Que Sera, Sera – or not?

I seem to have been spending a lot of time giving introductory talks about the work of the Technology Strategy Board recently, so it was a nice challenge to be asked to contribute to the RIBA Seminar on Settlement. The subject of this meeting was something we have been increasingly aware of – the impact of technology on the way we live – and we (the presenters) were asked to think about what would be different in 20 years. That got me thinking about predicting the future and the different approaches needed for different timescales. 

It is moderately easy to go a hundred years out and there are lots of examples of such long term future views. There are a couple of advantages in making these forecasts: radical stuff will (almost certainly) happen in that time; and no-one will be around to tell you that your predictions were wrong.

Twenty years, on the other hand, isn’t very far away, and many of the challenges we will face then are already apparent and well-known. There will be more of us and we will be older – this will place demands on our system of healthcare.  We will need food and water to sustain the increased number of people – and need to supply this without placing further strain on the resources of our planet. We will need to provide housing and places to work for all of us – and to be able to live without further contributing to global warming. We will need to travel to work and will want to travel for recreation – and need to provide both mass and personal transport that is more sustainable. Setting these challenges in the context of how cities might evolve put a more direct slant on the question and focuses the mind. Trust me on this last point!!

At the RIBA seminar, each of the speakers explained these challenges in different ways, but the uniformity of the message was inescapable. There was also more than a suggestion that many of the building blocks that could address these challenges are already around – although not widely available or accessible to all.

These challenges are inter-related and their scale and complexity requires national and global government action. The actions taken then drive the markets that must supply these goods and services.  The fact that many of these challenges are inter-related means that the responses should also be inter-related. This is not always the case, either in the framing of the challenge, the action taken to address it or the response of the suppliers. 

Over the last few years we have been building our Innovation Platforms in an attempt to use government activity to drive a holistic response to the individual challenges, in the context of them all. We have built our existing portfolio of Platforms by working with government departments, regional government, universities and companies, seeking to provide a coordinated route to the future. Our work with the Department of Health and many others in developing new ways to provide Assisted Living for the old and chronically ill, and our work with Communities and Local Government and a wide range of other bodies to look at the requirements of new houses and retrofit those already in existence, address our basic needs for health and housing. Our work with the Department for Transport to develop and implement systems to enable people to make better informed travel decisions and our work with the Home Office on Network Security to enable us to engage fully in the digital world with confidence allows us to move up Maslow’s hierarchy.

This is not predicting the future – it is building the future we want to have.

The talks and the panel discussion at RIBA provided, for me, a real insight into how different people see this complex area and started me thinking how we can do more to address the overall challenge in a more co-ordinated manner. If you weren’t there and want to see what was said, the presentations and some (sadly lo-fi) podcasts are available from the site - mine are here, Alan Penn’s description of “soft infrastructures” is here, Lesley Gavin’s view of the future is here, and Stephen Boyd-Davis’s ideas on the use of “media space” are here, and the official précis of the meeting is here.  Enjoy. 


Last updated on Thursday 06 August 2009 at 09:28

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