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Emerging Technologies and Sustainability: What’s risk got to do with it?
Andrew Maynard   Sep 28, 2011   2020 Science  

Q: What do you get if you place some of the leading thinkers and practitioners in the fields of technology innovation, risk, and sustainability in the same room for two days? A: One whopping headache!

Not because of the confusion and cacophony, but because of the overwhelming volume of information, ideas and insights that emerge.

To be honest, my less than coherent state at the end of this weeks symposium on Risk, Uncertainty and Sustainable Innovation wasn’t helped by moderating eight discussion panels over two days, and coordinating a handful more.  But without a doubt, this was a meeting that pushed the boundaries of how much a sane person can take in and remain sane.

The idea behind the symposium was simple: Bring a bunch of smart people with different perspectives together to explore the complex intersections between risk, sustainability and innovation, and see what happens.  In practice, we put together a format and a program that encouraged a candid exploration of realistic challenges and plausible approaches to developing sustainable applications of technology innovation, as well as using technology innovation to develop sustainable solutions to pressing problems.

The result: Two ideas-packed days of engaging, inspiring and challenging discussion on how businesses, governments and others can better ensure safe, successful and sustainable outcomes from technology innovation.

Having been in the thick of the discussions, I’m still trying to unravel and assimilate a lot of the ideas that emerged. And I missed a lot of the nuances – much of the time I was too intent on keeping the conversation going to be fully aware of its content.  Fortunately, the symposium was caught on video, and will be posted on the Risk Science Center’s Vimeo site in a week or so, so I will be able to revisit the discussions at my leisure.  But I did want to capture some of my initial impressions here.

New ideas for new audiences. Something I did want to achieve with the symposium was to expose people to ideas they may not have previously come across.  In this, the meeting was resounding success.  While some of the ideas being explored on innovation, sustainability, risk and communication may have been old hat to people that live and breathe this stuff, there were many others in the room who were hearing things for the first time that had a direct bearing on their work.

Innovation relating to communication, informatics, processes and systems is more relevant than “named” emerging technologies.

I had planned the first couple of sessions of the symposium to focus on technology innovation rather than risk, with the intention of ensuring the following discussions were grounded in plausibility rather than wild speculation.  I had expected these discussions to focus on the usual chestnuts – nanotechnology, synthetic biology, geoengineering, human enhancement etc. Instead, despite having experts in cutting edge emerging technologies on the panels, the discussion focused more on innovation in how we use knowledge and information – in areas like communication, informatics, processes and systems.  When pressed, panelists felt that the labels new areas of technology attract are less important than innovations that are allowing things to be done in new ways.

Risk and risk communication float to the top.  I was also intrigued to find that, try as I might, I could not keep risk and risk communication out of the conversation.  Even the panels looking at emerging areas of technology innovation naturally gravitated to the challenges of understanding and addressing emerging risks, as well as communicating information on risks and benefits effectively.

A clear synergy exists between risk, innovation and sustainability.  Although it was this synergy I wanted to explore through the symposium, I was surprised at how apparent it was that to many participants, successful technology innovation is critically dependent on taking an integrative approach to innovation, risk and sustainability.

There were also a number of personal highlights for me at the meeting, in addition to the discussion panels:

  • John Viera – Director of Sustainability Environment and Safety Engineering at the Ford Motor Company – gave an inspiring talk on the company’s approach to sustainability.
  • David Munson – the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan – beautifully articulated the need for integrative approaches to innovation and sustainability, as well as highlighting a number of innovative initiatives within the College of Engineering.
  • James Wilsdon – Director of the Royal Society Science Policy Centre – gave a wonderful talk on technology innovation, going back to controversies over lightening rods in the 1700′s and highlighting how similar many of the issues we face today are to those society was facing three hundred years ago.
  • Rodrigo Martinez and Mark Jones from the design company IDEO led delegates in a great team exercise in approaching challenges from different perspectives. I was particularly pleased with this session, as it demonstrated how design-inspired methodologies can be used to enable cross-expertise and innovative exploration of complex challenges.
  • A panel of students and young professionals provided candid and insightful feedback on the first day’s proceedings – asking the questions and making the observations that more seasoned delegates were dying to ask and make, but were too scared to!  A number of people commenting that it was the best session of the day.

