of technological change on the future of work, the workforce, labour markets, productivity and wellbeing. They will be used to test the effectiveness of different policies. The Commission is seeking feedback on the scenarios and policy questions. The first question their issues paper asks is “Are the scenarios developed by the Commission useful for considering the future labour market effects of technological change? “ My initial response is no. Scenarios are a way of looking at particular uncertainties about the future. Last month I wrote about some UK scenarios about the future of work.   The scenarios The two key variables … Read More

Beyond the Robofarm - Ariadne

Apr 03, 2019

It’s easy to get momentarily excited about robots on the farm, particularly if they are close to home, picking apples or herding stock. Robots have been rolling out onto farms elsewhere for several years and the pace is picking up, so NZ is in a sense catching up in terms of field applications. New Zealand has ag-related robotics companies too. RoboticsPlus, Scott, Pastoral Robotics, InvertRobotics, and Scion”s & the University of Canterbury’s tree climbing bot (under development) are examples. Processing rather than ambulatory robots are further along the commercialisation path.   Robots are a means not an end But it is false to think … Read More

Futures of work - Ariadne

Mar 27, 2019

It’s hard to find a way through the forest of forecasts about the impact new technologies will have on work and life. Is it going to be terrible, awesome, same same, all of the above, or something else? The answer is no one knows, or can really know. However, it’s useful to explore the issues and consider what policy options and business decisions could be appropriate to help shape the future. The UK’s Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (known as The RSA) has just released “The four futures of work” which provides a useful contribution to these discussions. They, along with Arup’s foresight group,  developed a set of scenarios for the UK in 2035. I would have left out “The” from their report title because I think … Read More

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