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Social Entrepreneurs – Fashion or Future?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s eighth post in our Emerging Fellows program continues to explore social entrepreneurs. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Previously we have discussed the potential of social entrepreneurship to make a shift in social values and to address wicked problems through social innovation. What changes in public and private sectors are needed for social entrepreneurship to become future-proof in the capitalistic world?

Government is starting to play an enabling role in the development of the sector. Initiatives like social enterprise strategies, social procurement or social impact investment start to reshape institutional and cultural frameworks of the past. Procuring services from a social enterprise or from a traditional vendor might make no difference in terms of the services received. But it does make a difference for people from disadvantaged groups who get the job or for those from vulnerable groups who benefit from the redistributed profit. Yet, a significant maturity of legislation is still required to better define this sector and to help other players understand what a social enterprise is and what it is not.

Another legislative change needed is about the behaviour that gets incentivised. What if governments would support businesses which are driven not by the desire to maximise profit, but which put community first? This step might seem counterintuitive in the market economy, but it turns out that a government operating based on the principles of commons already exists.

Municipalists, such as Barcelona en Comú – a new movement, independent from political parties – challenge the current understanding of democracy by putting the common goals of city residents in the heart of their policy-making. Despite conservative politicians initially criticising them for being naive, lacking understanding where city money comes from and even tagging them “the democratic mistake”, en Comú proved they were fit to serve the community in just a couple of years.

By focusing on the needs of the most vulnerable population, they:
•do business only with hotels that agree to pay a living wage
•create new affordable housing, many of which were previously vacant bank-owned units
•looking at extending store opening hours to address economy of care – mostly female part of the population whose primary labor is caring for others
•and even launched a publicly held energy company.

According to the Mayor Ada Colau, they are “prioritising people and common objectives above any other vested interest and any other type of power”. This would not turn any enterprise in a social enterprise, but is it a good enough shake-up for businesses to realise that the rules of the game are changing?

And what about businesses? Here as well we see emerging partnerships between corporates and social entrepreneurs. IKEA, for example, employs local artisans in vulnerable communities around the world. Through limited edition collections handcrafted by women from these communities, the company attempts to tackle social challenges: alleviate poverty, empower women and integrate refugees into a new to them society. They call it “business for good, for everyone”. PR or an active social agenda? It does not matter. Remember Erick Jantsch’s theory of social change? Once this initial change in behaviour, introduced by innovators, becomes a norm, a change in social values will follow.

And the process has started already. Australia’s GoodCompany has announced its annual rating of Top 40 Best Workplaces to Give Back. Corporates compete to get on the list by providing pro bono work, sponsorship or volunteering. Is this a natural trajectory of evolution – from maximising shareholders value (and sometimes actively doing harm) to understanding that this approach is not sustainable? Can we reach the other side of the scale, where maximising the value for the community will be essential to remain competitive? While social entrepreneurs are learning from corporations how to do business, can corporations learn from social entrepreneurs how to make business good-for-all?

© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  economics  entrepreneurship  society 

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Social entrepreneurs: Heroes on the edge

Posted By Administration, Friday, September 7, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s seventh post in our Emerging Fellows program continues to explore social entrepreneurs. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Social entrepreneurship is winning more and more hearts and minds. It is showing a potential to disrupt traditional business models. For now, it is still quite niche and will need to come a long way to be seriously considered as an evolution of capitalism. The time required for the sector to mature and the broader ecosystem to introduce mechanisms for collaboration is one reason. Yet the main cause is probably that it is just bloody hard to be a social entrepreneur.

Not only do you face all the issues that most start-ups are too familiar with – unstable cash flow, scalability, securing high product quality with limited resources – there is also an additional level of complexity: delivering on the promise to give back to the community. To make things harder, it is not enough just to be doing good – you are expected to demonstrate that your approach is working. With social impact in the heart of the business proposition, it is essential to be radically transparent about profit and how it gets distributed. For a social enterprise, earning customers’ trust is more critical than almost for anyone else: no customer wants to find out that the dollars they spent to support a social cause have sponsored someone’s luxurious vacation. And trust takes time.