With the exception of the IDEO session, all of these talks will be available on Vimeo soon – along with the rest of the discussion panels.

All in all, it seemed to be a highly successful meeting – although I still have a pile of evaluation forms that I haven’t dared look at yet.  There were things that I would do differently next time – information overload was a major issue this year, and I’m not sure that giving myself so many panels to moderate was a great idea.  But in terms of exposing people to new ideas and sparking new insights, things seened to go pretty well.

Hopefully now, some of those sparks will catch light and grow.

Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.


Peter Thiel’s latest regurgitation: The End of the Future

Thiel is a shameless self-promoting gadfly—being in his position, he knows he is untouchable.

Mike, Thiel is typing, not writing; re-read this:

“Science fiction has collapsed as a literary genre. Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost. Today‚Äôs aged hippies no longer understand that there is a difference between the election of a black president and the creation of cheap solar energy; in their minds, the movement towards greater civil rights parallels general progress everywhere. Because of these ideological conflations and commitments, the 1960s Progressive Left cannot ask whether things actually might be getting worse. I wonder whether the endless fake cultural wars around identity politics are the main reason we have been able to ignore the tech slowdown for so long.”

Anyone at IEET can write better than above—and think better, too. Here’s a proposal for a research project: a study of the air content in an auditorium after Thiel has lectured there; to ascertain if Thiel’s ego sucked all the oxygen out.

“not even in his beloved Randian objectivism.”

The only rand Thiel ever loved was Krugerrand smile

...“With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country”

Mike, we’d better run out right now and buy bell-bottomed trousers!

One more comment.
It isn’t that Thiel is mistaken per se, but his atrocious writing negates his message. Thiel is ambitious, he is a doer who also brings up what is important, otherwise we wouldn’t discuss him. However he is so ambitious and has got his fingers in so many pies he is botching it. You are correct Thiel is evolving, yet to mainstream himself he targets National Review readers who want to blame it all on hippies. I remember the ‘Back To Nature’ movement vividly, yes it was Luddite; naturally it was instigated by the counter-culture; however to write hippies took over America in 1969 is Thiel scapegoating ‘them thar O-bama pinko treehuggers.’
America is owned by all sorts, including more or less neutral businesspeople who mostly want to make a profit, who don’t particularly care whether a customer is Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, or Joseph Stalin. Hippies four+ decades ago generally weren’t well off enough to ‘Go Rustic’ on their own so they needed the help of landed gentry and others. Their enablers weren’t treehuggers themselves, nevertheless there is a duality in America deriving from our relatively recent frontier origin: since circa 1620 we developed a materially forward looking way of life while retaining a somewhat Jeffersonian outlook wherein the rural has become to us a Hollywood backdrop to escape to seasonally / on vacation. The largest trauma in American history, the Civil War, was fought partly over our pastoral-urban dichotomy. And millions still live rural lives—though it goes without saying not at all the lifestyles of 1620.
I don’t dislike Thiel, but if I wasn’t taken in by Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, and FM, there is no chance whatsoever to be taken in by Thiel, no matter how industrious he is. It is true libertarians have done much, yet it isn’t what people say, it is what they don’t say. It isn’t so much we need them as it is that we are stuck with them and they are stuck with us.
We can always choose our friends; however we cannot always choose our cohorts.

Then ag’in, Mike, maybe it IS them hippie tree huggers at Yogurt’s Farm in Woodstock, smoking their draft cards.
Wasn’t they the ones who danced all naked on the ruins of the World Trade Center?

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