So here is what has got me thinking after a week at the 2016 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos:
- The rise of the scientists.
The dominant Davos talk last year was of the Greek crisis and the possible break up of the Euro - this was a time when politicians and bankers were centre stage as they were called into action to solve the crisis of the moment. This year, whilst bankers and politicians were still around in abundance, now at centre stage were AI scientists, robotic experts, neuroscientists, medical researchers and authorities on the science of climate change. The questions they debated are just as challenging as the economic questions of 2015, though less likely to be resolved any time soon. Questions like: ‘What will be the impact of AI and machine learning on jobs?’; ‘How are humans different from the robots already present at the forum?’; ‘When will we understand the human brain?’; ‘Will a cure for Alzheimer’s be found in our lifetime?’, ‘What role can science play in mitigating climate change’. It seems to me that we should forget the rise of the robot – what we are watching is the rise of the scientists.
- Questioning the status quo.
What caught my attention was not grand theories – it was the questions that were being asked, and the small experiments that were being described. Here are three I’m still pondering: First, a question from Tharman Shanmugaratnam the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore in a session I ran on the skills gap “Why aren’t education institutions measured on their outputs – for example their ability to create productive skills and knowledge?” He is right, why aren’t they? Next an experiment described by Yasuhisa Shiozaki, the Japanese Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare, in which tax breaks are being created in families where three generations are living together. That’s an interesting experiment in a country where the isolation of older people is a national challenge. Or the question posed by Thomas DeRosa the CEO of Welltower, USA, “We have ‘bring your babies to work’ initiatives – why not ‘bring your ageing mother to work’?” Hmm – why don’t we bring our ageing mothers to work?
- The individualised future.
I’ve been thinking and writing about the future for a decade now. But what is really beginning to strike me is that there are no ‘grand theories’. The forces that are shaping our future - be they the forces of technology, demography or resources - are playing out very differently across the regions of the world and are impacting areas and communities in unique ways. There is no one grand theory of the future – instead there will be multiple futures. What that means is that shaping positive futures will come from the experimentation and social change that individuals, families, communities and cities embark on as they try to navigate their own way through this highly volatile environment.
My guess is it will be these experiments and questions that will increasingly shape the global conversations that take place in groups like the World Economic Forum.