On top of the challenges of these early days when social entrepreneurship is toddling its way into the big economic system, we would argue that some of the obstacles are created by the entrepreneurs themselves. The very disconformity which drives social entrepreneurs to start their own business in the first place might be doing them a disservice at a later stage. Surveys suggest that after the paramount motivation to make the difference, the key motives driving these startuppers are the need for acknowledgment and heroism. Combined with a strong attachment to a specific social issue, this might make collaboration with other entrepreneurs more difficult. Opportunities to make more impact with joint forces are being missed. This leads to the high fragmentation of the social entrepreneurship ecosystem which slows down the development of the sector.

Previously, we touched on the lessons that business can adopt from nature. Is there a recipe from the wild world which would help social entrepreneurs? Potentially, yes – the phenomenon called the edge effect. In ecology, the edge effect happens at the boundary where two ecosystems, such as forest and savannah, meet. This is the place where the most forms of life are born. By drawing on the distinct features of the two different habitats, edge effect creates the environment for unprecedented biodiversity. A lot has been said about the importance of diversity for innovation, and social innovation is not different.

Stepping out of the zone where you have full control, letting the certainty go and trusting emergence might not be easy. This is the time and space when one might get uncomfortable with the ambiguity of how the future might unfold. This space is called liminal space – the threshold where the solutions from the past are not effective anymore and the new solutions are only shaping. Despite the discomfort, with a little luck and trust this space might uncover completely new answers to an old problem – it can show the way to innovation.

To part with one’s personal ambitions in order to amplify social impact might be hard. But if we truly want to make a sustainable change, we need to move from ego- to eco-system, as Otto Scharmer puts it. We live in the time when we need not heroes but leaders. Leaders, who sense how to jump on an opportunity, able to think in systems, connect the dots and connect with people, drawing on the collective talent.

In the age of connected devices, the ability to collaborate and to come up with creative solutions is one of the key traits differentiating us from machines; it needs to be cherished. We need to shift from problem-solution matching to the recognition that many of today’s issues don’t have a known solution. Trusting a collective co-creation process can get us closer to finding what works. By going beyond the edge for more collaboration, social entrepreneurs could accelerate social innovations. This could help the whole sector more quickly to become a more serious alternative to traditional business.

Finding yourself at the edge might feel uncomfortable, but what if a step forward would give us wings?

© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  economics  entrepreneurship  society 

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Can We Reimagine Rural Areas as Equal to Cities?

Posted By Administration, Friday, July 27, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Daniel Riveong has written his fifth installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, he explores the continued fluctuations between rural and urban areas. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

While the megacities of the Global South continue to grow, the UN projects that over 3.1 billion people will live in rural areas of Asia and Africa in 2050. Rural areas have generally been synonymous with limited economic and educational opportunities, along with generally less infrastructure and connectivity with the broader world. While there are governments, organizations, and programs to assist rural areas, what is needed is not just assistance but also rethinking what it means to be rural.

How can we rethink rural areas as not “left behind” areas to be fixed, but as an equal to urban areas? Rural areas can play to their strengths and be rethought of as places of resilience, connection, and integration.

Rural areas are traditionally idealized as places of self-reliance and resilience. They grow their own food, dig their own wells, and build their own houses. However, it is no longer enough for a community to be self-sustaining. The idea of self-reliant rural communities must be reinvented for contemporary needs (like social justice, education, health, connectivity) and to meet modern challenges of globalization and climate change.

Countries must seek to balance the current divide between the rural areas and the urban centers that traditionally extract labor and resources from them. Towns and villages must be made again as beacons of self-reliance and resiliency in agriculture, education, health, and infrastructure. Technologies, such as in decentralized manufacturing to MOOCs, along with cultural shifts towards artisanal over mass-produced goods, provide opportunities for reimagining the meaning of self-reliant and resilient provinces.

