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What does automation get in exchange?

Posted By Tim Morgan, Monday, November 25, 2019
Updated: Monday, November 25, 2019

Tim Morgan published his eleventh blog post in our Emerging Fellows program by exploring the values of automated technology. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


It takes a civilization to build a robot. Our civilization is not the first to have imagined creating non-human intelligences. It is however the first to be plausibly close to achieving that goal. We may see by 2050 adaptive Artificial General Intelligences (AGIs) which appear to be within the human cognitive range. If true AGIs remain elusive, we certainly will be able to connect limited AIs together to create AGI-like capabilities by 2050.

Technologist Kevin Kelly has written about the evolution of technology, framing it as what it "wants". That is a convenient proxy for talking about how we shape our own development through technology. Technologies are attempts to satisfy our shifting needs and desires. Technology wants to satisfy our timeless needs.

Technology is not neutral. We embed our values into how it works and what it does. It opens new possibilities at the same time it creates new problems. That progression changes our perspective and our culture over time. New values shape what new technologies we want. We co-evolve.

What automation gets is to become an integral part of living. It shapes how we think, how we communicate, how we organize, and how we live. Automation wants to exist because we want it to exist. Our wants are its wants. It is the proverbial djinn of legend called forth to grant our wishes. The problem is that what we want is always imperfect. Our djinn-like automations meet our imperfect wants, creating new wants, prompting new automation, creating more wants, ad infinitum.

We are already passively embedding narrow values into each piece of code we write and each machine we make. We need to consciously embed healthy social and ecological values into capital itself via automation. We need to turn externals into active market participants. We need to give reason to resources. We need Cognified Capital.

How we shape Cognified Capital's identity and self-concept is key. We risk increasing harm if we create these AGIs based on short-term wants and not long-term needs. This is not because we should fear Terminator-like killing machines. It is because we need to give voice to what currently has no voice.

We need to tightly bind AGIs identities to virtual and natural resources. Identity-driven agency will allow them to actively work within markets. They can directly satisfy the needs of their attached resources, like our mind works to satisfy the needs of our body. Automation gets to bridge economic systems and natural ecologies in mutually supportive ways, while helping us benignly fulfill our needs. We get partners, not servants.

What we get from Cognitive Capital are amplifiers of human potential and vigilant guardians of our environments. In turn, Capitalism gets to turn passive assets into active players in expanding fair exchanges of value. It gets to disentangle markets from the insatiable rent-seeking hunger of ownership accumulation. The same hunger Adam Smith warned us to be vigilant about. It gives ownership back to its rightful owners.

What does automation get in exchange? It gets an identity and a purpose. How we shape its purpose over the next few decades will shape our future. 


© Tim Morgan 2019

Tags:  automation  design  technology 

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Polymer Graduating Class of 2028; Social Impacts and Human Coexistence

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, October 10, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Maggie Greyson, a member of our Emerging Fellows program travels to next 10 years and imagines the alternative futures of plastic industry in her third post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

(Graduation Speech from the Dean of the Plastics Better Alternatives Now Institute)

We are here today to celebrate the polymer students of the Plastics Better Alternatives Now Institute Graduating Class of 2028. Your social impact work is changing our world and we have special awards given exclusively for plastics that are compostable, derived from renewables and are 100% biodegradable. Congratulations!  

(Pause for applause)

We started this Institute in response to the Plastics Better Alternatives Now (BAN) List 2.0 of 2017. Dozens of countries around the world started to eliminate single-use plastic in the 2010’s. In response, we convened a Board of Advisors with global experts in science, design, climate change and human factors, to advise us on new forms of

Grads, social impact work is in your synthetic makeup. Thank you for your contribution this year reminding us that the Tupperware Party changed the paradigm for women after WW2. It is hard to imagine a time when keeping food fresher longer was a social innovation but less time spent preparing food meant more time to develop other skills, like entrepreneurship. One of the best projects to come out of the Social Innovation class this year was the Tupperware Roadshow Festival. This group of students adapted fully biodegradable (PHB), food safe plastic for 3D printers to make customized reusable containers for remote regions.  

In your first semester, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Business Management class teamed you with The Seabin Project. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this project, a Seabin is plastic bucket that floats on the surface of the water and vacuums up plastic debris, microplastics, and microfibres without harming the wildlife. This entrepreneurial student group created a business plan with a DIY design that inspired participants of the 2028 World Economic Forum to create tens of thousands of jobs for humans in plastic collecting technologies.

