Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Back to the future: has NZ stopped looking ahead?

Four decades ago, some of New Zealand's leading thinkers were correctly predicting a future of smartphones, broadband and flatscreen HD TVs. Did we stop trying to gaze beyond the horizon? Jamie Morton reports.
Innovation commentator and Auckland University physicist Professor Shaun Hendy wants to see more academics and policymakers looking forward. Photo / File
Innovation commentator and Auckland University physicist Professor Shaun Hendy wants to see more academics and policymakers looking forward. Photo / File

The Japanese tourist clinging to the Mt Cook ice face is in serious trouble.

There's a storm moving in, he's missing a crucial board meeting back in Osaka and his Kiwi guide, three metres above him, doesn't speak a word of Japanese.

Luckily, the cutting-edge technology of "Network New Zealand" can answer his problems.

Using a 75mm-wide, satellite-connected, language-translating displayphone wrapped around his wrist, he discusses the next move with the guide.

Just as an LCD screen shows the next hour's forecast for the South Island, his displayphone beeps again: his boardroom colleagues need him to make an emergency call on some budget figures.

He casts his vote, just as the ice breaks away below, dropping him into a 300-metre crevasse.

The network can't save his life - but his bracelet's navigation chip pin-points the location of his body to within a metre for later recovery.

That scenario, imagining the far-off, high-tech world of 2010, featured in a report from 1981, when Smash Palace was playing in theatres and anti-tour protesters were storming rugby stadiums.

The 80-page discussion paper, adorned with retro title font, represented the last time our country had a real, nationally-focused effort at looking ahead.

It was authored by the Commission for the Future, a state-funded think-tank which had a colourful but short-lived existence between the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A 1979 report from the Commission of the Future looking at the future impact of microprocessors on the workforce. Image / McGuinness Institute
A 1979 report from the Commission of the Future looking at the future impact of microprocessors on the workforce. Image / McGuinness Institute

It suffered the classic fate of a messenger bearing bad news when some of its conclusions and recommendations didn't align with Muldoon's govenment of the day, and was shut down.

This was despite some of the uncanny developments it correctly predicted, among them ultrafast broadband internet networks, Full-HD flatscreen TVs and strange "pocket telephones" with video screens.

Technology would massively disrupt photographic film and print media, the commission reckoned back in the 1970s, and computing advances would transform the manufacturing, transport, communications, finance and insurance industries.

And "Network New Zealand"?

It's called the internet.

History is packed full of thinkers decades, sometimes centuries, ahead of their time.

Many of the biggest inventions and developments of the 20th century were accurately predicted by science fiction writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, among them Jules Verne and HG Wells.

A later generation - led by the likes of Arthur C Clarke, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey portended the dark powers of artificial intelligence - sensed the immense influence of the coming digital world, and its potential to accelerate the pace of change.

Around the same time, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made his famous observation, which we now know as Moore's Law, proposing the size of transistors would halve every 18 months.

From data storage to battery performance and the cost of solar cells, it's been both a source of change and a sign-post for things to come ever since.

Today, we can watch YouTube Ted Talks by visionaries like Ray Kurzweil who, along with his predecessor Verner Ving, have predicted a technological "singularity", where artificial intelligence becomes as truly intelligent as humans.

This could be a reality by the middle of the century, they say, and, given advances in computing capacity and machine learning, we may well be on track to achieve it.

The Commission of the Future was chaired by visionary academic Professor James Duncan. Photo / File
The Commission of the Future was chaired by visionary academic Professor James Duncan. Photo / File

It will mean self-drivings cars that ferry us along motorways as we sneak in a quick pre-work snooze; DNA-tailored healthcare that can tell us what faulty genes we should snip out; and a workplace where no job is safe.

Over three days next week, some of the world's brightest minds in the space will descend on Christchurch for Australasia's first exponential technology summit, hosted by Silicon Valley's Singularity University.

"We used to think of future studies as being 20, 30, 50 years out," the event's organiser and speaker Kaila Colbin says.

"But we're looking at massive, widespread technical and societal changes on a timespan of 10 years or less."

All Kiwis need to know how these shifts would transform their lives, she says, and to join the conversation.

Have we stopped looking forward?

Today, our landscape of forward-thinking is largely flat and featureless; we can point to little in the way of systematic courses, programmes or centres.