Villages can also be places of connection as a space to reconnect urban people with traditional cultures and ecological experiences. Driven by the Chinese’s government push for rural revitalization, Chinese architects have been reimagining villages as places of education, specifically helping urban peoples connect with nature, with the food system, and ancient traditional cultures.

The Chinese architects have sought to make pastoral life as a source of pride, tied to locality and tradition. Organic farming to cultural centers has been set-up in places like the Lin’An Village Bamboo Ecofarm and the Bishan Project. These projects have varying degrees of success, but new experiments are still being put forward for rural revitalization.

Technology, such as augmented reality to autonomous vehicles, provide us with the tools to rethink how cities and rural areas can integrate. Virtual Reality could help bring the world’s universities, engineers, and doctors into classrooms, workshops, and clinics in rural areas. Provincial artisans and farmers could more easily sell to urban centers using autonomous drones. In China, companies like are using drones to help bring rural goods to urban markets directly.

Agricultural and AV technologies may radically alter the borders between rural areas and urban centers. VR-enabled telecommuting and AVs would allow people living in rural areas to better connect to urban centers. It could encourage people from urban centers to move to connected, rural communities. At the same time, the introduction of vertical farming and community gardens in urban centers are expanding elements of rural life into urban centers.

The three potential visions of rural areas – resilience, connection, and integration – would bring both positive and negative changes to villages. The last two, connection and integration, would transform rural life and culture by inviting urban culture into their communities. Yet, if they are to go beyond neglect and depopulation, villages must seek new definitions and new visions.

© Daniel Riveong 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  society 

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Morality First, Knowledge Second?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, May 24, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s fifth post in our Emerging Fellows program explores the role of morality and manners amid disruptive technologies. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

If you have ever travelled around Vietnam, you might have noticed at the main entrance of some schools the motto, previously ubiquitous in the communist era: “Tien hoc le, hau hoc van”. The direct meaning refers to the importance to learn proper manners in human relations first, and only then start learning other things that you would normally learn at school. Loosely it can be translated as “morality comes before knowledge”. In the past, it has served as a good call for millions of Vietnamese students and really, would not hurt anyone to be reminded of it. We are wondering if this prioritisation would still be applicable to our world of rapidly growing technologies?

The past couple of months offered us some food for thought on the evolution of business ethics in the light of technological progress.

– Facebook makes money from selling our data, which it gets in exchange for letting us share this very data free of charge – is it a fair deal? While regulators are only attempting to catch up with technicalities of this business model, Facebook continues benefiting from this knowledge gap.
– The first pedestrian died from an autonomous car approved by Uber for public roads, even with a vehicle operator behind the steering wheel. Was it human complacency with an autonomous vehicle offering a relaxing ride? Did the launch of the system happen too early, rushed by the appetite for a quicker return on investments? Or was it the lack of maturity in this field that prevented good judgement on whether the system is ready for operation?

What previously was good or bad as black and white, has now shifted into a grey area.

While in these cases Facebook users and Uber testing the driverless technology might be victims of ignorance and lack of caution, some other innovations make us concerned about the way the ethics of consumers might evolve in the future in our market society. Augmented reality and cruel video games; robots and the sex industry; more generally, robots as household servants (or slaves?). One can say that whatever people choose to do in their free time is their business, but wouldn’t it be naive to assume that the change in our own morality will have no implication for society?

A further twist to these already ambiguous scenarios came out of the study on human-robot interaction conducted by researchers from MIT and Stanford. Their experiments have shown that when people work with autonomous robots and errors occur, humans tend to blame the robots rather than themselves. Interestingly, when a success occurs, we humans take the credit more frequently than giving it to the machine. In another word, our habit to shift responsibility for mistakes from ourselves to other people remains unchanged when we get to deal with autonomous tech-friends instead of our familiar colleagues.

This poses further questions on what implications this might have for ethics in a high-tech post-capitalistic world. Who will take responsibility for decisions made by a board which consists of both humans and AI? One of the first non-human board directors – VITAL – already gets to vote in board meetings together with five human directors in a venture capital firm in Hong Kong. While VITAL only takes decisions on investments, where its skills in scanning large volumes of data come in particularly handy, we can only imagine how this might play out with advancements in deep learning. Will we still be sure that the machine is acting in the company’s interests? And if reality shows the opposite, who is to blame?

