Perspectives on transformation and transmutation triggered by shifting technological, economical and environmental paradigms.
Reon Brand is Senior Director Foresight and Socio-cultural trends at Philips Design. He is responsible for gaining understanding of emerging future directions for the Philips Strategic Company Innovation. In June 2019, Brand published his latest research called Co-Emerging Futures, a model which looks at emerging developments in times of profound global challenges. Brand presented his research during The Research Guerrilla Adventure, which was organised as part of my research track Design for Transformative Practices. Brand interrogates how the condition of the planet and of humanity impacts our future: Two parallel tracks unfold into the transformation- and transmutation paradigm, which revolve around the philosophical question, whether humanity is part of nature or above nature? These two opposite views are framed as augmented and preventive mindsets, which consequently fork into four distinct future directions called Immortalia, Etheria, Habitania, Gaia. Brand highlights how these future narratives steer towards a society in which major ethical dilemmas will need to be faced, taking into account developments in human evolution, science and technology, as well as a shift in thinking towards the notion of value.
Shifting values, shifting paradigms
In 2010, together with Simona Rocchi, Reon Brand published Rethinking value in a changing landscape. The research explores how perception, creation and distribution of value has changed over time. This model was meant to be a ‘reflection tool’ that would help companies to better understand how their business models are affected by the dynamics within the different socio-economic paradigms. Brand and Rocchi distinguished four distinct socio-economic paradigms, which are unfolding in a linear sequence: The Industrial Paradigm (1945>); The Experience Paradigm (1980>), The Knowledge Paradigm (2000>), The Transformation Paradigm (2015>). An important result of this study is the shift from value chains to value networks, which required a major shift in thinking, especially for companies. Rethinking value in a changing landscape interrogated how society and economy shifted, starting from mass production in the Industrial Paradigm, towards the creation of artificial aspirations and new lifestyles in the Experience Paradigm. The Knowledge Paradigm emerged with the rise of the internet, leading to peer-to-peer value exchange at the turn of the millennium. In the Transformation Paradigm meaningful living became the most important value. Companies started taking ownership on societal issues by teaming up with multiple stakeholders and started developing new ways to share value. The main reason for Brand and Rocchi to develop this reflection model, was to help companies to frame innovation in a new way and encourage them to start experimenting with new business models.
Transformation as Preventive mindset
In his research, Brand refers to the transformation paradigm and the transmutation paradigm as being a preventive and augmented mindset. A preventive mindset, revolves around the idea of taking preventive actions that support sustainable developments, conservation of species and bio-diversity conservation, measurements for dealing with climate changeand so forth. This mindset will lead to a transformation and shift the way we consider value: We will put the condition of the planet as the most import value, prior to our own aspirations and needs. Brand argues that modern society ‘kickstarted’ the Anthropocene and compares this geological era (more precisely the last 70 years of it) with the Permian extinction that happened approximately 252 million years ago. His comparison is based on the fact that at the time of Permian extinction the CO 2 release in the air was almost the same as it is today. In its' two billion years of existence the planet experienced five major extinctions and we are now entering the sixth major extinction. Devastating consequences in environmental decline and in global governance show a +2 degree increase on average temperature by 2055, which will increase mass migration due to climate change and socio-economic changes. By 2050 the weight of microplastics will be more than the weight of total fish in the sea and the examples could continue. In order to prevent this to happen, we need to consider the survival of the planet in the way we design for the future. We urgently need to reflect on a more profound level to change gear. The two narratives within the preventive mindset are Habitania and Gaia. The first revolves around sustainability, the latter is rooted in ancient Asian philosophies and the book called Gaia by James Lovelock, which considers humans and ecosystem as equal.
Transmutation as Augmentive mindset
In the augmented mindset, humans aspire to shape their own evolution and augment themselves and their man-made environment according to their own needs (Brand, 2019). In this view humans are disconnected from nature. The human body merges with technology, eventually leading to a transmutation of a hybrid; something in-between human and (embodied) technology. Brand foresees a re-enforcement of a deep held belief in which humans have a fundamental right to exploit nature for their own benefit and progress. The invasive role of technology in the augmentive mindset may be a dangerous, self-centered path, especially considering developments such as machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Brand argues, that information is becoming increasingly biased and governed by global tech-companies such as Facebook, Amazon and Google. The root of this development can be traced back to the Knowledge Paradigm. The rise of the internet in the beginning of 2000, fueled the development of new platforms and new kinds of collaborations. It kickstarted a sense of euphoria, boosting people’s entrepreneurial mindset to work in (social) media. Twenty years later, an increasing concern has become apparent reflecting on the dark side of the internet. Half of the content online is generated by bots, not by human beings. Algorithms know more about us than we know about ourselves. The internet became like an echo chamber in which complex search optimization algorithms create a self-reinforcing bubble, developing a bias in term of access to information: The same query in a search engine will propose different sources as answers in function of the users’ previous search history. This means that the content provided is based on what we already know. This is problematic because our global conversation becomes diffused. In light of this development, Brand refers to the fact that memes as our collective cultural mindset, are being amplified and directed. As information becomes increasingly controlled, we are less prone to open up ourselves for new ideas. This limited (governed) access to different sources of information, hampers the development of critical reflection and instead reinforces our deep-held belief in the power of science and technology.
