The future of…A conversation with Mark Stevenson

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This post is by Fatima Khuzen, who is a spatial and service designer and Flow intern. She interviewed Mark Stevenson, who was the co-founder of Flow.

Working on the Future Views project has been an interesting amalgamation of answering questions that the project poses about my personal future along with using the same tools to introspect on my own curiosities about future thinking and creativity.

A few weeks back I had a conversation with futurologist and entrepreneur Mark Stevenson, which was a result of this confluence of interests. On my way to meet with Mark, I recollect having a clear idea of what I wanted to talk about; The Future of Making, digging into where technology was taking us, and how it might enable or disable us. Who or What were the most important drivers of change and what roles and attitudes would this future need.

By the end of my conversation I left with two things, both of which were not entirely what I had in mind, but were just what I needed to reframe the way we look at our futures.

First, Mark has a fiercely positive lens that he chooses to look at the future through. With all my questions loaded with cynicism, I had no choice but to eventually shove it out of the conversation. It wasn’t about leaving out the issues we potentially face in the future, but more about how to get past that and see what we need to do.

Second, as I naïvely attempted to tie in aspects of technology, politics, economics, environment and social futures with the future of making, I ended up with short conversations about each of them, rich with ideas and knowledge that this post cannot possibly do justice to. So this post is now better described as the ‘The Future of….(various things)’. What this gave me was a hint that perhaps thinking about the future cannot be linear, or at least shouldn’t be. And that we couldn’t start thinking about the future of something without first having a bird’s eye view of various parameters and the narrative of humanity in our sight lines.

The rest of this post goes through short bursts of this conversation with Mark Stevenson, looking at ‘The Future of….’

Excerpt 1: A ‘Better Future’

Introducing himself, Mark explained that he looks at the Future professionally, and was interested in looking at the ‘narrative of humanity’. Referencing a book by Patrick McCray, Mark said that “Culture has become non-participatory, we need to flip that around”. Then we can grow, and grow to influence as well. Whatever we need to do, we need to do it together.

As a Futures thinker Mark’s interests and expertise manifest in a plethora of work including public speaking, TV talk shows, books and play scripts.

As I listened to Mark tell me about his work, at the back of my mind I was thinking about all the organisations, politicians, products and campaigns that had their own versions of ‘better futures’ and how each one of them promised to deliver it. I wanted to know from someone that invests so much time thinking about the future, what his idea of a ‘better’ future was. With no hesitation I had the response “a future that is more sustainable, equal, humane, compassionate and just”. The clarity of vision was refreshing especially when the question about what is ‘better’ has been interpreted and made complex, by so much that we see on the media today.

Excerpt 2: The Arts

After talking about the overall vision for the future, I dove straight in to who builds it. If the future needs to be sustainable, equal, humane, compassionate and just, where is the best place to start? Where are the strongest drivers for change?

The Arts, Mark explained was what we needed, in his opinion. Using the tools of artists to tell the truths about our issues in an unperturbed way. To solve problems of economics, environment and and other issues by thinking like an artist. The arts have a way of thinking that can ask the big questions and see beauty in things, the ability to empathise, to look and identify patterns across multi disciplinary formats and form unlikely collaborations to solve those problems.

So when I later asked what kind of roles and attitudes the future needed, artists exemplified them. A way of thinking like artists, as much as the hard and soft skills of the various Arts. The skills of an ‘artist’ to approach systems thinking in a compassionate and creative way.

Excerpt 3: Constant Change

I had an evident dose of cynicism when I turned the conversation towards technology, making and consumption. Mark calmly replied to my queries saying “everybody hates technology till it stops sucking”. Mark’s opinion on technology and the changes it proposes was that, it isn’t new, we have always had issues embracing new technology. The key perhaps is in how it should be used and understood. After some thoughts exchanged on autonomous cars, human error and some statistics of road accidents compared to terrorist deaths, I noted that the possibilities of how technology might enable us to build a better future were just as strong compared to the dystopian issues many like myself assume. “Constant change is constant challenge, and constant challenge is constant happiness” Mark said.

