Science and Technology Innovation – looking to the future

by Andrew Maynard on December 9, 2009

The final part of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century

Nine months ago, I embarked on an ambitious project to flesh out the ideas presented in a seminar given at the James Martin 21st Century School at the University of Oxford.  The seminar was titled ““Rethinking science and technology innovation: A Personal Perspective.”  In it, I spoke about three factors that are coming together to change the landscape in which science and technology are developed and used for social good (coupling, communication and control), and how science and technology policy might respond to the new challenges that are arising as a consequence.

Rather naively, I thought this would occupy me for a few weeks.  The fact that I gave the original seminar in March, and I’m typing this in December, is a rather damning testament to my own lack of foresight!

Finally though, I have come to the end of the series.  I’m not sure how useful it has been or whether it will stand the test of time – there are certainly a lot of words within the eleven blogs associated with it, but whether they coalesce into new and worthwhile ideas is another matter entirely.  However, it has   helped me explore more thoroughly some of the concepts that drove the original seminar, and further develop my thoughts on science and technology might play in the 21st century.

The complete blog series can be accessed from here.  It addresses the critical roles science and technology will increasingly play in society over the coming decades; the challenges of getting science and technology-based strategies and policies right; and thoughts on how to respond to these challenges – leading to a future where science and technology are used for good, rather than leading to harm.

I’m not going to attempt to summarize the series here – a pretty succinct precis of the challenges and opportunities we face can be found in this post if you are interested.  Rather, I wanted to round the series off by ruminating more broadly and speculatively on the future challenges and opportunities we face.

First though, something of a confession: I’m a believer in science and technology.  I use the “B” word advisedly – I’m not sure I could prove unequivocally that science and technology innovation lead to people and communities being happier, more fulfilled, or having a greater “quality of life.”  But as a scientist, I can see how science and technology provide the means to alleviate suffering, improve health and well-being, and help define who we are.  I also see a society that is built on a foundation of science and technology and that is unavoidably and irreversibly dependent on them.  And as I gaze into my (admittedly murky) crystal ball, I find it hard to conceive of a future where science and technology are not essential to maintaining and improving people’s lives around the world.

But herein lies a challenge – if we are dependent on science and technology, how do we ensure that this dependency works for us, rather than against us?  We’ve spent the past several millennia grappling with this question, not always successfully.  But in the past, the rates of science discovery and technology advance have typically taken place over timescales that have allowed us to adapt (eventually) to the changes they bring about.

Entering the 21st century, all this is changing.  Science and technology are now progressing so fast that we are struggling to adapt to one set of breakthroughs before the next comes along – and the rate at “progress” is being made is accelerating.  Intertwined with this are the three factors of coupling, communication and control that are leading to challenges and opportunities never before experienced in human history.

From where I’m standing, it’s hard to imagine how we can ride the coming wave without a radical rethink of how we develop and use science and technology within society.    Certainly, it seems hopelessly naive to assume that how we’ve done things in the past will serve us well in the future.  Rather, we’ve got to grow up as a global society – and grow up fast – if we are to ensure science and technology improve our lives and those of future generations, rather than causing more problems than they solve.

In this series of articles, I’ve sketched out my own thoughts on where the challenges are, and where some of the solutions might lie.  They are rough, ill-formed and sometimes naive – this is very much a work in progress.  Yet hopefully they provide some kernels of value as we begin to face address challenges that are very much unique to our generation.

Having said this, I must end on a note of caution.  I am a science and technology optimist, but a cautious one.  I genuinely believe that science and technology – if developed and used appropriately – are critical to addressing the challenges of living and thriving in an increasingly complex and resource-constrained world.  But that’s my belief; it’s not a universal truth. At the end of the day, if we are to mature as a global society, we’re going to need to listen to other perspectives that maybe don’t see the world in the same way, and take full account of them as we rethink science and technology for the 21st century.

And rather conveniently, that’s the focus of the next blog series on 2020 Science.

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