I’ve been getting more involved with The da Vinci Institute (they’re a sponsor for my upcoming Blog Smart! Business Blogging Workshop) and last night I had dinner with Thomas Frey, the head of the Institute. We had a fascinating and quite compelling discussion about how what we do today can influence the future, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since.
I believe that our society promotes a sort of helpless inevitability about the future, particularly with technology and innovation, a sort of “ceaseless march of progress” that’s embodied in Bill Joy’s famous dictum that “privacy is dead. deal with it.” I’ll call this the Inevitable Future. Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen, be it human cloning, dirty nukes, global outbreaks of avian flu, home abortion kits or whatever, and all we can do is hold on for the ride.
But some reflection reveals that we’re not helpless at all, and that we can individually and as groups influence the future quite a bit…
The da Vinci Institute believes that the future isn’t predetermined at all and that what we do today can unquestionably influence where we’ll end up as a race, as a society, and as individuals tomorrow, and I agree completely. I’ll call this the Influenced Future.
At the Institute, Thomas and his group are working on a bunch of different projects that are all focused on creating paths that will allow us to influence the future, none more interesting than The Museum of Future Inventions. I admit, the first time I heard about it I thought “how daft!” but here’s the basic idea: thoughtful futurist people submit ideas for innovations they’d like to see, and the best, the most interesting, the coolest are all anointed and become exhibits at what they hope will be a 100,000 square foot physical space. So far over 600 future inventions have been submitted to the museum, from 22 different countries.
But here’s what’s really fascinating about this: by simply sharing a brilliant idea for a future invention, the chance of that invention actually being invented increases significantly.
Now imagine what happens if you had a spare million dollars and decided that you really wanted to increase the chance that a particular invention was invented. Could you make a difference and really influence the path of the future? Of course you could. In fact, we see just this thinking with The X Prize, which “is a $10,000,000 prize to jumpstart the space tourism industry through competition among the most talented entrepreneurs and rocket experts in the world.”
Now imagine what would happen if a group had access to hundreds of millions of dollars and created a half-dozen X Prizes each year, consciously influencing the future by incentivizing inventors and research groups to solve specific problems. What would you like to see solved? A cure for cancer? A vehicle 100% powered by renewable energy, with zero pollutants? A method of helping homeless people become productive members of society? A sustainable and globally applied model of intellectual property that takes P2P into account while protecting the rights of artists?
This is heady stuff, and certainly not without its own challenges. I’ve also been contemplating the critical question of who gets to decide what parts of the future are worth pursuing? Who gets to decide what inventions should come under the Influenced Future cloud, and to what degree?
I can’t yet answer these questions — though I am eager to debate them with fellow members of the da Vinci Institute — but I’m sure glad to know that there are bright thinkers out there working on creating a better tomorrow for all of us.
The future invention I’m thinking about today? I wouldn’t at all mind seeing the technological equivalent of Douglas Adam’s Babel Fish, personally. An enabling technology that would let me talk with someone else and have a spirited dialog, even if I don’t know their language and they don’t know mine. I think it would go a long way towards bringing more peace to our troubled planet.
What future invention would you like to see realized or influenced, and why?