How will ethical decision-making evolve in the future? Will it be something a majority demands? Something the powerful agree on? Or something that AI would recommend as the least harmful option? What is clear is that it is becoming increasingly dependent upon how much we know about technology and its implications for society. Knowledge starts to inform morality and we should challenge ourselves to stay up to speed to make sure we take decisions that meet our moral standards.

© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  Facebook  society  technology 

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Universal Basic Income: A Tool to Reimagine Human Dignity?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, May 3, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Daniel Riveong has written his third installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, he explores the possibilities of governments implementing a universal basic income. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Since the late 1990s, there has been an explosion in excitement around the idea of universal basic income (UBI). As of April 2018, there are UBI pilots underway in parts of Canada, the United States, Netherlands, Spain and other countries. While the concept was previously popular among policymakers in the 1970s, today’s interest in UBI has been driven by increasing anxiety over inequality and the threat of automation, especially among Western countries. For the Global South, UBI could be a useful tool to challenge our ideas about labor, poverty, and dignity and help us imagine alternatives.

The concept of UBI is less radical in the Global South as countries like Indonesia, El Salvador, and Brazil already has extensive conditional cash-transfer programs (CCT). Brazil, for example, is home to Bolsa Família one of the most famous conditional-cash transfers, which provides qualifying poor families cash-aide in return for school attendance. UBI differs from CCT in that is supposed to be both universal and unconditional. It is less open to political favoritism, corruption, and avoids debates over defining poverty.

For much of the Global South, the promise of UBI – rather than a bulwark against automation or inequality – is as a powerful tool to alleviate poverty. The assumption here is that the lack of income is a major source of poverty. At its most utopian, UBI is an attempt to decouple the myth that a dignified life – a life of security, health, and education – requires labor-derived income. Further, if we can decouple dignity from labor then we can also challenge the need for endless economic growth.

To spin this the other way, if dignity is not dependent on labor and an economy driven by growth then from what path? Answering this question, there are proposals for a Universal Basic Services (UBS): universal access to housing, food, healthcare, education, and efficient government services. Government policy focus on UBS could a framework for accomplishing the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which also focus on ending poverty through better access and better quality of services. Additionally, by focusing on access to services over income, it would help support the movement to shift away from GDP as the leading indicator of welling being.

For the Global South, where such access may not be as robustly supported by the government, universal access to services may be more critical than receiving an unconditional income from the government. Indeed, a set basic monthly income may pale in comparison to housing cost, where the cities of the Global South – such as Hanoi or São Paulo – rank among the most unaffordable in the world.

Together, UBI and UBS are powerful concepts that could multiply the number of possible futures. Given the correct set of larger supporting policies, these policies can encourage entrepreneurship, risk-taking, and innovation to reimagine capitalism as a tool to maximize an individual’s opportunities rather than maximize corporate growth. More powerfully, however, by asking us to disaggregate labor, income, and dignity it may help pave the creation of new post-capitalism alternatives.

© Daniel Riveong 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  society 

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What factors might prevent Peak Boomer from occurring in 2035?

Posted By Administration, Monday, March 26, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Laura Dineen has written her second installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, she questions how the effects of an impending peak boomer situation could be mitigated. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

In my previous post, we talked about our globally accelerating and ageing society, as Baby Boomers continue to flood the over 65 age group. Using the latest projections from the United Nations Population Division we estimated the year 2035 to be Peak Boomer. The point at which the ageing population’s rate of acceleration begins to diminish.

How certain can we be of the UN’s population projections and the year at which we will hit Peak Boomer? The maths behind the projections is certainly solid, and uses an accounting framework for the three major demographic components of change; mortality, fertility and immigration. But any major deviation from these estimated demographic components of change could blow the Peak Boomer projection off course.

