Futurist Erik Peterson from the Center for strategic and international studies in Washington DC is on stage at TED2006 and, as a way to start looking forward, he quotes from the past: Ghandi: "You must be the changes you want to see in the world". He invites the audience to "think more strategically about generating our future: What will our world look like in 2025? To what extent can we together bring about a better place? Are we ready to confront the big challenges confronting humanity? Or should we prepare for a world with higher levels of instability and turmoil?" He suggest that there are seven key factors (he calls them "the seven revolutions") that we need to navigate:
- population growth an demographic explosion (we're approaching the 8-bilion-mark by 2025, and global aging is a key trend; "this means that we need to prepare for an even greater distribution of high-growth countries on one end, and countries with a diminishing population on the other")
- strategic resource management (our capacity to deal with food, water and energy; we have to prevent the collapsing bubbles on all three of these elements; water will be tremendously important in the future: only a tiny proportion of the Earth's water is drinkable; the scale of the challenge is "to double by 2050 the supply of water that we have available now")
- flow of technology (three significant drivers of change: computation, biotech/genomics, nanotechnology; they carry risks, but they also offer us the chance to improve the quality of our world and multiply the possibilities we'll give to our children)
- flows of information and knowledge across the world (it is reducing sovereignty in countries big and small, eroding prerogatives, challenging established conventions such as intellectual-property regulations)
- global economic integration (just a few days ago China's economy went from fifth to fourth place in the world; that tells only part of the story; Brazil, Russia, India and China could affect a tectonic shift in the global balance of economic power; this will translate into income stratification: the 225 richest people in the world are as rich as the 2+ billion poorest people)
- conflicts (we're moving into asymmetric application of violence; from now on people are going to use 9/11 as their "standard for success" in terms of asymmetric warfare)
- the challenge of governance (multinational corporations are going to continue to change the way we organize society; if you look in terms of GDP, the 22nd largest economy in the world, ahead of Indonesia, last year was Wal-Mart; "governments, no matter where they are, have to count with atomization of authority and dispersion of legitimacy". "dot-gov" is falling behind "dot-com")
Up comes Robert Wright, the author of "Nonzero", in which he argues that there is a long-term organizing force in history. The title of the session is "History's arrow", so: does history have a direction? Yes, he says: constant growth in complexity. But on balance "history is a net positive: people have played more in the win-win approach than in the win-lose scheme". There is a "moral dimension to history; there is moral progress over time. Twenty-five centuries ago members of one Greek city-state considers Greeks from another city-state as sub-human...". Wright attributes this progress to a non-zero-sum dynamic: "that's why there is so much tolerance in the world today. If you ask me why I don't bomb Japan, I only half-joke by answering that they built my car: there is this deep relationship, there is a correlation of interests, and when people respond to that intelligently there is further evolution of morality". Morality driven by business? Yes, he says: "in general, capitalism is a constructive force in expending people's moral awareness", in make them understand each-other. "The only salvation the world requires is the intelligent pursuit of self-interest, in a disciplined and sensible way".
Juan Enriquez (entrepreneur, author) has three minutes on stage (one of the TED three-minutes slots for which attendees "bid" by submitting ideas) and explains why he believes that the United States may break up in the coming decades. "How many stars are going to be in the US flag in 50 years? 45 or less?". To illustrate the decline of educational standards in the US, he shows the picture here on the right.
Nicholas Negroponte (who just stepped down as chairman of the MIT Media Lab last week) talks about his "100-dollar-laptop" project (which I already blogged here - background - and here - why Bill Gates doesn't like the idea). Nick makes his argument based on three principles: "children are our most precious natural resource; whatever the solution to poverty, peace and environmental challenges, it always goes through education; teaching is not the only way to achieve learning - that can be done by interacting with the world, too".
"This is not a laptop project: it's an education project", he stresses. But of course building the laptop is the current challenge. So he goes over the prototype's design (cost breakdown; dual-mode display; WiFi mesh connectivity; skinny Linux OS; maintenance by the kids, "although not many believe that that's possible"; etc). Is it all worked out? No, but "in about 30 days we will know for sure whether it works". Negroponte and his organization are discussing with seven countries (China, India, Thailand, Egypt, Nigeria, Brazil and Argentina) where the laptop could be introduced first. The target cost, based on current assumptions, is 138 USD in 2007, decreasing. "Are we dreaming?" he asks rhetorically: "Quanta (Taiwanese laptop producer) is working on it, many companies including Google are behind it: this is real".
A final soundbite from Nick: "Kids in Burma don't know telephony: they only know Skype".
The last speaker of the session is Hans Rosling (blog) who runs Gapminder in Stockholm, and is an expert on communicating complex data and making sense of them. He goes through a fast-paced running commentary of statistics represented in a number of way as the charts move over time. He's funny and thoght-provoking. He shows why we have generally underestimated the social change in Asia, that came before the economic change. He contends that the concept of "developing countries" is flawed - there are tremendous variations within Africa, or within Asia, or within the Arab countries (see one of his slides above - his presentation can be downloaded from the Gapminder site). He shows how over time countries move in different directions. He offers an insight instructed by the analysis of the data: in terms of development, "you can move much faster if you're healthy first than if you're wealthy first".
His main point is that the world-view of most of us is hopelessly out of line with reality, and this has implications for our understanding of the biggest problems facing the planet: many big decision are based on ill-informed preconceived notions.