“What about the future of making”, I asked. Mark responded saying, its perhaps more relevant to rephrase it as ‘the act of making yourself’, which is vastly different from mass production and factories. The ‘act of making yourself’ has memory, value and a relevance that surpasses mass production. Referencing the ‘Virgin Earth’ project that he was a part of, Mark continued to explain his thoughts on making and consumption. It is interesting that we talk about making, consumption, waste and pollution, because if you look at nature there is no concept of waste except in humans. Nature has incredible growth but no concept of waste or capitalism. Nature recycles everything. Perhaps there in lies some clues to dig into when we reflect of our own methods of production, consumption and disposal.

Excerpt 4: Wealth

The conversations about making and consumption, got me itching about wealth and value. What is the future of wealth and value? As ‘consumers’ or ‘makers’ where do we fit in? In Mark’s opinion wealth and value boils down to a shortage of resources and who controls it. Wealth and value these days is really about power and influence, people accumulate wealth till they are super rich and once at that point they start getting into things like philanthropy to assert new models of powers. The internalization of energy grids is going to be the next trend on the topic of wealth and value in his opinion.

He asserts that we need to work towards participatory democracies, and nations that embrace this first will go further.

Excerpt 5: An optimist’s tour

On his book ‘An optimist’s tour of the Future’, I asked Mark who it was aimed at?

The book is aimed at people who usually don’t pick up such books, its to open up the world of the future to people that would usually shy away or be intimidated by it. It’s about opening up the conversation and making it palatable.

Why is it specifically an optimist’s tour?

Most people’s views of the future tend to be dystopian because it is more popular and it makes for more interesting stories. Just like news, it’s about the exceptions. News about things that are going alright or smooth sailing isn’t interesting enough, but that is not to say that our reality should be based on it. In fact, Mark believes that we are progressing in many ways. Violence, even though it may seem absurd given the current crisis that shrouds our media, has gone down over the years. He references the book ‘The better angels of our Nature’ by Steven Pinker that looks at how violence has decreased, if we look at how bad the world was in the past rather than only looking at what the world is coming to now.

As Mark continued explaining his positive approach to looking at the future, I noted in my notebook that troubles and challenges are a right of passage in some ways but definitely not the over encompassing nature of our reality today. This is not to undermine in any way the problems we need to solve, but rather to envelope them with the right frame of mind.

Excerpt 6: Our Spaces

Being a spatial designer myself, as I drew towards the tail end of my conversation with Mark, I couldn’t resist but get his view on Future of our spaces and where we lived.

The most important things about spaces is that they should be able to engineer serendipity – we need to create spaces that are a brothel for ideas. Where creative minds can collide, interact and bring ideas together. I was satisfied with that opinion and in full agreement.

London for example, he expressed was filled with potential for a space like that. Being a melting pot of cultures, oddly it makes it an environment where its difficult to be racist, sexist or xenophobic. It offers the potential instead for people to collide, share and create.

I then asked him what projects he felt would inspire me to think about better futures in a fresh light, to which he first responded saying that he felt there was still a gap with people trying to think and work towards an open and participatory future, but then went on to list  The Almanac of the Future, Escape the city and Atlas of the Future among few others.

Excerpt 7: The future belongs to the optimists

While I was wrapping up thinking about consumerism, making, technology or our spaces I slipped in the question about capitalism. Capitalism is a tool in a box, its ambivalent replied Mark. I seemed evidently dissatisfied with the answer, I was hoping for a more sided opinion, but I don’t think I was going to get one. Instead Mark suggested I go look up the 8 rules/principles of a group he founded called the League of Pragmatic Optimists (LOPO), telling me that he believed that the Future belongs to the Optimists.

 

 

 

 

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