WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM
Imagining Technological Futures
Reflecting on possible futures enabled by technology — my perspective through the World Economic Forum
Recently I virtually joined an executive education program led by the Nanyang Technological University entitled “Imagining Technological Futures”. This was an opportunity through my Young Global Leaders cohort of the World Economic Forum. By imagining different futures that technology can enable, we can be better prepared for shifts in perspectives, impacts on policy, and both the positive and negative influences on business and society.
What made this experience especially memorable was my classmates, hailing from dozens of countries and every continent except Antarctica. As the program was based in Singapore, the timing of the sessions were very early in the morning for those of us in the US, usually 6am. In fact our final presentation was from 1–4am, in which I participated from a hotel room in Tulsa.
The program began with the question — How do we think about technology and its role in society? It was fascinating to explore how technology has always been intertwined with our societies, cultures, and economies. The first session explored ancient maps and depictions of the world, and how the cartographers’ and authors’ cultural perspectives influenced their work, and in turn, how consumers of this information might be influenced to view other cultures. The tools we use affect our assumptions and biases. How may modern-day tools be doing this today?
The next session was an exploration on how we might speculate and imagine different futures. If we allow ourselves to think about 50 years from now, or 200, 500, or even 1000 years from now, what might that look like if we throw out the linear assumptions of the past? It was fascinating to think about the problems technology may solve, but also create. For instance, we may find a way to modify genes in utero, but what will stop us from creating “designer babies”? Is there anything inherently wrong with that, or will this create an ever-growing chasm in society?
These are the sorts of questions we grappled with and it was a great opportunity to think about technology not as an end in itself, but rather as a tool that can be wielded for different purposes. It’s also important to consider how our current views may limit our thinking when it comes to technology futures.
We then dove into a session imaging our future cities. The trend has been a move to more urban societies, even if Covid had slowed this advance. How cities have been imagined and built in the past can have massive influence on how society operates and where we place value. Cities may be built reminiscing on a bygone era, trying to capture something that is no longer practical or desirable. Or city builders may envision a future utopia made possible by technologies that do not yet exist, but may. We looked at mid-century depictions of the future in which we now live, where they missed the mark and where they inspired something unexpected. For example, Singapore was a sleepy harbor village before visionaries embraced a wild future that is now a reality — a place that seems almost impossible in its architectural design and impact on how business is done and technology embraced. What will be the Singapore of the next 50 years?
The next session was my favorite, entitled “funky mods and posthuman bods.” To open up our imaginations, the professor made music the allegory. When we think about the styles of music that have emerged, fused, or built upon others, we can appreciate all the different directions our future societies may progress. Truly creative and breakthrough styles can be an analogy for how we forge bold change, beyond a “safe” and sanitized iteration of what we see before us now.
The program concluded with our teams’ final presentations. We were given a lot of latitude. Some teams presented as through from a Davos meeting 50 years in the future, others as though a lecture extolling the virtues of technology triumphing over our present-day problems.
On my team, coincidentally, was one of my partners at Cortado Ventures, Mike Moradi. Mike had the brilliant idea of presenting as though a TV news broadcast 100 years from now. It was light-hearted and received well from our classmates, even earning us the “best presentation” award votes by our classmates! One of the themes we toyed with throughout the fake broadcast is what it would be like to live in a world where mortality was optional. You could live forever if you wanted, you only needed to take your daily pill (the “Methusela pill”) to keep going. Then, when you were done living the life you wanted, you take the “Sunset pill.” What would be the implications on society? And on our healthcare system? On infrastructure? There might even be government incentives to opt into a shorter lifespan to reduce these burdens. A bit of dark humor hewn into this broadcast, perhaps reflective of today’s mood worldwide.
We do not know what the future holds, but we may use lessons from the past and tools to broaden our imagination to illustrate several possibilities. Technology is a great enabler, solving certain problems while often inadvertently raising new questions. My experience with Nanyang Technological University was fascinating as the program compelled us to explore these questions, but also because of the diverse perspectives of my fellow classmates from all over the world. What kind of future do you envision?