The ageing population of today, and the Peak Boomer prediction of 2035 is determined by the high fertility levels post-WW2. Fertility since then has reduced, coupled with the likelihood that these Boomers will survive to older ages.

The first component that could affect the Peak Boomer prediction then, is mortality rates. Crude death rates (deaths per 1,000 population) have been decreasing globally from 19.1 in 1950 to its lowest point, 7.7 in 2010. However, the projections do not continue to decrease past this point and in fact are seen to be rising again. The actual figures in more developed countries have risen from 2010 to 2015 and are set to continue to do so. Why has there been a rise in mortality rates? And in particular the rise in crude death rate in high-income countries? Our ageing population may hold the answer here. With more strain being put upon societies’ health and social care systems by our growing aged population, the increased healthcare requirements alone may be enough to significantly impair the system as it stands. If we add in restrictions on funding, austerity measures and other increasing demands on healthcare provision in many jurisdictions, you get a perfect storm where the supply can’t meet the demand.

Another issue adding to the stress on the healthcare and social support system is the fact that the older population itself is ageing, with an increasing share aged 80 years or over. Driven again by the Boomer cohort, between 2030 and 2050, the global population that is aged 80 years or over is expected to rise to more than 20%, from today’s 14%. Might this pressure on the system cause a tipping point that could bring the Peak Boomer date closer than predicted? That scenario might come about more gradually but another consideration is the breakout of a new or mutated disease. Epidemics that we are ill-equipped to fight against could cause a more rapid change in population structure. Particularly as much older people are more susceptible to infection and more vulnerable to the effects of disease.

One major cause of population ageing is fertility decline. In most of the world, fertility rates have been falling since the Baby Boom, with the exception of Africa where fertility started falling from 1970. The assumption is that fertility will continue to decline, as it has since then, albeit at a slower rate. But what if there were a sudden increase in fertility? A new societal pressure to breed? A mutation or medical advances resulting in a vast increase in fertility, twins or triplets? A major political or cultural occurrence similar to what sparked the post-WW2 Baby Boom? Any significant increase in fertility over the next ten years could have an impact on the Peak Boomer prediction by changing yet again the age distribution in society and slowing down its acceleration.

The final component of demographic population change is migration. Migration between nations does nothing to change the global Peak Boomer prediction. However, there are significant differences between the rate of ageing across the populations of the world, some driven by migration, that I will be exploring further in the next article.

© Laura Dinneen 2018

Tags:  economics  generation  society 

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What are ways the Global South might redefine prosperity?

Posted By Administration, Friday, March 23, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Daniel Riveong has written his second installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, he questions the nature of prosperity. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

The stunning economic successes of Asian countries like South Korea and China have been touted as proof that economic growth is possible for all, not just Western countries. What’s implied in the celebration of their economic success is that economic growth drives prosperity, generates happiness, and raising living standards. While countries like Ethiopia seek to replicate the Asian success stories, environmental degradation, fears over job automation, and rising inequality are challenging this narrative: economic success is both now more difficult and less relevant in the face of dangerous environmental consequences.

If explosive GDP growth is no longer plausible nor desirable, where does this leave policymakers and might we measure our prosperity in new ways? Must rising living standards be rooted in Western-minded developmentalism? This question is of pressing concern to developing countries, home to 85% of humanity, over 6 billion people. If we must look beyond the West and the Asian Tigers to re-define prosperity, how might we do so? Where do we look?

The past decades have seen many attempts to look beyond GDP as a measure of a country’s prosperity and improving living standards. The most common known alternative measure of development has been from the United Nations, which developed the Human Development Index (HDI) and Sustainable Development Goals. More recently, economist Kate Raworth has proposed the “doughnut economics” framework based on addressing the challenges of Earth’s life support systems (fertile soil, stable climate, etc.) to life’s essentials (as defined by UN’s SDG).