To better understand the model, Brand points out how each of the narratives originates from a deep cultural and scientific perspective in western thinking. Brand further contextualises these narratives by reflecting on ancient philosophies and connecting them with recent developments in science and technology that started dominating modern western culture. The transmutation narrative in his model, steered by an augmentive mindset, derives from a similar individualistic frame of thinking that shaped the Anthropocene. It places human beings on top of everything else. Brand points out that many believe the environment doesn’t need to be saved and instead reverse this idea by questioning the opposite: How can we survive in more robust conditions, like for example Mars? This idea is also reflected in Trans-humanism, the post-biological and Ray Kurzweil Singularity. Brand points out that with developments as Artificial Intelligence, human intervention no longer is needed for aspects that directly relate with human life — e.g. allocation of resource, conflict resolution, governance. Instead it will shape its own destiny. This development will create a massive chasm between human intelligence and artificial intelligence. Currently, investments are made by the US Army (DARPA) and MIT encompassing experiments and ideas about uploading the mind and understanding (human) consciousness. Brand includes this vision in one of his scenarios as Etheria. A narrative which revolves around valuing intelligence and sentience. It places intelligence above the biological form of human beings, leading human species to the next step of (post-biological) evolution. The other parallel track is Immortalia. This scenario is also depending on technological progress to create a super human being. It is rooted in modernist thinking and the classical Newtonian ideal of science and the Enlightenment ideal of progress and individual freedom. (Brand, 2019).
Brand makes a parallel between reductionism and what he calls a machine model. For the last few centuries, and especially from Descartes onwards, Western scientific research, has been driven by a reductionist philosophy. According to this approach every (living) system is composed out of small components. By looking at the individual parts, we can understand the system as a whole. Once the components are identified, mapped, scrutinised and understood in terms of structure and function, they can be put back together. Most of western scientific research has been driven on this model which is easily illustrated with our approach towards healthcare; the body is seen as a machine that needs to be tuned, oiled and fixed. In this model, the body is considered to consists of different parts which are placed together. Doctors focus on different specialization based on different parts of the body, the same as engineers have different specialisations based on different parts of machines. Brand challenges this approach and considers this a ‘meme’ which impacted our thinking profoundly. As an alternative, Brand considers the advantage of looking at science from other — perhaps, less anthropocentric perspectives — e.g. the perspective of Chinese philosophy in which everything is interconnected.
In Chinese philosophy Yin and Yang represents a complex inter-dynamic system of opposites, constantly changing. Niels Bohr, founder of quantum theory, made parallels between ancient eastern philosophy and quantum science, connecting ideas such as Qi and Li, the life energy that flows through everything. In String theory all energies and subatomic particles are connected and entangled over very long distances. This notion is much closer to the Chinese way of thinking than to classical Newtonian science. For instance, in Chinese philosophy, LI refers to the order of nature as reflected in its organic forms. LI shapes the universe. Albert Einstein referred to space and time being one and postulated that gravity curves the space-time continuum. This concept is close to the principle of LI, an idea that existed already for thousands of years. While distancing ourselves progressively from this reductionist view and traversing into new ideas based on quantum theory, Brand points out that many new inspiring philosophies are emerging, for instance Post-phenomenology, Structuralism, Relationalism, Object-Oriented Ontology and Entanglement. These streams of thoughts are propelling into the four Co-Emerging Futures model, which are explained later in this text.
