Six ways we can improve the future

Despite the bleak undercurrents of NEXT22, there were plenty of clear signposts towards a better life for all of us. Time to act on them.

Things can get better. We can build a better future for ourselves. Indeed, when things seem difficult, dangerous, and bleak, that’s when we most need to strive towards something better. And, if some elements of NEXT22 seemed depressing, as we acknowledge the multifaceted crises buffeting our societies, there were also clear notes of hope to be found.

Here are six ways that we can build better futures for ourselves.

Better Communities

The discourse about Web3 and blockchain-based technology has ended up dominated by the idea of these products as an investment class. That seems like a mistake right now, with many of these assets collapsing in value.

But perhaps this necessary correction is allowing us — finally — to see the potential behind them. Trevor McFedries has been exploring how Web3 tech can both facilitate online creative communities — and allow them to derive financial value from their work:

Web3 is about building communities, and letting them birth products. Friends With Benefits was an early experiment in this. It was launched with a fixed number of tokens, and you need 50 to contribute. There’s an incentive to participate in a way that people appreciate and enjoy because that makes other people want to join. If demand goes up, and there is a limited supply of tokens, the value of those tokens is bound to increase.

So much time, effort, and creativity have only built the wealth of the platform owners during the Web2 era. Seen through McFedries’ lens, that value could be shifted where it belongs: with the people creating new work. And that will only incentivise more creativity.

Better Cities

Despite the profound realignment of the way we live and work the pandemic wrought, nobody believes cities are doomed. Humanity has always gathered in ever-denser urban areas, and there’s no reason to think that will change.

But, right now, there’s an opportunity to rethink those cities — and we can only do that if we have the right data, as Francesca Bria points out. And, currently, too much of that is locked up inside corporate platforms:

Is there a third way between big state and big tech? Yes: but it requires a new regulatory approach for the digital age, that avoids creating monopolies, but still encourages innovation. It means a new social contract for the digital age, which involves digital sovereignty, and allows us to set the direction we want technology to go.

Bria is not advocating an end to corporate innovation built on big data, but on a more equitable use of the data we create — our data — for the good of our societies as well as the good of private corporations. And tech could easily allow us to rebalance this relationship — just as McFedries argued about creative communities.

Better Assistants

How about that other darling of technologists: AI? James Bridle took to the stage to ask a question too few others have done: what sort of intelligence? Human intelligence is far from the only kind. And there’s massive potential in harnessing non-human intelligence forms to aid us:

Nobody’s really sure what slime moulds are. Are they individuals or are they communities? They act as both at different times. Researchers in Tokyo put down oat flakes in a dish to make the patterns of various cities, and used lights to replicated barriers like mountains. Within 24 hours, the slime mould had determined the most efficient system to get around the city. Slime moulds are particularly good at route finding.

That’s incredibly useful. Our binary technology has led to a binary society — one riven by divisions, or so Bridle convincingly argued. By looking back at the incredible diversity of the natural world, we can find new technological assistants without constantly striving to recreate our own intelligence in silicon.

Better Biology

If we can learn from the biology of other creatures, could we also do better work with our biology? The pandemic left many of us feeling medically vulnerable in a way we haven’t before, and you can still see elements of that in the jumpy reaction we have to (relatively) small-scale outbreaks. The speed with which we gained access to Covid vaccines hinted at a better future — and Loretta Tioiela was there to get us excited about advances in bioengineering:

Not only has DNA sequencing changed, so has the ability to synthesise it. We’re gaining sequence data at an exponential rate – and that opens the door to precision medicine. Drugs could be engineered for a specific individual’s biology.

Convergence of technology innovation is the key here: as advances in sequencing, analysis and synthesis come together, whole new fields open up. Where else could we create incredible advances by bringing together seemingly disparate advances to create something new?

Better Lives

Many of these things are out of our reach as individuals, exciting though the possibilities may be. But a better life, born out of a better working life, is something we can all strive for. And, as Pa Sinyan made clear, the fundamental barrier standing in our way is poor management. And, all too often, that poor management is unaware it’s rubbish.

Work isn’t working because we have crappy managers. They’ve been put into a job they aren’t suited to, and they need help. But 97% of managers think they’re good at the job, but 69% of employees disagree… Nobody wakes up trying to be a bad manager. They’re just unaware they’re doing it.

So, what’s the solution?

When people have managers who focus on people’s strengths and assets, they feel more freedom to be themselves. If we make people’s work better, we make a huge improvement in people’s lives generally.

In other words, stop focusing on the negatives in people, and concentrates on making the most of the positives. And that means you need to know and understand them as people, not just as a set of equations or data points on a performance appraisal.

Better Design

If there was one emergent theme in all this, it’s that of the dangers of over-simplifying:

  • Big data isn’t just about big business
  • AI isn’t just about human intelligence
  • Tech innovation isn’t just about apps and devices
  • Web3 isn’t just about crypto

Shallow simplicity won’t deliver a better future. We need to pass beyond that simplicity and dive into the complexity of people, ideas, and systems. And once we truly understand them, then we can achieve clarity and simplicity though focusing on the areas of the system we most need to change to have the impact we want.

Nick Law called this Deep Simplicity:

If you have time and too much knowledge, you can end up manifesting complexity in the product. The antidote? Start making decisions about what to sacrifice. You have to pass through the complexity to get to the simplicity, rather than getting trapped there. Shallow simplicity is finding a tweet and using it to sum up an industry. Deep simplicity is design that emerges from understanding and moving through complexity.

Hug the system to change the system

Wide vision, narrow scope. Fixing big problems one step at a time, by hugging the system and changing it as we go. We may live in an age of crises, but there’s plenty of hope still — if we want to reach for it. Striving for a better future has always meant work — and change. And we need, once again, to shift our perspective, and focus on new areas of innovation if we’re to build a new future from the ashes of the current crisis.