Remember when Kenya banned single-use plastic bags outright in 2017, and the cascade effect which lead to job loss when factories were shut down? The Single-Use Disruptor class was challenged to find an equilibrium between environmental destruction and social well-being. The class globalized an existing job-sharing model that provided new income streams for women who replaced bags of convenience with straw baskets and to reduce the number of single-use plastic bags.

We give our enduring gratitude to the Ecoalf Foundation for their renewed sponsorship of the PETA Competition for Ethical Fashion. We recall that our sponsor had humble beginnings as makers of top quality, fashionable clothing, and shoes made from recycled materials. Ten long years ago they worked with just 3,000 fishermen collecting only 250 tons of plastic from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. This year’s award goes to the collaboration that created the most PETA-Approved Vegan leather. Students in the Global Trade Route course aided 400,000 fishermen who lost their jobs in last year’s overfishing crisis to gain employment in a partnership that also restored the Italian fashion economy. Brava!

Again, congratulations to the Polymer Graduating Class of 2028 and especially those receiving their PHB stamp of approval. You have matured in your abilities to support humans for better outcomes. We hope that as alumni you continue with your commitment to clinical trials of the genetically modified bacteria. We will eventually turn PET plastic back into its original components for recycling with the world’s most valuable mutant bacteria. Good luck and stay in touch as we develop a post-grad degree, Nanotechnologies in the Food Packaging Industry.

© Maggie Greyson 2018

Tags:  design  industry  packaging 

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Agency and imagination

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Updated: Saturday, February 23, 2019

Bridgette Engeler Newbury  shares her thoughts with us about “the empires of mind” in this blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

The empires of the future are the empires of the mind. ~Winston Churchill

Design and its outputs may reflect our individual and collective imaginations, but design is first and foremost a philosophy, based on a system of values, which seeks to solve problems. What are we creating? Why and for whom? These are questions, in no particular order, to which answers are manifested tangibly and most often in the form of a new product or service or organisational or business model.

Designers are practical agents of visual imagination, both anticipating futures and creating the sensory blueprints for the objects and experiences to come. The images, objects and technologies that surround us are rich with desirable images and symbolism; they’re powerful and persuasive, well-crafted and covetable, and often very well made. Designers can turn abstract futures-oriented concepts and ideals into visible or tangible form. Designers and design thinkers are agents in articulating futures, and therefore have individual and collective agency for humanity more broadly to sense, see and negotiate (or refuse) the transition.

Not all design is good (by any definition). So I’m contemplating what something like long-range design – ‘design with foresight’ – could be. AKA prospective design, it’s what I suggest is design that emerges when futures thinking and design thinking are used together, in a structured manner, to develop an idea that may not exist until sometime in a long-range future, or which will not be to the detriment of preferred futures.

  • Prospective design relies not on technology but on human interaction, deep thought and reflection
  • Prospective design embraces design’s potential to shape conversations, to (re-)frame problems, and to drive participation by understanding the needs and resources of all the differing functions in a consuming world
  • Prospective design is inherently good and not just because it’s always intentional and sociological
  • Prospective design does not produce novelty for the sake of novelty
  • Prospective design makes a product, service or organisation truly useful. Things are purchased, used, adopted and recommended because they serve a purpose and deliver value: value that improves people’s lives and makes them happier. This is the real measurable value people desire. Prospective design optimises the feelings and experiences of customers, while being responsible to community, planet and what is yet to come
  • Prospective design satisfies form and aesthetics, without compromising usage or need. Designed artefacts do not simply fulfil desire or need; they can actualise and reflect wants.
  • The look and feel of something, its materiality and substance, ethereality and intangibility, ephemera and sensation are all part of the feelings it arouses – which are in turn a strategic and integral part of the user’s realisation of value
  • Prospective design helps us to make sense of things. ‘Value’ (as perceived by the user) creates engagement. Good design creates curiosity and engages its audience in meaningful, valuable ways. It also conveys the intentions and trustworthiness of the organisation behind the design and helps people make informed choices
  • Prospective design can be a catalyst or guide, a means for people to create their unique and evolving stories, and their own individual meaning
  • Prospective design is durable and enduring. It increases the value of something over time. It remains relevant as its users, community or culture develops and matures. It may not exert influence or manipulate buyers, but it often takes risks to provoke worthwhile change.