New feudalism and digital dictatorship
Brand signals the risk of society heading towards a new kind of feudalism. He points out that the worlds 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 50%. Their fortunate positions allow them to set the (global) agenda and to make important decisions about systemic developments in society such as healthcare, education, civil society, etc. An increasing number of social programs now run by foundations started by billionaires, like the Bill Gates, IKEA foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Foundation. Whereas the few increasingly rich are getting even richer in the next three decades, due to automation, Western society is expected to witness an increase by 47% of unemployment. Given this perspective, Brand raises questions dealing with these conflicting prospects; how are we reaching equality, if half of the people can’t get a job? How will the expected concentration of increased wealth, impact society? How will sustainable development policies fit into the political agenda? Will this polarization of wealth and power create a modern society which is strikingly similar with a feudal society? Referring to the social order and how this could affect political developments in the future, Brand points out that technology driven policies like China’s social credit score might evolve in what he calls digital dictatorships. Currently, in China, the social credit score monitors and assigns points to every act in the public-private sphere e.g. good social behavior, accurate payment history, engagement in charitable actions, etc. As a consequence of a low score, thousands of people are cut off from basic rights such as studying or taking a train. Brand stresses that this kind of state governed control, like the social credit score, might be the only way to put sustainability on the agenda. In his view, people will only change their habits and behavior if they are forced. Brand refers to the notion that our ethics and values should change on a fundamental level. Intrinsic motivation through acquired wisdom, instead of through external force, might be the only key to transformation.
As humans we are not isolated organisms but part of a multitude of ecosystems. The reason why we spend an increasing amount on healthcare is because we have disconnected from this ecosystem thinking. We created sick environments in which we spend fortunes to stay healthy. Brand also refers to the internal ecosystems such as the microbiome. The health of microbiomes has a big influence on many diseases — e.g. Alzheimer and Leukemia. Recent research has shown that the microbiome plays an important role on what is generally referred as ‘gut feeling’. This research identifies how, through the Vagus Nerve, the microbiome from the stomach and the intestines communicates with the brain and influences the decision-making process; from this perspective, the microbiomes and the stomach functions as a second brain. Brand also points out that, aside of connecting with internal and external ecosystems, all living organism are connected with the planet as a whole. In this respect the example of the Schumann resonance is given. The Schumann resonances is a set of spectrum peaks in the extremely low frequency (ELF) portion of the Earth’s electromagnetic field spectrum. (Wikipedia). This frequency influences the brainwaves and biological rhythm of all animals — humans included. Our genes switch on to these clocks. If our biological rhythm is not aligned to the Schumann resonances the body gets disharmonized and as a consequently it suffers. Brand points how technological progress is interfering with our biorhythm and jeopardizes human connection with the interior and exterior ecosystems and with the rhythm of the planet — e.g. electromagnetic frequencies from mobile communication, internet Wi-Fi, artificial light, etc.
Four Co-emerging Futures:
This scenario is rooted in concepts such as sentience and intelligence and revolves around themes such as identity, existence and mortality. This scenario also touches upon topics that have been explored by Kurzweil Singularity. Brand makes a parallel with common human behavior, in which we tend to value a clever animal over a less clever animal, even though both animals have a valid role in the ecosystem. In this scenario intelligent beings are regarded more highly than less intelligent ones. This scenario foresees a society where boundless intelligence and post-biological immortality have been achieved. People no longer need a physical body; they can upload their consciousness into a machine that accumulates intelligence progressively. To exemplify this scenario, Brand points out a system called Artificial General intelligence (AGI) developed Elon Musk. This system sets its own goals for learning and self-improvement and decides how, what and why it wants to learn. One could say that the system is becoming creative as it makes its own decisions based on its own calculations and judgments. Brand also refers to examples of ‘mindreading technologies’ respectively, technologies that are connecting AI and human memory. For example, an RF scan; it conducts a number of iterations, processes signals from the brain and reconstruct an image assisted by AI. Experiments of mindreading technologies have also been conducted with people who have already died. This kind of developments raises questions about our identity and consciousness: Will a collective memory lead towards a distributed identity? What is consciousness after all? Can it be distributed through the universe and perhaps even shared with inanimate, non-biological objects?
In Immortalia, technology is at the core of creating a super human and eventually will be ‘upgraded’ to ‘Trans-human’. This scenario foresees a transcending humanity respectively, a society where through genetic improvement and technological progress people chase ever increasing beauty and health with the aim to live forever. In this narrative, biotechnologies and neuro sciences play a crucial role. Treatments like immunotherapies or stem cell therapies are available at the cost of a few Billion euros for one treatment. These developments mark the 4th industrial revolution and implies the rise of the superhuman. Technologies like nanotechnology, biotechnology, hyper connected internet of things, artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced manufacturing and neuro science are all coming together and are used to extend our lives or to amplify our human abilities. Brand points out that technological developments such as implants to improve your memory, brain to brain transfer, hybrid AI, memory boosting, thought controlled machines already exist. Other emerging bio technologies such as synthetic biology, bioprinting organs and CRISPR/Cas9, a method which lets you edit somatic cells, for example in the heart and repair it genetically. These technologiesare in an advanced stage of development and behold great promises for curing diseases in the future. They are going to be available in the future and will confront us with increasing ethical dilemmas. One might wonder when will we start designing the cause of our own biological evolution? For whom are we developing these technologies? Who is going to benefit from this technological progress? Will this version of the ‘augmented human’ become available only for those wealthy enough to afford these treatments? Will it evolve towards an ever increasing gap between the haves and the not-haves, fuel even more inequality and raise questions about humanity on a foundational level? How should we deal with developments in which the consequences are deeply profound and evolve in such exponential speed, we lack the knowledge and time to truly grasp and steer them?
