We live in a world of great excitement and great uncertainty, hastened by advances in science and technology that few, if any of us, fully grasp: artificial intelligence, autonomous drones, synthetic organisms, the Internet of Things, to name a few.
This accelerating pace of change seems to propel us into the future, causing us to wonder who’s in charge—or perhaps to plead, like George Jetson running in his Space Age cartoon, on an ever-faster treadmill, “Stop this crazy thing!”
As if the future is out of our control.
But a hands-off approach to the future is not our only option. To be sure, we’ve reached a remarkable level of development through a combination of luck and ingenuity. But it sometimes seems as if the tradeoffs we accept with each advance of technology are only visible in hindsight.
Why not take a different tack toward the future and reflect more and ask better questions before we get there? Why not take control of our future, shaping our shared future in a way that we all can take part rather than leave the decision-making to a select few? Why not ask what future we want to inhabit before the question is moot?
This focus on owning the future is a role that our universities are remarkably well-suited to take on. Yet surprisingly few have committed themselves to systematic inquiry about how our principles, values and choices today will define whether we live in a world that we want tomorrow.
This requires an intense focus on societal impact. And rather than predicting the future—an ongoing enterprise in many spheres, academic and otherwise—this means thinking about what future is plausible and assessing what can be done now to achieve socially desired outcomes.
At Arizona State University, we have created the Institute and School for the Future of Innovation in Society, drawing together faculty and students from a diversity of fields, including engineering, geology, physics, science and technology studies, law, political science and management. Tech savvy or not, capable of writing code or not, they all are concerned with future-making and their role as citizens, family members, workers and more in advancing societal goals.
It’s their mission to create the ideas, tools and people that can help revolutionize the way we pursue new knowledge and apply it for human benefit.
The scale of the undertaking is immense and can seem overwhelming. How can science and technology be better harnessed to our economy for the betterment of society and the survival of the human species? What will the next generation of artificially derived human creation mean for security, the economy and the well-being of humans and the biosphere? How should we manage the massive flow of information to make better decisions, tackle global threats and improve our increasingly complex lives?
These are the kinds of questions that our students and faculty will confront. But the task is not theirs alone.
We all can take responsibility to engage with the larger society and prepare ourselves to become more knowing participants and more skilled, thoughtful workers capable of making a positive difference. Rather than simply riding the waves of innovation, we all can take a more proactive role, asking questions and seeking solutions to influence the outcome.
The scale of our global challenges not only requires new organizations and new ways of thinking, our growing capacity for innovation compels us to reflect on the impacts that science and technology will have on society and our individual lives, for better or worse. I have committed my life to knowledge-creation enterprises, but I can tell you: We still have a long way to go in sorting out how to link our collective ingenuity to our collective welfare.