If we shift our focus to the Global South, we can find far more radical rethinking of prosperity. At the 2018 World Government Summit, the Indonesian Minister of National Development Planning, Bambang Brodjonegoro, spoke of how SDG has been reinterpreted within Indonesia’s cultural lens. The 17 SDG goals were reframed across spiritual, environmental, and human dimensions drawing from Indonesia’s Hindu and Muslim beliefs:

• Improving People-to-God relationship (Hablum minallah)
• Improving People-to-People relationship (Hablum minannas)
• Improving People-to-Nature relationship (Hablum minal’alam)

These three relationships above called Tri Hita Karana (“Three Reasons for Prosperity”) among Indonesia’s Hindus. Such a worldview from a high-ranking government official, specifically the minister of national development planning, speaks volumes of how the narrower, Western idea of “economic growth is good” is supplemented by more culturally-specific values.

In the United Arab Emirates, we find even more ambitious, culturally-driven rethinking of prosperity with the establishment of the Ministry of Happiness. The ministry’s mission is to drive “government policy to create social good and satisfaction” and to “make the country amongst the top five happiest countries in the world by 2021.” To achieve UAE’s vision of happiness, UAE monitors metrics like divorce rates help track family cohesion and adherence to Muslim values to assess the strength of its national identity.

UAE’s interpretation of a happy society and Indonesia’s views of development challenges the traditional materialist view of prosperity. It emphasizes a culturally specific perspective of what is a successful society. Prosperity is no longer just about building gleaming skyscrapers or eliminating hunger, but can also mean flourishing cultural traditions and strong families. Indeed, the challenges of climate change, inequality, and automation throughout the world will perhaps inspire each society to rethink prosperity in more cultural and human terms.

© Daniel Riveong 2018

Tags:  economics  prosperity  society 

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Artificial Intelligence and Us

Posted By Administration, Thursday, March 22, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Monica Porteanu has written her third installment in our Emerging Fellows program. Here, she questions the effects of artificial intelligence on society. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

“Will AI take over the world?” is a common question across many news outlets these days. “Artificial Intelligence will best humans at everything by 2060, experts say,” predicts one of them. “More than 70% of US fears robots taking over our lives, survey finds,” describes another. Most of all, “how long will it take for your job to be automated?” seems to be the question on everyone’s mind. Opposing views are also present, arguing about “The great tech panic: robots won’t take all our jobs.” How do we reconcile these views into what Artificial Intelligence is and can be?

The term “Artificial Intelligence” was coined in the 1950s, intending to describe the ability of machines to perform tasks at a human intelligence level. Today, the definition encompasses more nuanced meanings, especially when considering the level of human cognition. In this regard, there seem to be four categories: (1) automation; (2) machine learning using artificial neural networks; (3) deep learning; (4) and beyond.

Automation represents a low cognitive process that is repeatable, having well-defined sequences of actions that are pre-programmed into machine behaviour. The machine is a passive executor of what is being instructed to accomplish. Its ability to complete complex computations fast and without error is superior to humans. Automation can be applied on a large scale, with numerous examples from manufacturing production lines, to, more recently, interactions with customers, such as onboarding operations. It has the most concrete social impact, as it does take away jobs as we know them today. However, it also opens the opportunity for humans to do what they are better at than machines are: empathy, critical thinking, and creativity. The key to staying ahead of automation is, as Garry Kasparov puts it, “human ambition.”

Machine learning using artificial neural networks requires a more sophisticated, yet still moderate level of cognition. The machine can mimic repeatable but personalized activities, while learning from each interaction, and utilizing increasing amounts of data. It reacts to events based on what was instructed to be accomplished. In other words, it can present a solution to a problem as posed, recommend tasks, or take simple actions. For example, it can automatically set up preferences at home, adjust ambient environment parameters based on these preferences, turn appliances on/off, or keep track of our grocery list. This stage has developed in leaps and bounds during the last decade or so, achieving results in recognition and even digitization of image, face, or speech. However, the machine still has difficulty perceiving at a level comparable to a human. Although we are still irritated by recommendations gone wrong or irrelevant comments coming from the chat box, we allow this type of artificial intelligence into our lives, without yet understanding its concrete positive and negative impacts.