Currently, 23 % of nature is left relatively untouched and most of this untouched area is in Antarctica and the deserts. The rest of nature is suffering from the consequences created by human intervention. In this scenario Brand proposes a future that values sustainable prosperities and ensures sustainable human habitation and good quality of life, within the boundaries of the planet. Sustainable development is an oxymoron according to Brand. Development means continuous growth. Sustainable means to sustain something in a circular way. Hence, growth and sustainability are not compatible. The concept of sustainability is re-appropriated by companies to flaunt their strategic attempt to save the planet, without taking the real steps for making change. The Circular economy is not going to work with our current utilitarian and materialistic mindset and as such won't be a solution to the problem. Also, it is important to question the validity, actuality and effectivity of the Sustainable Development Goals. Sustainability can become a dangerous playground for the privileged to set the global agenda without really changing anything for the better. Companies see opportunities in the UN development goals. They attach their name to improve public perception of their brand (also called greenwashing) without actually having a vision for sustainable development strategies and a will to implement them. Until we find something better, we should continue to recycle; nevertheless, Brand stresses the urgency of developing an approach much more profound than the existing one and refers to the urgency of having vibrant healthy bio ecosystems to sustain the planet.
This metaphor proposes a post-anthropocentric worldview that puts the ecosystem above human interests. ‘Gaia compels us to look at our place in the ecosystem not as humans versus the environment, but as active agents that are part of a larger ecosystem’. (Brand, 2019). He refers to Eco-entangled futures — e.g. regenerating a vibrant healthy and natural ecosystem. Gaia revolves around the idea of biodiversity and interconnectedness in a specific ecological context. In Gaia we question ourselves how our actions first and foremost benefit nature. Consequently, we would consider how this would benefit us? If we look at nature more closely, we can clearly witness this interconnectedness among different species. Brand presents this idea with an image of overlapping circles — e.g. different species have overlapping functions which makes them resilient as a collective. If one of these species vanishes, others can take over some of these overlapping functions or develop other functions that allow the ecosystem to further thrive. If too many species become extinct, there will be too many gaps and many of these functions will no longer be fulfilled. This causes the ecosystem to collapse. In nature a certain level of cooperation and interspecies communication is crucial for survival. This cooperative nature could teach us something about the way we function in society. The Anthropocene is seen as an accumulated process in which humans and nature have increasingly became separated from each other which eventually lead towards a lack of interconnectedness. As a consequence, we are now suffering.
Co-Emerging Futures reflects on a number of cascading global events such as climate change, biodiversity loss, decline in global governance and the development of technologies that may dramatically transform the labour market and the social fabric. The model weaves together new perspectives and reflects on the status quo of western society, evolving into a worldview which could either be humanity’s path for survival (and thriving) or lead towards a path in which humanity will radically abandon nature and embrace technological progress. A transformation is needed to reconsider the fundaments of our deep held values and beliefs. Brand confront us with our preconceived notions about emergent developments and mirrors our lack of imagination and determination that may lead towards the opposite of what we truly desire; instead of the path of prosperity and well-being, the path of fear, denial and disconnection, inevitably leading towards destruction of the planet and major social inequality. Or perhaps towards a reality resembling a Si-Fi scenario of a society in which we become immortal ghosts wandering on a Mars-like, deserted planet?
By challenging the established discourse about science, technology and nature, Brand pushes the boundaries of our thinking and takes us on a speculative journey in which, if we manage to take the right path, we can develop a future direction, in which the condition of the planet becomes the main and foremost value in the way we design and produce. As an example, Brand refers to the relevance of ecosystem thinking, connecting the condition of the planet as a value to integrate design-based initiatives with ethical revenue streams or business models — e.g. the Eco-centric economy. Nature produces a lot of waste, but all this waste is being reused. The waste of one organism is the food of another organism. Brand refers to regenerative farming and rewilding the environment — e.g. mixing nature with crops as a more productive way than monoculture, although it’s more labor intensive. The eco-centric economy can provide raw materials for technologies such as bio-printed wood, super wood, bio plastics (made with insects’ skeletons and citrus fruit). The reintegration of waste yields a new economic paradigm which is not a fight against scarcity but a quest for (bio)integration.
