Rethinking science and technology for the 21st century

Like it or not, society is dependent on science and technology.  The only way we can cram 6 billion people plus onto the earth and use resources at the rate we do, is through the support of scientific discovery and technology innovation.  Take our technology-based infrastructure away and civilization as we know it would collapse.

Perhaps more worrying, our dependency on science and technology is accelerating.  The world’s population continues to grow, lifestyle expectations are going up, and supporting technologies are becomes increasingly sophisticated.  But this “progress” can only be sustained through increasing the rate with which new discoveries are made and new technology innovations are implemented.

At some point this cycle of technology addiction probably needs to be broken if society is to avoid a rather nasty crash.  But I suspect that such a crash is some way off yet.  And it is entirely plausible that the solution for avoiding such a crash will itself arise from technology-based innovation.

Which means that if global society is to continue to mature and prosper, we have to get the whole science and technology enterprise right.

The only alternative is to face a radical “recalibration” of society, leading to a population level and demands on resources that are more in keeping with the Earth’s load-carrying capacity.

Assuming that we want to avoid a rapid and potentially catastrophic reduction in the world’s population, we need to ask whether the way we currently “do” science and technology is good enough.  And if it isn’t what needs to change?

Rethinking science and technology for the 21st century is going to be the subject of a series of blogs over the next few weeks—I’m afraid this is only the teaser!  I’ll be drawing on a recent lecture at the James Martin 21st Century School at Oxford University, which means that if you want a heads-up, you can always browse through the slides [PDF, 8.9 MB].  But I should warn you that the story might not be that clear from the slides alone.

This is a bit of an experiment—the serialization of a lecture, and a prelude to a more formal academic paper.  But hopefully it will be both interesting and useful.  I’ll be aiming to publish a “rethinking science and technology” blog every week or so, interspersed with the usual eclectic mix of stuff you’ve come to expect from 2020science.  First off will be the framing the problem, and introducing the “three C’s”—look out for it over the next week.

In the meantime, here’s the abstract from the original lecture, to whet your appetite:

As we move further into the 21st century, we are facing a confluence of three factors that will shake up the interface between society and science.  Nanoscale science and technology are enabling unprecedented control over matter, allowing living and non-living systems to be manipulated and used in radical new ways.  Innovative new approaches to communication and networking are facilitating the emergence of virtual partnerships that transcend geographical, organizational and social boundaries.  And society is now so closely coupled to the biosphere that our actions are stressing the system to a greater extent than ever before in human history.

This confluence of control, communication and coupling raises major challenges for society in the 21st century.   But it also contains the seeds of effective solutions.  However, to nurture and grow these seeds, new approaches to science and technology innovation will be needed.  These will include developing research agendas that are driven by social challenges, engaging citizens through building constituencies, and cultivating scientists with a clear sense of civic responsibility.

Update: The full series of posts on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century can be accessed here.

7 thoughts on “Rethinking science and technology for the 21st century”

  1. Is the confluence of control, communication and coupling really a new thing? Concerning control: all new technological advances, and especially those in biology, have given society that take-your-breath-away sensation that we control the transformation of matter. As we moved from controling fermentation, to using the plasmid of Agrobacterium tumefaciens to confer horizontal transfer of genes, to building chemical nano-robots, each of these accomplishments has been accompanied by the same awe. Concerning communication: how did Kings hold empires together without telephones nor internet? They mastered communication, in part by using trust (and fear?) to compensate for the lag time in transfer of messages. They were incredible masters of communication inspite of major obstacles.
    And as for coupling: well we were just plum dumb to ignore that we were part of the biosphere. We have always been coupled. We have simply learned to live (and to live rather well) while ignoring this fact. The modern novelty is that we can no longer ignore this fact without facing major life style changes.

  2. Andrew,

    First, as I read this series of posts, along with the corresponding presentation “Rethinking: Science and Technology Innovation,” it reminded me of three publications I’ve recently reviewed:

    “Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance” (2002)

    “Grand Challenges for Engineering” (2008)

    “Citizen Scientists: Reconnecting Science with Civil Society” (2009)

    Second, it’s comforting to know there are individuals in other disciplines who are wrestling with the same sorts of concerns as I and others in the human factors and ergonomics discipline have regarding responsibly developing and implementing appropriately designed technology to sufficiently meet the needs of future generations. Thus, it is high time that we fully utilize a multidisciplinary approach to address these issues.

    Finally, keep up the great work with the blog!


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