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FutureFest 2018

Who owns infrastructure, data and access to technology and therefore opportunity? How to create an equal future, nurture diversity and enable ownership — rather than consumerism?

Celebrating the future at Nesta’s FutureFest in steaming hot Tobacco Dock in East London for two days in July challenged our status quo and reflected on some of these questions. Below just some observations and questions for the conference.

Unequal futures? What about the present?

Debates were kicked of by brilliant panel discussion by Kate Pickett (@ProfKEPickett), Steve Fuller (@ProfSteveFuller) and Kat Arney (@Kat_Arney) on need for equality in research and technology. It was stated that (academic and commercial) research and development of new technology seems to focus on supporting problems of elites primarily rather the wider public. While future genetic enhancements are hyped for example, too little resource is put on today’s challenges such as chronic stress or overweight.

The discussion reminded me a lot on the current discussion around artificial intelligence. We love new, smart solutions and technology! .. and while we desire a magical new thing that is smart, beautiful and solves all our problems, we too often de-prioritize less tangible, underlying behavioural challenges. It simply doesn’t sound exciting to solve basic (human) challenges in workflows or process, that involve people, rather than artefacts.

We need diversity now!

Discussing diversity and access to technology in the context of a FutureFest is ironic. We need diversity now! Yogesh Chauhan (@y_ychauhan) and Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE (@aimafidon) discussed the need for female role models, a more diverse narrative and actual pathways in society to promote diverse work force, inventors and entrepreneurs.

Absolutely! … and I would like to freely expand this with the need to attract and educate more creative minds that think differently and bring in alternative perspectives. Research and technology has so much unrealised opportunity for those that challenge and re-think the status quo and add a different perspective. We could call this diversity, as well as multi-disciplinary and cross-functional.

Culture | drives | Business Models | informs | Research

Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov) compared different models and motivations for research and development of technology — a liberal, business-model-driven approach in the silicon valley and much more state controlled approach in china, while Europe lacks a common strategy to incentivise research.

Speaking as a European, just as a thought experiment, a European Uber, Amazon or Alibaba might look very differently to the west coast version. Different societies have a different understanding of privacy, data protection, diversity, freedom of speech, political discourse and social welfare — all of which can impact design and product definition. Europe by nature has always been diverse in languages, cultures and political opinions — which can only benefit creativity and innovation in my opinion.

Collaboration vs competition with the machine

Lets keep the human-in-the-Loop and combine Collective Intelligence with Artificial Intelligence to create truly collaborative systems that help all contributors, stakeholders and ideally wider public to understand our complex problems. In his presentation on Nesta’s new effort to set up Centre for Collective Intelligence, Geoff Mulgan (@geoffmulgan) out forward this focus on collaboration vs competition with the machine.

Geoff described 3 levels of learning loops for intelligent reasoning:

  • 1st Loop: Adapting thought and action within an existing framework. Huge investment in AI development are put into this 1st loop, which is all about automation and optimisation of reasoning on a given set of data.
  • 2nd Loop: Creating new categories and models to think with. This is basically what happens when we learn and adopt new terms and methods. Its much harder for for an AI to actually rethink.
  • 3rd Loop: Re-thinking how to think. Innovation, disruption and anything that changes our mental model and therefore behaviour, and ultimately really hard to put into an AI — if possible at all?

In my opinion this is a good model to think about AI, data science innovation and why we need a human-in-the-loop more often than we think! This is also very relevant for TRLabs work in legal, financial and tax & accounting innovation.

Own the Future!

Despite — or maybe because of — cynicism, criticism and debate the conference left me with a postive urge to act. While the panel discussions and talks provided loads of food for thought — very few ideas were put forward. I feel it would be great to involve more practitioners, tech companies, technologists and designers in the discussion!

One great example of a more playful, creative yet practical reflection on technology and future was presented by Kyle McDonald (@kcimc). He showed some inspiring work, e.g. EXHAUSTING A CROWD — more to be found here Kyle McDonald.net.

Back in the day Bauhaus shaped the idea to design products that are easy to use, beautiful and most importantly affordable. In light of the questions of access, diversity and ownership, I am wondering how todays tech scene compares to such an approach. Wouldn't it be wonderful to create tools that not only attract paying customers, but offer similar capabilities to support the wider public and open data to foster innovation?

Another idea described in futurefest-2018 told us to fear the future rather than be hopeful for it is to describe possible future scenarios in conceptual designs — to help think about and shape concrete goals rather than abstract discussions. An image shows more than a thousand words. The same, I dare to say, is true for a good service blueprint, a sound concept or even a future narrative. If anything we need more of such Speculative Design (Dunne & Raby or Nesta.org.uk — Speculative Design) and positive, human narratives!

Written by

UX Research & Design at #trlabs London, w/ brilliant data science & vis team. curious about UX, IA & design thinking. Posts solely reflect my personal opinion.

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