“The future does not exist, but a limitless number of possible futures can be created.” (Bell, et al., 2013, p. 5).
Co-Emerging Futures should not be considered as an attempt to predict the future, but rather as a wakeup call to prevent humanity from following a path in which we are unable to steer the outcomes. Co-Emerging Futures points out how sometimes the obvious blinds us for questioning the current status quo. Whether this is due to our lack of imagination or our incapability to envision the true consequences of our own actions, Co-Emerging Futures provides a framework to unleash our deepest fears and dreams, to rethink the consequences of our own actions and to redesign possible outcomes into preferable outcomes. Perhaps we can learn to embrace the model and consider it as an open invitation to take agency on our future, to kickstart new dialogues, to enhance critical reflection, to embrace the (un)expected and to intervene with real world challenges. After all, if we’re able to imagine alternative futures, we might also be able to make (some of) them come true.
Many thanks to Reon Brand (Philips Design), Jorge Alves-Lino (Fontys) and Dan Diojdescu for sharing their knowledge and support.
Download Co-emerging futures article: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/333972702_Co-Emerging_Futures_A_model_for_reflecting_on_streams_of_future_change
About the author:
Olga Mink is research leader Design for Transformative Practices as part of creative Economy at Fontys University of Applied Sciences. She is also the director of Baltan Laboratories.
The Anthropocene describes earth’s geological time which has been heavily impacted by human activity, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans. (Carrington, the Guardian, 2019).
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History published by Elizabeth Kolbert (Wikipedia, 2019).
A meme is a unit of cultural information spread by imitation. The term memewas introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his work The Selfish Gene. (Source: Britannica.com, 2019).
Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase. (whatistranshumanism.org, 2019).
Postbiological evolution is a form of evolution which has transitioned from a biological paradigm, driven by the propagation of genes, to a nonbiological (e.g., cultural or technological) paradigm, presumably driven by some alternative replicator. (Wikipedia, 2019)
Singularity is a hypothetical future point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization. (Wikipedia, 2019)
MIT is an abbreviation for Massachusetts Institute of Technology located in Boston, USA.
The four Co-emergent futures scenarios are further explained in detail.
Reductionismis a philosophical tenet which states that by analyzing a system to its ultimate component parts, we will be able to unravel it at deeper and deeper levels. (Metanexus.net, 2019).
Niels Bohr was a physicist who was the first to apply the quantum concept, which restricts the energy of a system to certain discrete values, to the problem of atomic and molecular structure.(Britannica.com)
In traditional Chinese culture, qi or ch’i is believed to be a vital force forming part of any living entity. Qi translates as “air” and figuratively as “material energy”, “life force”, or “energy flow” (Wikipedia, 2019).
Li can be translated as “rational principle” or “law.” (Wikipedia, 2019)
Post-phenomenology is the study about technology in terms of the relations between human beings and technological artifacts, focusing on the various ways in which technologies help to shape relations between human beings and the world. (http://www.ppverbeek.nl, Peter-Paul Verbeek, 2019)
Structuralismas summarized by philosopher Simon Blackburnis “the belief that phenomena of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract structure” (Wikipedia, 2019)
Relationalism is any theoretical position that gives importance to the relational nature of things. (Wikipedia, 2019).
Quantum entanglementis a quantum mechanical phenomenon in which the quantum states of two or more objects have to be described with reference to each other, even though the individual objects may be spatially separated. (Sciencedaily, 2019)
Feudalism was the dominant social system in medieval Europe, in which the nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles, while the peasants were obliged to live on their lord’s land and give him homage, labour, and a share of the produce, notionally in exchange for military protection. (Oxford English Dictionary, 2019).
The social credit score is a ranking system by the Chinese government to monitor citizens’ behavior in order to reward or punish them.(businessinsider.nl)
Microbiomes are single-celled organisms known as archaea, as well as fungi, viruses and other microbes — including viruses that attack bacteria. (Guardian, 2018).
In transhumanism and futurology, superhuman abilities are the technological aim either of human enhancement by genetic modification or cybernetic implants or of future superhuman artificial intelligence.(wikepedia).
The Sustainable Development Goals are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges, including those related to poverty, inequality, climate, environmental degradation, prosperity, and peace and justice.
Ecocentrism finds inherent (intrinsic) value in all of nature. It takes a much wider view of the world than does anthropocentrism, which sees individual humans and the human species as more valuable than all other organisms. (Source: Haydn Washington, Why ecocentrism is the key pathway to sustainability, the Ecological Citizen Vol 1, No 1, 2017).