The leap to deep learning is the phase that debuted only a few years ago. With big visions at the forefront, deep learning aims to build capacity for a machine to solve problems without being told how. Such machines mimic the brain, through layers of artificial neurons that connect with and send signals to each other in the network. Initial results are astounding. For example, the machine has been able to beat humans at Go, the complex ancient Chinese game, whose number of alternative positions surpasses the atoms in the universe. However, it seems we have yet to uncover what is happening inside these deep neural networks. Scientists are currently investigating adversarial examples, in which the difference between what the human and machine sees is extreme (e.g., turtle versus gun).

Beyond deep learning is yet an area for even bigger dreams in which, perhaps, machines will surpass the human brain capacity, being able to create symbol systems (e.g., language, money, time, religion, governance) and with that, structurally alter every aspect of the life as we know it.

It seems we are now somewhere during the development of the second category, machine learning, and in the early stages of the third one, deep learning.

We have been warned that “Artificial Intelligence will best humans at everything by 2060.” With the many and contradicting opinions though, one could wonder, what will human capacity be in 2060? How will our brain functions evolve, and with that, where will our creativity, empathy, ambition, and critical thinking take us?


© Monica Porteanu 2018

Tags:  artificial intelligence  machine  society 

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The Cycles of Life

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Polina Silakova‘s third post in our Emerging Fellows program explores Spiral Dynamics in the context of the ouroboros as a symbol for the cycles of life. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

Ouroboros – a snake eating its own tail. In many ancient cultures across the globe, this symbol represented the infinite cycle of renewal of life, a rebirth of the Earth, the continuous development of consciousness. We got used to the renewable nature of the world and learned how to benefit from it. Over centuries, humanity has been focusing on getting better, faster, more efficient – taking everything we do to the next level. In a search for better life, we tamed many types of energy, speed and even time, thanks to the advancements in health care. What is the driving force that makes us continuously strive for more, creating demand for overly saturated markets and often unnecessary exploitation of Earth?

Apparently, the answer may lay in Darwin’s Evolution by Natural Selection. Canadian evolutionary psychologists ran multiple experiments which demonstrated the link between the natural selection modules that help species survive in the wild and our consumption habits. Survival module, sexual selection, kin selection, and reciprocity – all these mechanisms from the jungle still exist in our casual lives and are covertly guiding our behaviour in grocery stores and shopping malls. They help us make the “safest” choices as dictated by the millions of years spent in a continuous fight for survival. Examples of this might be purchasing several flavours of the same type of food instead of one (to make sure we won’t die in the event of it being poisonous), buying things that make us look more attractive (to be selected by a sexual partner with more promising genes), or acquiring possessions that help a desirable group identify us as a part of their tribe. Eventually, we often end up with an amount of stuff far beyond what we need.

If this behaviour has been in our genes for generations, does it mean that as consumers we will always be primarily guided by these instincts? Maslow addresses this in his “Theory of Human Motivation” where he links our motivations to the needs we have in a particular point of time or stage of life. But allegedly, Maslow himself admitted that another theory does a better job of explaining the psychology of human development. In contrast to his focus on an individual, Graves’ theory of Spiral Dynamics explains the social and psychological development of a person and humanity in general.

This data-based approach to psychology charts the transformation in values and worldviews that humanity went through to the present, and the ones emerging. Initially, eight levels (later updated with additional one) represent different ways of how people think about things and respond to the world around them. They suggest that as the challenges we face change, so does our response to them, supported by the evolving consciousness. Like in a video game, upper levels, emerging in the context of new challenges, prompt different ways of thinking and worldviews that did not exist before.

No level is better than others and all of them coexist at any point in time. For simplicity, each level was assigned a colour. For this conversation, the most interesting is a shift between the two levels in the mid-upper part of the spiral: orange and green. Orange is about striving for success, competition, autonomy, working for abundance and reward. Think capitalism, Wall Street, show business or battles for “likes” in social media. Tired of the egocentric orange, following it, green is open to collaboration and inclusion. It values harmony, empathy, and sensitivity and becomes environmentally conscious. Some estimates suggest that worldwide for every person with green attributes there are about three people with orange attributes.

