During the 16th Century when maps of the world moved from being symbolic representations based on Christian teachings to a record of discovered land masses, early cartographers were presented with a problem. With vast expanses of white spaces representing the terra incognita (the unknown lands existing beyond documented coastlines,) cartographers were forced to go beyond the strict guidelines of map-making and represent the ‘great unknown’.
It wasn’t long before illustrations of fantastical sea monsters, three-headed beasts and even unicorns made their way onto early modern maps, based on available travelogues and the second-hand accounts from sailors who had made their way back to the safety of European shores.
Fast forward 500 years and despite Google’s all-powerful ability to update satellite images of the world every two weeks, our elaborate imaginings of the great unknown look remarkably like those found on the early modern maps, the only difference being the three-headed beasts are now three-headed robots, and the sailors fables are distributed in 240-character tweets. With headlines such as ‘Danger Looms for Humanity and for Earth’ appearing daily and an exhaustive amount of scaremongering on how our jobs are at threat, it’s no surprise that over 4000 people turned up to Nesta’s 4th Annual Future Festival held at Tobacco Docks on the 5th/6th July to engage in debates about how we can put the power back in the hands of people and challenge the illusive three-headed robots.
Bringing together forward thinkers from policy making to cyborg ethics and a mainstage rivalling Glastonbury Festival with keynotes from Hip-Hop artist and activist Akala to Nick Clegg, the crowd sought to debunk the myths that we are on the verge of a cyborg apocalypse and apply a new lens to our terra incognita, namely that we had reason to be optimistic and the future was ours to occupy.
At a time when the future feels so troubled for so many with the rise of automation, environmental degradation, increasing threats to peace and prosperity and rising inequality, the role of government in shaping the future has never been more important. In an inspiring speech on how Governments can shape the future rather than recreate a lost past, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and Former Leader of the Scottish National Party, called for governments around the world to use the purchasing power of the public sector for the benefit of the many, stating:
‘Government’s around the world, right now, have a choice. We can choose to be passive in the face of technological change, governing without acknowledging or adapting to the new world in which citizens live. Or we can choose instead to be active participants and seek to ensure that the economic advantages of new technology are captured, not just by major corporations, or indeed by entrepreneurs, but captured by society and for the benefit of society as a whole.
But how can governments actively shape the future? One of the ways suggested by Sturgeon is to use procurement effectively and spur innovation by helping to create new markets rather than just fix existing ones. This is the ambition of CIVTECH, a scheme launched in 2016 by the Scottish Governments Digital Directorate which encourages public and private sector collaboration to produce real solutions to some of Scotland’s biggest problems. With problem statements ranging from ‘How can we transform the re-use of products for NHS Scotland’ to ‘How can tech help young people to manage their digital footprint’, CIVTECH invites some of Scotland’s brightest entrepreneurs to help the public-sector work faster and smarter.
Encouraging organisations to look to partners and the public to develop fresh ideas for the betterment of society is one of our raisons d’être at Wazoku. But we believe this isn’t limited to the creation of new products and services alone. Last year Wazoku partnered with the Royal Society of the Arts and the Bank of England to capture new economic policy ideas on markets and the future of work. Not only did the exercise look outside of policy labs for solutions and invite as wide a range of perspectives as possible, the project sought to innovate the process of policy making itself.
With over 50 new ideas being submitted by a broad cross-section of society, the project was deemed a great first step in increasing the level of citizen participation in decision making and one which Andy Haldane, Chief Economist of the Bank of England, has committed to incorporate into future policy making.
Unlike CIVTECH, which aims to solve big societal challenges by investing in early stage businesses, one of the aims of the Citizens Economic Council (CEC) was to allow citizens to actively influence innovation by creating policies which support the realisation of citizens basic needs, defined by the CEC as food, shelter, healthcare, access to jobs and participation in society. If governments are to maximise the impact of innovation in helping to build a freer, fairer world, they should not solely rely on schemes like CIVTECH but should adopt the Citizens’ Economic Councils approach and look to improve the age old process of policy design. Only by changing existing structures as well as spurring new innovations will they succeed in their task of occupying the future.
Businesses too have a role to play in occupying the future, and, like Governments, should adopt a dual approach to innovation. As well as investing in new products which solve some of society’s big challenges, leaders should look to innovate the way in which they operate, such as committing to fair taxation, increasing employee representation on boards or moving from an operational model which is purely extractive to one which is regenerative (a model of which can be found in Kate Raworth’s book ‘Doughnut Economics, Seven ways to think like a 21st Century Economist’)
Without drawing any parallels to colonial explorers who viewed new lands as opportunities to conquer and plunder, the message of Future Fest rings true to Governments and Businesses alike: the future is a land of opportunity and if we are to learn from the lessons of the past and create a better world, Governments, Organisations and civil society must come together and truly ‘occupy it’. After all, innovation isn’t just about investing in the technologies of tomorrow, it’s also about making changes to how things are done today, and that starts now.