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Ged Davis: the ethics and morality of futurism

Running notes from European Futurist Conference, Lucerne

Managing Director of the World Economic forum and resident futurist, Ged Davis begins by with issuing the question of how we will live into the 22nd century. Futurists, he says, need to develop a capacity to use the future as a tool to move the planet forward responsibly.

His second point is that the disciplines that the futurist uses needs to mature dramatically from a craft enterprise into a deeply embedded profession. Imagination, and enabling it, is consequential in how it deal with the future. But this is only one concern. With new robust predictive tools, how do we conceive of an ethics and morality for futures and foresight?

To illustrate, he starts with the recent story of the transition from the industrial revolution. The 20th century has had a 4x growth in population and 10x growth in GDP/capita. He attributes the growth to the combustion of fossil fuels, what he calls ‘fire under control.’

We will continue to increase the burden on the planet. In the 21st century we will need 2-3 times the resources we currently have available. There are critical macro uncertainties and intergenerational lead times. How can we anticipate crisis and put into place capacities to respond?

Life is uncertain and that is why its fun. Humans can rise to the challenge of conscious design of large systems such as cities, states, regions, domains and the planetary level. The science of integrated systems and how they operate will be integral to the deriving of solutions.

He shows a list of the global challenges that the OECD and WEF currently consider to be the biggest threats, which are pretty familiar. The usual subjects of conscious cocktail conversations. The next slide discusses the attributes of global challenges.

In sum, they are large scale, non-linear, not fully conceivable, and not well understood. There are also significant uncertainties in the challenges, and as such are subject to sudden discontinuities. He argues that because there are multiple stakeholders, there are multiple perspectives that need to be incorporated into the process of devising solutions. He asserts: “We need to develop a platform for multi-stakeholder collaboration and discussion” But he leaves the subject there.

How do you make foresight relevant? Doing a study on the future alone does not help. HG Wells, Aldous Huxley, Orwell and others used the future as a device to describe social concerns in fictional language. Only in the last 50 years have new tools emerged that have consistently been used to predict the future better than a coin flip or just projecting the present trends, but it has been largely separate from policy making.

To make foresight relevant, it needs to involve better framing, which is about asking the right questions, not the most interesting questions. What is relevant to the policy maker? He argues that at least a third of the time should be used in framing. We must ask what are the major assumptions we have in our explication of the research goals. What is useful and important? Yet Framing is not easy because we jump to the assumption about the problem.

I wonder why we jump to assumptions. Is it just because it is easier to envision what we know rather than use imaginative, generative or recombinatorial techniques to see what is possible? What are the social dimensions of framing that tend us in social groups to continue – to extend – what we know? What are the tendencies and impediments of policy and corporate decision-making that seek self-fulfillment?

Davis goes on to mention that framing needs to consider the following time scales:
50 years is the time period where you can move from science to techno-protoyping and commercialization.
20 years is where tech is largely fixed, and where the bulk of current investment is going.
5 years is about understanding the political structure in the policy areas.

Foresight is more than imagination. It is deep rigour by bringing the best to bare using research from which to credibly work.

Other key aspects of futurism:
Affirmation: people need to understand and own the future inquiry work that is being used.
Implication: what sorts of new structures and operational organizations are needed to be created to implement and realize the new vision of the future?

Ethics of Foresight
Davis insists that we are in need of a hippocratic oath for futurists that includes some of the following dimensions:
1. non-manipulative framing: example of the Stern report as demonstrating the cost involved in inaction about climate change – Davis doubts about the results from the IPCC – need to be careful of subconscious manipulative behaviour
2. Rigorous peer-reviewed analytical standards
3. Deep ownership in affirmation: egos needs to recede in a process of sharing the imagination and stripping the personalities from the predictions.
4. strategically relevant implications: futurists need not appear other-worldly and must address the most critical issues in an honest way
5. We need to define higher terms for social purposes that state the manner in which they should be pursued
6 Futurists should be chiefly responsible for creating and exposing options that didn’t exist in order to widen the scope of possible solutions

What is the future of foresight?
It must be continuous, large scale, with a multitude of people networked, building the architecture of knowledge. There is a critical need for conscioius design of large systems under uncertainty and futurists should be the institutional conscience for foresight.

Q and A
An audience member asks if policy makers are willing to take decisions deep into the future if the stake of their position is in the short term. Davis mentions that though many companies are interested in the short term, 20% of total GDP is invested into the deep future. That is the space for the influence of the futurists.

The World Economic forum is now involved in getting leaders to participate in open source institutional dialogues. But he is pessimistic that we can develop them in time. However he is optimistic that humans, if our backs are against the wall, will rise to the occasion with innovative solutions. But he doesn’t address how humans will rise. From what bed of identity and on behalf of what form of organization? Regionally, nationally, corporately? How will we align ourselves if we are pressed in crisis, and how will we overcome freeriding?

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