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Technology, Policy and Pathways to Possible Worlds: Imagining Year 2050 Now
By: George Meredith
Last updated: Thursday, 4 February 2021
Imagine the year 2050, 30 years from today. What sort of world would this be: given the opportunities and challenges created by technological transformations?
During the Eu-SPRI Mini Course on 3rd December, 145 attendees, almost perfectly gender- balanced and from 34 different countries, considered this question.
The key theme was introduced by the course Directors, Professor Ed Steinmueller and Dr Simone Vannuccini, who referred to possible worlds. Professor Steinmueller noted that science and technology allow us to explore futures and, combined with individual initiative and agency, they have the ability to bring that better world into existence.
The course featured six lectures by SPRU faculty, exploring how trends unfolding in different domains, such as environment, policy, and the economy, might lead to alternative socio-technical futures.
In Post-Automation in the Making, Professor Adrian Smith invited us to imagine more open futures compared to the cyber-physical systems of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. By looking to emerging practices on the industrious margins of capitalism, he posited that it might be possible to develop post-automation technologies with less of the historical emphasis on systems of control, and more in convivial relations of care.
Dr Marie Claire Brisbois, presented Democracy or Disorder? The Far Reaching Implications of Decentralised Energy Transitions and discussed how decentralised energy transitions provide an opportunity to start shifting the political and economic dominance of big energy companies that focus on profit over people. If we are able to loosen the political stranglehold big energy has on our governments, any number of progressive social, environmental and economic policies are possible. See: No one can put the local energy genie back in the bottle now
Dr Frederique Bone’s presentation on Mapping the Past to Inform Future Policies through Text Mining discussed her recent work looking at the fourth technological surge and the emergence and diffusion of the principles related to mass production. She reflected on the potential offered by the digitisation of large newspapers and magazines and text mining techniques to study innovation through long periods of time. She also discussed the timing of the introduction of different mass production principles between 1850 to the 1990s, as well as differences observed when relying on different historical sources (technical magazines, newspapers or books).
Tackling the issue of Data Value, Data Rights and Data Governance, Professor Maria Savona emphasised that rethinking the governance of data means resolving the policy trade-off of maximizing high quality data sharing for public value, while protecting privacy and redistributing the value by giving agency and rights to individual data generators as a first step. See: Governance of Data Value
Professor Ed Steinmueller’s presentation, Four Worlds in 2050: Alternatives for a Sustainable Future? outlined four ‘world canvases’ derived from different principles as to what might transform our world over the next few decades. A ‘grow’ world involving a fundamental re-orientation of fiscal priorities and technological choice in favour of sustainability. A ‘collapse’ world in which our current pandemic is followed by further crises that unravel globalisation and require localised and smaller scale production. A ‘discipline’ world in which a more sustainable future is obtained through vigorously enforced new formal rules and social norms. A ‘transform’ world in which unanticipated or barely anticipated new technologies greatly diminish our current existential challenges. These canvases were suggested as means to imagine and strive for change in the coming decades
Dr Simone Vannuccini’s talk, (Technology) Policy in a novel landscape: Designing institutions for a ‘Cyber-physical Universe’, weaved together the different forces and dynamics that are shaping the current landscape – the ‘cyber-physical universe’ characterised by the blurring boundaries between the physical and the digital. As information technologies become the ‘fabric of reality’ he argued that policy design should step up to match these pervasive changes. Therefore, to think about possible futures means also thinking about fully-fledged institutional innovations capable of enveloping and nurturing the complexity of the cyber-physical universe – federalism as an institutional architecture is proposed as the candidate for such innovation.
In his final remarks, Dr Adrian Ely, highlighted the inescapable uncertainties associated with transformative technologies. He called for international partnerships (highlighting collaboration across Europe and further afield) and the imperative of bringing in new voices to the debate, including those from younger generations, such as the course’s participants.
When you imagine the year 2050, what do you see?