In a continuation of my series titled “A Journey through the Looking Glass”, I will touch on two historical paths of innovation. The post picks up from the last one where I explored the building blocks of the future.
THE DUAL PATHS OF INNOVATION
Two major forces are likely to converge in very unpredictable ways. First, the road to abundance described by Peter Diamandis promises to advance our human development in ways not previously thought possible. At the same time, our journey will face several unintended consequences. The intersection of these two forces underscores the importance of focusing on emerging scenarios now, thus enabling human development and mitigating the risk of these unintended consequences.
As we know, the unabated exponential progression of science and technology is driving a staggering pace of innovation. The building blocks are mostly there, allowing creative minds to combine them in ways that deliver new forms of value. Additional forces have emerged to position the next two decades as a period that is purpose-driven and transformative. Innovation itself is no longer the sole purview of business, universities, government, and military, as our connected world provides an unprecedented ideation and innovation engine. Peter Diamandis describes another driver he called Techno-Philanthropist. Focused globally, these wealthy individuals are changing the traditional rules of philanthropy by using their wealth to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. In the above-mentioned book, Mr. Diamandis focuses on creating an abundant world that is better than the one we envision.
If abundance is a force, then another is the emerging potential for unintended consequences and the risk they pose to humanity. Futurist Gerd Leonhard explores these concerns in his book titled Technology versus Humanity. The path forward represents a delicate balance between the socially constructive benefits of innovation and a destructive path driven by technologies that have no ethics, and an innovation engine that has no governance. Mr. Leonhard does a masterful job describing the forces that could negatively affect our well-being. He views this topic through the lens of human happiness and explores the role of technology in enhancing or detracting from it. With the view of abundance on one side and unintended consequences on the other, I developed a visual to capture these opposing forces. An interesting note: you could place several of these items of well-being on either side of the visual. For example, increased longevity may enhance our well-being – but it could also diminish it. Click on the visual to enlarge it.
Regarding ethics, Mr. Leonhard proposed the creation of a Global Digital Ethics Council (GDEC), which in his words, would be tasked with defining the ground rules and universal values of such a dramatically different, fully digitized society. In doing so, he envisions a push towards agreements on the limits and independent monitoring of both the scope and progress of AI, genome editing, and other exponential technologies. These digital ethics would be open enough to not impede progress or hamper innovation, yet strong enough to protect our humanness. The GDEC he envisions would include well-informed and deep-thinking individuals from civil society, academia, government, business, and technology, as well as independent thinkers, writers, artists, and thought leaders. This perspective was echoed in a report on Global Technology Governance via the World Economic forum, which explores both the governance gaps and a governance framework for managing a period of great invention.
This dialog must advance so we can realize the socially constructive benefits of exponential technology, while mitigating the risk of unintended consequences. Balancing the opposing forces of innovation is critical to enhancing our future. This subway diagram focuses on two paths: one that enhances human development (green), and one that diminishes it (red). The station stops are the major innovations likely to have the biggest impact in either direction – but we could add several other stations based on the number of Building Blocks available to society. Click on the visual to expand it.
Let’s use the journey towards food abundance as an example. In their 2019 trends report, The Future Today Institute (FTI) describes several future scenarios. One such scenario presents the innovations likely to enable food abundance. There are at least three very important reasons to focus here: soil erosion, extreme weather events, and population growth. Extreme weather events are likely to change traditional agriculture as we know it, driving the need for innovative new ways to feed society. Population growth exacerbates the problem.
Today the earth is home to approximately 7.6 billion people, with some growth estimates taking us to 11 billion by 2100. These numbers assume a continuing decrease in average fertility rate. To compound the food situation, the population of the world’s poorest countries will more than triple. Some projections indicate that by 2050, agriculture production must increase by 70% to meet projected demand. As stated by The Future Today Institute, current farming methods won’t cut it. If this trajectory does not change, soil erosion combined with the effects of climate change will present a huge risk to global food security.
The journey towards food abundance is therefore critical. Fortunately, several innovations are lining up to solve this problem, from new kinds of indoor microfarms, to vertical farms run completely by artificial intelligence and robots, to precision agriculture that optimizes yield. Imagine restaurants, schools and companies growing their own produce while achieving significant cost savings. In describing that scenario, The FTI research team states that restaurants will have access to compact, self-sustaining indoor vegetable gardens that are small enough to fit within the existing space of a commercial kitchen. Special lights help reduce the growing time necessary for plants to reach maturity. In addition, they state that in the very near future, similar technology along with subscription seedling services will become affordable enough for average US homes.
An example of food innovation in action can be found with strawberries. An agriculture competition in China assembled four technology teams that competed with farmers over four months to grow strawberries. This Article by Victoria Masterson describes what happened next. Data scientists produced 196% more strawberries by weight on average compared with traditional farmers. The possibilities previously demonstrated by vertical farming using intelligent sensors and AI make the findings unsurprising. But what happens when this move towards abundance intersects with the certainty of unintended consequences? The Future Today Institute describes a scenario where local microfarms upend the status quo for supply chains built around conventional agriculture and supermarkets. They envision a possible future where the shift impacts everyone from merchants and importers to truck drivers and UPC code sticker providers. Food shortage driven by extreme weather is also likely to drive a migration from impacted regions to countries like the U.S. and Europe, creating a humanitarian crisis.
Another example of the path of innovation being part constructive and part destructive is described in an Article written by Jack Kelly. In it, Mr. Kelly describes a possible dark side as the future of work emerges. I find it fascinating that we now see more comparisons to the past. History and its lessons help us consider possibilities and assess appropriate actions. In the referenced article, the author looks at the future of work through the lens of the past – in this case, a feudal society.
These examples underscore the need for urgency. The Two Paths of innovation have historical precedent, as every great period of invention has followed both paths. After all, fire provided light, warmth, and food, but also burned down villages. These small scenarios are the tip of the iceberg when you consider the sheer number of emerging scenarios and the certainty of a growing list of unintended consequences. Telling stories of possible futures is an effective means of communicating both the opportunities and the consequences – but steering us towards opportunity requires human action. As described in a previous post on catalysts, historically, we’ve required catalysts to drive human action. Human nature being what it is, we are likely to need catalysts again – versus responding to the growing forces imploring us to act. In the next post of the series, I will focus on the coming phase of human development.
First Post in the series: A Journey through the Looking Glass