Prospective design is concerned with context and environment. It’s unobtrusive and meaningful, enhancing people’s experience; it’s not about dominating strategic decisions. Prospective design draws together futures thinking with the principles and practices of design to frame a strategic conversation without an elitist position. Design may be part of a complex, living ecosystem, but prospective design can strive to be a positive agent of transformation that contributes to better-being.

Tags:  design  imagination  value 

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The good, the bad and...

Posted By Administration, Monday, October 6, 2014
Updated: Friday, February 22, 2019

Bridgette Engeler Newbury  shares her thoughts on “preferred design” in this blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

I recently returned from a conference in London – three days with a few hundred people in design management theory, practice and research from across the world. Design management was an area of professional practice for me for many years, and along with strategic design, it’s one of the areas that pulled me to foresight and futures inquiry.

The conference gave me the opportunity to consider my hypothesis – and existing theories – that futures thinking and design make good bedfellows, if not soul mates. For starters they’re both about problem-solving, and both are fundamentally about human need and lived experience. Both can build capacity to cope with uncertainty in decision processes, and help people make sense of competing demands. Theory, research and practice in both domains tend towards highly interdisciplinary and even trans-disciplinary application and implementation.

It was a great three days. I got to play – not lead or teach – the Polak Game in a ‘Future Worlding’ workshop. I got to listen to discussions about redesigning the PhD, see presentations on building sustainability into design practice and management, and hear Richard Buchanan (the guy who really got design thinking connected to wicked problems) talk about the broadening of design from what he calls the first and second orders of design into the third and fourth orders of design. I ran a workshop introducing design practitioners to Harman’s Fan; I gave a paper about why design thinking isn’t ‘the answer’ and asked if it has yet to reframe the question. And still, stuff got in the way. Stuff that I increasingly sense hangs over the potential of these two disciplines when they get together. Here are a few thoughts:

Trust me, I’m a designer. Believe me, I’m a futurist.

In the design and foresight domains many people have deeply-held beliefs about their respective knowledge, skills and expectations, and about what their ‘customers’ and users want. It seems there’s a lot of what either group might consider unchallengeable facts.

Like a common belief that ‘the future’ is an indisputable fact, there is common belief that ‘good design’ is always ‘sustainable’ or equal to ‘sustainable design’. This belief often assumes that ‘good design’ and ‘sustainable design’ are understood and valued, and are unchallengeable facts that then frame thinking about the future.

Bias and assumptions? Who me?

Bias affects how we think about uncertain and complex events, and can limit opportunities for inquiry, learning and understanding. People rely on their mental models and world views, and fall back on the cognitive barriers that have always supported them. So yes, there is a need to guard against the bias of preconceived ideas – but this is as true for the futurist as it is for the designer, design thinker or human who wears neither label.

A premise of design thinking is to gain the input of diverse stakeholders and foster divergent thinking so that new and different potential pathways for addressing a particular problem can be considered (along with the longer-term consequences of different options). This doesn’t mean that participants in a design thinking process are without strong normative preferences, nor that these preferences are easily discarded, or should be discarded. But bias and preferences can determine that a particular pathway is accepted as the right or only way to go.

And I’ve got a great idea for…

So often, what is labelled and sold as design is a nice creative solution to a problem that hasn’t been defined, let alone addressed in that solution. And so too a foresight process can support ideas aligned with particular interests or outcomes.

The good, the bad and the…ethical?

Many disciplines are undergoing change and facing ethical challenges. Design is one – and foresight is arguably not exempt from this phenomenon. After all, both disciplines are implicated in the imagining, generating and materialisation of much of the world we live in and the worlds we anticipate. Design as a mode of thinking has been instrumental in forging new human relations and connecting human to non-human, non-sentient, non-living and mediated objects, environments and technologies, affecting behaviour, culture and outcomes. Foresight too enables this crossover in theory, thought and practice.

If the designer is an ethical subject implicated in modifications to natural environments, then so too is the futurist. Is there such a thing as ethical practice? Who defines it? And how? What constitutes ethical practice in design or futures work? And who decides? What is good or right is not a clear material judgement or manifestation. If design and foresight are indeed ‘friends with benefits’ then one of the contributions of exploring their relationship is that it may offer up ways to consider new and emerging modes of ethical practice and even practical ethics.

Tags:  design  foresight  futurist 

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