It’s no secret that we face a number of pressing dilemmas, not just in the future, but right now, with global warming, everything that’s happening in the Middle East, and a booming world population all frequently dominating the headlines. With the recent addition of Brexit and the election of President Trump, things can seem a little bleak. That’s where author, commentator and advisor on global trends and innovations, Mark Stevenson, comes in.
Based in London, Stevenson recently released his second book, We Do Things Differently. Following on from 2011’s An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, it offers us a window onto a future which might just be a little more humane, sustainable and just than the one we’re currently living in.
Tell us a bit about your new book.
We have an unsustainable food system, an unsustainable energy system, an education system which is laughable in its ‘retro-ness’. We have a government that is terrible at governing people and the healthcare system is a ‘sick care’ system. The problem is that all those are difficult to change, because lots of people’s jobs depend on keeping them the way they are. So what I wanted to do in this book was go and see if there was anybody out there who has taken on some of those systemic challenges, come up with something better, and prevailed.
How close do you think we are to achieving some of what you’ve theorised?
I tend to avoid predictions. You can’t predict the future – you can only make it. What I can do, and do do with my clients, is show them the waves coming to shore, whether that’s renewable energy, blockchain, climate change and so on. You can’t argue about the existence of the waves, but what happens when they hit depends on your what you do as you see them approach. It’s going to get incredibly messy, but with technology comes new ways of thinking.
In a recent report, IBM predicted that in the next five years “cognitive assistants and sensors in our smart phones could ‘listen’ out for our wellbeing”. Is this technology moving towards invasive?
When IVF treatment was first proposed, everybody said it was man playing God, and that scientists shouldn’t be poking around in the most intimate and sacred part of the human experience – until infertile couples became happy couples with baby boys and girls, and then everyone was saying that it was a moral outrage it wasn’t more widely available.
So the question you’re asking about the sensors will depend on how useful they become. On the one hand you might say, ‘That sounds a little bit Big Brother to me’ – and with good reason – but if that same technology saves lives, and your mate Geoff is still alive because his mobile phone had his back, then I think you’ll see exactly the same change in perception happen.
In your book you write, “Democracy starts working when those most marginalised are involved in its operation.” What are some working examples of this?
In the book, I cover a town in Austria who took control of their energy system and moved largely over to renewable energy at the same time. They’re now paying half the price for their energy and the town is, unsurprisingly, booming. The lesson here is that energy system works better when the people who consume the energy actually own the production.
When it comes to politics, I cover the issue of participatory budgeting, where you’re essentially allowing the people to decide how their tax dollars are spent. It turns out that when you involve the most marginalised in democracy: a) everyone’s outcomes improve, and b) people are more likely to vote for the party that gave them choice. It’s also the case that when you give people a stronger voice in how their taxes are spent, they are happier to pay them. It’s all very good for civil society – an undeniable civic and political dividend.
How can the average individual ‘do things differently’?
If you want to become active in anything, you have to get yourself literate. If you want to be involved in the future, you have to start thinking about it, reading about it, hanging out in places where maybe there’s something you can do about it.
One of the problems with that is that I didn’t think there were many places where people could get actively involved in what I call ‘democratising the future’, and so I created something called The League of Pragmatic Optimists. This is a club, open to anyone, where people with ideas for making the future better stand up and say, ‘I’ve got this idea. Can anybody help?’
It’s essentially about imagining the world can be better and then getting off your arse and doing what you can from where you are, rather than complaining about it, and you don’t have to be the CEO of Tesla to do that.
Do you see capitalism as ultimately being replaced by something else or do you see it simply adapting?
Capitalism in its purest form, as far as I can work out, is about how you distribute capital. At the moment the problem is that it doesn’t account for all the capital that we need to distribute and organise. It doesn’t account, for instance, for the environment. It takes the environment for free and pollutes it readily. So it has to evolve into what it actually claims to be. Capitalism, as practiced at the moment, gets an ‘D minus’. But this is where technology can be very interesting, because it can, if we use it right, help us distribute capital more sensibly.
In light of automation, how should we revise the social contract between individuals and society and how can we make sure technological advancements benefit the population as a whole?
You can research headlines for the last 150 years or so saying machines are going to take your job and it’s absolutely true, machines do replace people. But in turn, they actually create more jobs than they destroy, as suddenly society can afford to do things it couldn’t do previously.
Driverless cars and trucks are in many ways a very brilliant invention. There are also 3.5 million truck drivers in America, so that’s 3.5 million families who are in for a rough ride. The thing I worry about, and talk a lot about in my work with governments or corporations, is managing that transition.
Which of the innovations that you cover in the book would you most like to see put into place globally?
The collective noun for economists is a ‘disagreement’. The only thing that economists agree on is that if you want to boost the economy, you need low energy prices. And if you want to boost the economy long-term, you need stable energy prices. When we move over to renewables, as this town did in Austria, you find yourself thinking, ‘Hang on, my energy bill has gone down, which means that I can start to invest in the things that my government forgot to.’
When you’re not dependent on somebody else to provide the very foundation of your economy, which is whether the lights stay on or not, and you can do that collectively, you’ve got a real opportunity. The energy reboot is inevitable, because in the end the economics stack up admirably. It’s good news for nearly everyone, save Vladimir Putin.Danielle Mustarde