The future is a big place

If I have learnt nothing else this week, I have learnt that the future is a very, very big place. I wrote recently that we live in exponential times, and this was brought home to all of us this week at The Windsor Debates. We are simply not prepared for the future. We are not ready for the rapid and wide reaching changes that will impact us all in the next few decades. But at least, if we begin to spot the trends, we can try to prepare as best we can.

The Debates are hosted at Windsor Castle at least twice each year, under the auspices of the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce, and have gained a reputation as a gathering point for the good and the great of business and industry and a nexus for grown-up debate around the issues of the day. On this occasion the economy, science and innovation, technology supported education and training, healthcare, globalisation, technology enhanced humans, world population trends, gender and race issues all came under scrutiny. It was a little surreal to be talking about such futuristic ideas in such an ancient setting as the Windsor Castle dungeon, but that simply added to the appeal and atmosphere of the event. You can view the list of invited speakers at this site. My own presentation outlined the problems of traditional education in a changing world, and called for a closer alignment of business and higher education, so that at least we can begin to understand what we need from each other. Other than that, I'm not at liberty to divulge who said what (Chatham House Rules, see), but I can summarise some of what was said for you.

Many of the speakers were interested in discussing how we can prepare for a future we cannot clearly describe. Some cited seriously frightening statistics about the trends of population growth and decline in the world. China's population will shrink by the middle of this century (to be overtaken by India) while Nigeria's and Indonesia's will rise precipitously. What will be the jobs we will do in the next few years, and where will the work be done? Will there even be a workforce in a few years time, or will we look back on the past 200 years or so and say, yes, that was the era of employment and it was merely a strange blip in human history? Organised, industrial work practices have only existed for that amount of time, it was argued. Prior to that, people generally worked for themselves or for a ruler. Global distribution of products, outsourcing of workforces, ubiquitous technology, new divisions of labour and ways of working, all are contributing to a seismic shift in the way business is being shaped. A lot of soul searching is going on inside companies. One speaker called for an end to hierarchy in the workplace, to be replaced by heterarchy (more on this in my next blogpost), which promotes a more democratic way of working, and gives ownership to all employees. Another advocated Punk HR - a quirky idea that turns out  not to be so strange after all, and may yet gain as much traction as it's pedagogical counterpart - Edupunk.

Essentially, the mood was that we are in a post-modern age, where all the rules we previously held dear are being challenged, eroded and supplanted by other, looser ideas. Many of the companies represented at the Debates are household names. Top ranking executives attended from each. Together, these people pack a big punch, and have impressive pedigrees, and each more or less agreed that we need to start moving in new directions, and do things differently if we are to survive into this new century. The demise of Kodak was cited.  Kodak was a leading global corporation that stuck to its old practices and business model, and paid a severe price, because it believed in a product that non-one wanted anymore. It didn't adapt to the trends, looked inward instead of outward, and ultimately paid the price.

Some of the futurologists present gave us insight into technological trends, and we discussed what it means to be a modified, enhanced human being. The ethics surrounding this debate were disturbing and complex, and the animated conversations lasted long into the night. Some of the statistics cited about ubiquitous computing, Giganomic trends (look it up), population growth and decline, and economic flow were as imposing as making your entry through the Henry VIII gate, past the stern armed police officers, and into the Castle compound. If you are ever invited to attend a Windsor Debate, grab it with both hands. You certainly won't be disappointed.

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The future is a big place by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported LicenseBased on a work at steve-wheeler.blogspot.com.

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