We also see lots of pseudo-green happening in the orange world with some companies using sustainability and CSR messages more as marketing tools, rather than being truly guided by these values. What matters is that at the end of the day, together with the actions of those genuinely concerned about the future of the planet, this might be slowing down the speed of destruction in the age of Anthropocene.

The question remains though, which will happen quicker: will we collectively break-through to the next cycle of human consciousness or cross a biophysical threshold to a point of no return? How much of our own tail have we eaten already? And do we need a disaster – a problem of the next level of complexity – to activate our next cycle of consciousness?

© Polina Silakova 2018

Tags:  economics  politics  society 

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What is Peak Boomer and when will it hit?

Posted By Administration, Thursday, February 15, 2018
Updated: Sunday, February 24, 2019

Laura Dinneen is one of our Emerging Fellows. She and our other Emerging Fellows will be posting throughout the year. Her first article discusses the Baby Boomer generation in the context of an aging society.

It’s the summer of 1946 and the Second World War has been over for a little more than nine months. American GIs have returned victorious to the United States, which is experiencing great economic growth and an ever-increasing sense of optimism amongst the many newlyweds and first home buyers living the American Dream. Fighting against the sounds of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como and Eddy Howard on the airwaves, are the wails of new-born babies screaming throughout the nation. These were the first sounds of the earliest Baby Boomers, rippling across the globe from the United States to the UK, Australia, France, the Nordics, Hungary, Ireland; and then later Canada, Japan, and Germany.

More babies were born in 1946 than in any year in United States’ records – 3.4 million, 20% more than the 2.9 million babies born just one year before. 1947 saw more births still, at 3.8 million and a birth rate of 26.6 live births per 1,000 population. This was the beginning of what’s commonly known as the Baby Boom and a generational cohort of those born after the Second World War between 1946 and 1964 – the Baby Boomers. Much has been written about the Boomers, including a wealth of research and opinion attempting to assign particular character traits and a cultural identity to the cohort. It is clear is that this generation is significant in its influence, and marked by a strong shared experience. If they weren’t involved in changing the world through the Cold War, Civil Rights Movement, Beatlemaina, fall of the Berlin Wall, and putting humans on the moon, they witnessed it changing together.

Fast forward to today where many Boomers are hitting retirement age, with the youngest aged 54 and the oldest 72 years old, and what we have is a global ageing society. Demographers have graphically described the Baby Boom generation as the pig in the python: the bulge in the population pyramids of many developed countries. That bulge is passing through the metaphorical python into retirement years and causing age distribution changes that have never been seen before. This change in age distribution is what demographers call the ageing society; a global rise in the percentage of people classified as ‘aged’ as a share of the total population.

If we keep it simple and define the ‘aged’ population as those aged 65 and over, we can start understanding how Boomers are impacting today’s ageing society. The percentage of over 65s is rising globally, from a fairly stable base of just 5% in the fifties and sixties through to 8.3% in 2015 and a projected 17% by 2055. Those are global figures. The state of the ageing population is far more drastic in key Boomer countries like the UK, Canada, USA, France, and Italy where over 65s made up 22.4% of the population in 2015 and are projected to swell to 34.1% by 2055.

The rate of this age distribution change has been rapidly increasing since 2010 when the oldest Boomers started hitting the age of 65. As Boomers continue to flood the over 65 age group, they are accelerating the rate at which the population is ageing. As the youngest Boomers enter this age group in 2029, grow older and eventually as the entire cohort begins to literally die out, this acceleration of our ageing society will begin to diminish. This is Peak Boomer.

Based on the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division’s projections, we will hit Peak Boomer in 2035, at which point the rapid growth of the aged population slows down. If this estimate is on point, it brings significant consequences for how we react and adapt to the ageing population. Is it possible for an aged society to be able to thrive, or even survive?

© Laura Dinneen, 2018

Tags:  aging  economics  society 

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