It may be a cliché (or technically impossible) but this week, I have discovered that the future many of us have imagined is already here:

  • AIs that can create photorealistic videos of people (e.g. former President Obama), and have them ‘saying’ things that they never said, exist.
  • DNA altering technology, called CRISPR, has been used to modify the genome of rice so that it will grow in salt water (amongst many other applications)
  • ‘Electronic nose’ tech is close to being used widely in the detection of diseases, with the potential to transform diagnostics.
  • Facial analysis technology can be used to identify the likelihood of criminal leanings (although it has yet to be deployed, as far as we know!)
  • 3D printing is revolutionising low-cost housing and it’s now possible to print a home for less than $4k in under 24 hours.
  • Tesla has an optional ‘insane’ button in its Model S electric cars which will accelerate the vehicle from 0 to 70mph in less than 3 seconds (Note: there are some hilarious, if slightly profane videos of passengers caught unawares as the button was activated – you’re welcome!).

Exponential change

The pace of change is exponential, and has been for some time. As Ramaz Naam said earlier this week at SU, “People are doing what companies used to do and companies are doing what governments used to do”. In fact, the pace is accelerating. It’s a bit like someone punched the ‘insane’ button on the world’s dashboard!
For example:

  • It’s been predicted that by 2029, an AI will have reached a Turing level of translation, removing many of the communication barriers that exist across geographical borders.
  • David Bray suggests that by 2025, there will be 50 (or more) internet-connected devices for every person on the planet and 200bn terabytes of digital data.
  • Hod Lipson says that we’re getting ever closer to the emergence of viable drone delivery services. Maximum battery power currently stands at around 30 mins. At 3 hours he thinks drones will begin to replace traditional delivery mechanisms.

Scary, inspiring, or both? Those of us who’ve been on the planet since before we realised we were living in the ‘digital age’ have a tendency to see the world in binary terms (digital = bad/analogue = good). But a binary world view is overly simplistic, and whilst we may have genetic programming that tells us to look on ‘the dark side’, it’s probably not that good for our well-being. Cultivating agency in the creation of our own future is probably the better approach. As Peter Diamandis says: “If you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right”!

The key point for Diamandis and his colleagues at SU is that although we live in an age of technical innovation never before seen on such a scale, we also live in an era of abundance. This week was all about exploring the view that “everything [we] think of as scarce can be turned to abundance by technology” (Diamandis).

Yet the transformative power of tech can’t be unleashed without human actors. And this was the biggest ‘ta da!’ moment of the week for me. Stewart Brand puts it like this: ‘We are as gods and might as well get good at it’. 

SU classroom: June 2018

A world of abundance

If you accept that there is enough food, light, energy, water and so forth to go around (without killing the planet), if technology is harnessed to bring it about, then we are going to have to be pretty relentless and proactive in our determination to deliver a world of abundance.

Nicholas Haan thinks that to do this, we need to develop “an agency mindset”. Until now, he argues, we have been trained to think in “a scarcity mindset”, but now the world needs new business models that uplift everyone. This abundant future cannot be a zero-sum game – everyone has to thrive.

Ramez Naam has a great example of how this might work in practice. Nine out of ten of the warmest years on record have occurred in the last 10 years. If we’re going to address the warming effects of fossil fuels we need to get more clean energy onto the grid. So it’s good news that solar and wind power are growing in availability and price. In fact, there has been a 15x decline in the price of wind power since 1980, and a 250x decline in the price of solar. Because more sun equals more potential for solar power, there is huge potential to utilise it as a source of energy in many of the so-called developing countries sitting close to the equator. The challenge is in deploying the skills and technology to make it happen. 

Shifting our paradigm

More than once this week, I’ve been struck by the necessity for a wholesale shift in the prevailing paradigm. Which is easy to say, but not so easy to achieve. Michael Gillam proffers that “Everything we see in nature can be enhanced digitally and every piece of received wisdom is probably wrong”. So we might as well start with a blank canvas and begin redesigning that paradigm right now – for ourselves as individuals, our organisations and our communities. If I was setting about this task using the tools and insights that have been shared this past week, I’d probably do something a bit like this:

Step one: Find a ‘crew’- the people who share your vision and world view, who will go on the journey, who aren’t afraid of taking a shot at the moon, and who will stand for the team and hold you to account.

Step two: In setting goals, think BIG, really big, global-big (maybe even bigger, as it turns out, space is pretty abundant too!), and then decide what it ‘looks like’ to get 50% of the way there.

Step three: Plan what you will do to get to the 50% mark (on the way towards your big goal), and what tactical actions you will do to set you on the path to the 50% (whilst never losing sight of the moon!).

Step four: Pool resources and tell stories to make change happen. Kyle Nel says that most organisations think and act sequentially (and people like it that way). But disrupters operate with pooled resources, and narrative-driven goals. In practice, Nel has used old-school comic books to engage and enlist support in traditional corporate environments to great effect.

Step five: Make the organisational culture one of ‘scalable learning’ rather than ‘scalable efficiency’. John Hagel made this point when he explained it as the best response to the increasing performance pressure emerging from the clash of old-school business models with exponential change. For Hagel, scalable learning means building the business with opportunities for learning in every process and transaction, communication and contract. Alvin Toffler has said that ‘the illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.’

The outlook

Even accounting for all of the above, It’s clear to me that we must also be prepared to think for ourselves and challenge the established experts in order to manifest an abundant future. So far, progress on this score has been rather slow. By way of example, Pascale Finette points to one estimate that it would take just $1bn to eradicate childhood malnutrition worldwide (roughly the annual budget of AC Milan’s football team). This figure is the answer to a very straightforward question: “What will it take to make the problem go away?”. It might sound reductionist but I think that it is shockingly simple.

So why aren’t we routinely asking ourselves what we need to do to make these big problems go away? Why isn’t the march towards abundance happening at greater scale? Could it be that we’re all waiting for someone else to take action? To solve global challenges (and transform our organisations) in the face of exponential change, we need to be prepared to act, to become disruptive, to take a shot at the moon. As David Bray pointed out to a room of rather startled participants earlier this week, the bad news is that the cavalry isn’t coming. The good news? The cavalry is already here – we are the cavalry!

*Emma Thwaites attended the Singularity University’s Executive Programme #SUEP @singularityU |

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