Here are nine technologies that could trigger a tipping point over the next ten years. Yet do they pass the "human" and "climate" test?
We’re “full-humans” here at A/UK - as interested in our ingenuities, as much as our pathologies; both the legacy of our under-informed actions (around climate crisis), and the innovations that can redefine what we take as reality itself. We don’t see “deep adaptation” and “radical innovation” as opposed.
(It was interesting to read Jem Bendell’s latest presentation to the European Commission, “This is Not a Drill: Technologies for Deep Adaptation to Climate Chaos” (PDF and video). Known for urging mourning about a climate catastrophe already baked into our system, Bendell nevertheless embraces the search for technological mitigation: “I believe that we do not have time for either ‘techno hubris’ or ‘techno phobia’”, writes Bendell. “We need to look at all forms of technology on a case-by-case basis”.)
The UK innovation foundation Nesta (full disclosure: the editor of the Daily Alternative, Pat Kane, is a consultant to Nesta on their FutureFest event) does futurescoping and forecasting as one of their main goals. Their Tipping Point prizewinners are a great example of how they work - setting a challenge to sci-tech and creative communities. The challenge was “Which scientific discoveries could have the biggest social impact” in the next decade?
However, it’s interesting to look at the finalists through the lens of climate emergency, and human displacement by technology, that A/UK often holds up.
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The winner - and by implication the tech with most social impact - was swarm robotics. As Nesta writes, it proposes that “principles of collective behaviour drawn from the natural world will help us to develop swarms of robots that could be put to all manner of uses, from search-and-rescue missions to harvesting fruit and repairing tunnels”.
Yet in his winning essay, Edmund Hunt does point out a glitch. If swarm robots are about “building large numbers of relatively disposable units, not a few sophisticated and expensive machines: it shouldn’t really matter if a few fail…then “Dead” robots will raise issues of their own: for example, it would be painfully ironic if robots deployed to safeguard the environment become litter or e-waste.”
Biodegradable robots are posited - but Hunt’s caveat raises deeper questions. Isn’t there a certain hubris in creating a material layer of biology-like machines, when it might be more useful to cultivate love of the nature that actually exists? At what point does technophilia downgrade our biophilia?
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Another finalist is this essay on 4D materials. Anna Ploszajski reveals a world of “flying in a plane whose wings change like those of a bird, taking on different configurations during take-off, cruising and landing. Or being treated in a hospital where personalised prosthetics have the same movement as real muscles. Or wearing clothes which become warmer as the weather gets cooler, and vice versa.” The dynamic new materials she describes make this possible.
But it is startling how much our standard lifestyles are presumed in these scenarios. Ploszajski admits that one of the problems about building 4D objects is that they may indeed require even more energy intensity to make than conventional objects, for not that much less disposability. And again, an environmental irony is noted:
The irony of all this future-gazing is that what we seek – smart materials and 4D structures which intelligently adapt to their environment – have been right in front of us all along. The heads of sunflowers track the Sun across the sky, our muscles contract with the pulse of a nerve, the humble pinecone protects its seeds from the rain.
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The democratisation of earth observation technologies is promoted by Alistair Maclennan’s Your Eyes in the Sky. If we can “monitor factors like heat loss, air pollution and environmental degradation at an ever-more granular level”, this will give “individuals the power to see their own impact on their own environment” - previously the province of both governments and corporations.
Yet, as ever, questions of power and control over these global systems are paramount. We are effortlessly used to Google Maps using data from satellites to guide us from one part of our city or region to another - yet don’t we have enough information now about Google’s commercial imperatives to ask for other interfaces between us and the planet’s data?
Potentially, individuals “may well have the chance to understand their impact on their own environment – and crucially, to act upon that understanding to the benefit of themselves and everyone else”, as Maclennan puts it:
Those in power will need to work out how to sustainably feed, house and move a growing population on a finite land-mass with finite resources; each of us needs to understand our roles and responsibilities within the solutions they come up with.
Read that carefully, and the power relations are clearly: top-down experts, handing down targets and rations to everyday communities. Let us suggest that this doesn’t exactly chime with the spirit of the times…
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The last of the Nesta nine we’ll feature, Güneş Taylor’s ‘Green Editing’, is glossed here by Nesta: “the furore over designer babies shouldn't eclipse the potential application of CRISPR to the profound environmental and agricultural challenges we face. Genome editing can improve crop yield and resilience, and could even spell the beginning of the end for some unethical livestock practices.”
The case for “green editing” is usually bolstered by pointing to the millennia of deliberate animal breeding that’s taken place in human agriculture. The ability to amend, or blend in other DNA is argued for as a logical extension of a practice that constitutes agrarian civilisation itself, and thus is at the basis of our own modernity.
Yet Taylor’s essay simply ignores the claims made by, say, the vegan revolutionaries, that plant-based food is a profound way to not only respect animal sentience and pain, but also to reduce some of the clearest contributors to global warming (methane from farm animals). The assumption is that editing of plants, and editing of animals for slaughter, is morally equal or neutral.
Even in terms of DNA manipulation of crops (whether for disease resilience or carbon capture), the claims of permaculture are also entirely absent. This means that the notion of restoring a healthier balance between existing elements in a bio-region (which, as John Thackara noted in a blog here a few months ago, requires just as much hi-tech monitoring of ecosystem data as any gene hack) are not actively considered.
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There are five other tipping point technologies mentioned in the Nesta awards - cybernetic cells, internet latency, quantum cryptography, carbon capture and utilisation, bioelectricity and medicine - and we’d invite you to run the rule of climate-urgency and human-primacy over them, too. As Bendell says at the start of this piece - and the point is general - our crises are too urgent and interlocking for us to be lost in a division between technophilia and technophobia.
Nesta are to be commended for casting a net wide on the tipping point technologies we may face in the next decade. But we have some existential - maybe even extinctional - perspectives to bring to radical innovation now. All sides will benefit from the encounter.