We do have hundreds of scientists and policy analysts scattered through New Zealand's research institutions and government departments, studying everything from climate change to public health to make projections for the future.

And we have endeavours like the New Zealand Centre for Educational Research's "Curriculum for the Future" and the NZ Centre of Sustainable Cities resilient urban futures programme.

But "futurists" are a rarer breed, tech commentator Peter Griffin says.

Their concern is solely trying to pick most accurately what is likely to happen in the future - for instance the pace and nature of technological chance, the risks and opportunities that this poses.

"They try to give us a handle on risk and uncertainty and flag wildcards incidents that may change everything."

The Wellington-based McGuinness Institute, which saved the commission's reports for posterity, is one rare player.

Others efforts have come and gone; the "Futurewatch" programme that sprouted by the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification in 2001 survived just four years.

"We seem to be leaving conversations about new genetic or medical technologies, artificial intelligence, and nanotechology to the rest of the world, and this worries me," Auckland University physicist and innovation commentator Professor Shaun Hendy says.

"New Zealanders might be faced with the loss of kiwi from our wilderness in a few decades; would we be prepared to release genetically modified organisms to keep wild kiwi alive on the mainland?"

"These are the sorts of conversations I'd like to see more of."

Our country feeds millions of people and affords us a high standard of living, but our golden gooses of meat and milk are set to be disrupted, driven by the desire for more nutritious, convenience and palatable foods that are less resource-intensive to produce.

Labs in the US and Europe are already working on synthetic meat and milk; what does the intersection of technology and food mean for us as producers?

The power of futures thinking

"Good futures work is more about asking the right questions rather than providing answers to what the future will be like," explains Robert Hickson, one of the country's few dedicated futures thinkers.

"Success is often about how you respond to change, so futures helps you see what may be coming, and give you time to think about the best courses of actions to take, even in the face of uncertainty."

How useful futures thinking is in today's tech-charged, fast-changing world depends upon what we looked at - and over what timeframe.

While we can predict, with a high degree of confidence, that over the next two decades most people's lives will be increasingly affected by digital technologies, we can't be as confident in saying how.

When he visited New Zealand recently, British futurist Peter Cochrane noted most innovations we'll see over next 20 years are already at some stage of development in a scientific lab.

How the Commission for the Future imagined telecommunications in the future in a 1981 report. Image / McGuinness Institute
How the Commission for the Future imagined telecommunications in the future in a 1981 report. Image / McGuinness Institute

Beyond that, it seems, we may as well make wild guesses like Star Trek's teleporters Back to the Future's microwave blow-up pizzas.

On the other hand, with more slowly changing areas, such as demographics and environmental changes, we can be more confident in forecasting over several decades.

And many of tomorrow's problems don't necessarily require tomorrow's technology to tackle today.

We can look to the long-established laws of physics to work out the varying rates of degrees by which the planet will warm this century; we can use existing data to calculate what impact an ageing population and soaring rates of obesity will have on 2050's healthcare system.

Still, Hickson expects technological evolution - although along with big social, political, economic and environmental changes - is calling for an increasing demand now for futures thinking.

"The world is undergoing a major transition, from a period of relative stability and predictability of the last half century to what appears to be a more chaotic future - combining shifts in how we power and govern our societies, changing geopolitical power balances and demographics, the emergence of more powerful technologies, and changing climate."

Our "old" way of thinking about issues, and we respond to them, was overdue a shake-up.

"Futures thinking is certainly a growth industry in many other countries, but less so here at the moment."

Hickson doesn't see funding constraints as the biggest barrier, but a mindset that urgently needs a makeover.

How the Commission for the Future imagined telecommunications in the future in a 1981 report. Image / McGuinness Institute
How the Commission for the Future imagined telecommunications in the future in a 1981 report. Image / McGuinness Institute

"Futures should be a critical part of any policy work, since both are ultimately interested in looking ahead.

"However, futures methods are usually something most policymakers and analysts are unfamiliar with - and it's difficult to add futures methods into often very short policy cycles."

There was already some training underway in Wellington to expose policy analysts to basic futures methodologies.

"The challenge will be to ensure that they are able to use them, and that futures work connects across government rather than being siloed in agencies."

McGuinness Institute founder and director Wendy McGuinness pointed elsewhere to efforts by the prime minister's chief science advisor, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, and the Royal Society of New Zealand.

