What does the future hold for social technology?

Part of my research for Carnegie UK Trust is about trying to work out what driving forces are going to affect the way that social technology and the internet is going to evolve over the next 15 years, and what that might mean for civil society organisations that want to be a part of that landscape. We’re not trying to predict the future – I think we all know how embarrassing that can be when it doesn’t come true. Just think jetpacks and flying cars. But what we can do is try to identify the driving forces behind potential change and then put those together into possible scenarios. We can ask the question “What if…?” and get some useful information out of that exercise.

On their website, Carnegie UK Trust put it like this:

The future is uncertain. There is no single, certain forecast for ourselves, our organisations, communities, nations or for the planet as a whole. While we would like to eliminate this uncertainty, we must work to live with it effectively and creatively. Understanding trends and scenarios gives a sense of the patterns of opportunities and threats, and enhances our potential effectiveness and creativity.

While the future is uncertain and much of it beyond our control, we can control many aspects of it. We choose our future: we create it by what we do or fail to do. Visions and strategies linked to a clear sense of trends and scenarios make us better able to shape the future we would prefer.

We’re using a methodology called ‘scenarios thinking’, which focuses much more on asking questions than on trying to make forecasts, and will hopefully result in a set of scenarios that organisations can use to help them understand where we might find ourselves and, therefore, what they need to focus on in order to be able to cope with these changes. If you want to know more about scenarios thinking, Carnegie UK Trust have put together a list of useful resources.

Whilst I was in San Francisco last month, I spent some time with a number of people talking about the future, trying to find out what they thought was important to consider in this phase of the research. I went into the interviews with a list of questions that I’d like to try to answer, but with an open mind about what the answers might be. I didn’t always ask the questions directly, as you’ll hear, but I did keep them in the front of my mind at al times. Here they are for your consideration. I’d be more than happy to have feedback on them, to hear what you think about my underlying assumptions.

1. Predetermined driving forces
What forces appear to be predetermined?
What changes in the broader environment appear unavoidable?
What assumptions are these changes based upon?

2. Uncertain driving forces
What might happen over the next 15 years that would affect social technology?
If you could have any question answered about what will happen by 2025, what would it be?
How uncertain are they?
Which are becoming more certain?

3. Wildcard events
What type of unexpected developments could totally change the game?
What could undermine existing assumptions?

4. Connections and criticality
Are any of these driving forces connected?
Which are the most important?
Which small changes could have big consequences?
Which of these driving forces are critical?

It’s important to remember that the driving forces that most influence the way that social technology develops may not be technological. We’re not just talking about Moore’s Law here, but trends and developments in all sorts of areas, including:

  • Demographic
  • Economic
  • Environmental
  • Resources
  • Technological
  • Social
  • Political
  • Legal

Obviously we’re focused on the UK, but some of these forces are international or global in nature, so influences may come from anywhere.

The videos (so far)
Some of the interviewees were kind enough to let me publish our discussion, so here they are. If you want to respond to any of them, or answer my questions yourself, please do so however and wherever you wish. If you post something elsewhere, please leave a comment to let me know.

Last thing to say before the videos: apologies for the quality of some of them. James and JP were filmed whilst we were at dinner, and it was a bit dark and noise, so the video isn’t great, but they’re both quite short so hopefully you can forgive the lo-fi production standards!

James Cox

JP Rangaswami

Chris Messina

Ross Mayfield

Update: If you work in the third sector or know people who do, please also take a look at this post about a survey I’m running to find out how third sector associations are using social tools at the moment.

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