"Obviously there are think tanks like ourselves doing this work too; however, we could be more integrated nationally which should help us test assumptions and not undertake repetitive work," she said.

"Integration could be something coordinated through a government initiative or organisation."

A new commission for the future?

Hendy has been vocal in advocating a new Science Commission, with a mandate for translating research into policy.

Professor Jonathan Boston, a public policy expert at Victoria University's School of Government, wants to see something similar within central government.

"Such a unit would be responsible for undertaking in-depth analyses of complex, long-term problems and provide strategic options for policy reform."

It could also be charged with evaluating the impacts of large-scale emerging technologies, and assisting the prime minister to produce periodic reports on the future.

"I'd love to see more futurists here, working together on evidence-based predictions of the future," Griffin says.

"It doesn't necessarily need to be government-driven, it is an opportunity for our research institutions - but what they produce should be compelling enough to be taken seriously by government and inform policy where appropriate.

Wendy McGuinness, founder and chief executive of the McGuinness Institute. Photo / File
Wendy McGuinness, founder and chief executive of the McGuinness Institute. Photo / File

"What is the future of small advanced nations, or of agriculture-based economies or isolated island states?

"These are the questions most relevant to us and best explored by us."

Asked if his Government should be doing more, Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce said it was tough to say how much was enough.

"If I look across the topic areas, I think we are a bit light in some [Information and communications technology] areas," he said.

"We as a country are doing well in terms of close-to-market stuff, and what I'd call applied ICT research - but I think in certain areas like machine learning and the next generation of computational speed, the sort of stuff that is stretching out seven to 10 years, I think we can do more in that space."

This was being explored through work around the National Statement of Science Investment.

While Boston expects New Zealand's small size, limited resources and modest technical capabilities will keep the country a technology "taker" rather than maker, McGuinness takes the opposite view.

"I think the size and geographic location of New Zealand has some huge advantages - it allows for agility in testing innovative solutions to potential problems," she says.

"New Zealand has a very good 'can do' culture, we are quick up-takers of new technology and like giving things a go."

Hickson agrees.

"We can continue being a contributor rather than adopter if we continue to value and support research and development, and make it attractive for researchers and firms to work here and collaborate," he says.

Even though it could appear the big changes stemmed only from labs in China, Korea and California, ideas could emerge from anywhere, and big companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook, General Electric are spending billions acquiring start-ups.

A forward-thinking cartoon from a Commission for the Future report from the early 1980s. Image / McGuinness Institute
A forward-thinking cartoon from a Commission for the Future report from the early 1980s. Image / McGuinness Institute

If we could combine innovation with a culture aimed at fixing the causes of problems, and not just their symptoms, there was no reason we couldn't foot it with the big players.

"We take great pride in Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor, the All Blacks and rowers, and companies like Xero doing well internationally," Hickson says.

"Attitude plus skill is what can make us more successful."

As the Commission for the Future argued, way back in 1981, merely reacting to innovation wasn't a constructive approach, but a defensive one.

"Anticipatory policy increases the ability of society and individuals to be in control of the future," it declared all those years ago.

"This is what we should aim for in policy making."

Five things the Muldoon-era Commission for the Future correctly predicted

1. Broadband internet: "A public broadband (probably optical fibre) digital network similar to the telephone system of today but able to provide vision as well and able to handle far more data transmission." Became reality in: 1999 (ADSL, JetStream).

2. Mobile phones: "The pocket telephone or wristwatch video screen are technically feasible in a world of micro-electronics." Became reality in: the 1990s; texting was introduced in 1998.

3. SKY TV, flatscreen TV: "[A fictional man in the future]prefers to spend some of his pension on the overseas services and now has a choice of 200 channels on his small terminal. His sons have promised to buy him a satellite receiver next year so that he can watch video in flawless colour on a wall display one metre high by two metres wide." Became reality in: 1998 (Sky digital service); 2002 (flatscreen TVs added to consumer price index)

4. TV switching to digital: "This could avert the need for separate networks for individual services and could lead to new flexibility." Became reality in: 2013 (last analog TV signals closed down).

5. Online news, e-books: "All media rapidly becoming electronic. Newsprint and photographic film can be expected to follow parchment and illuminated vellum into museums. Printed books seem certain to become very expensive." Became reality: 1998 (Herald website launches). 1990s (e-books).

- NZ Herald

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