Does Irishness give us an edge in an automated world?

An English futurologist believes Irish people have the attributes to thrive in a digital world

 

Irish people’s DNA gives us an advantage in dealing with the upheaval of the ongoing digital revolution because of our humanity and connectedness, according to Mark Stevenson, author, entrepreneur and so-called futurologist.

As many industries struggle to grapple with innovations in artificial intelligence and workforce automation, Stevenson believes Ireland will prosper in adapting to machine intelligence because of our “much deeper understanding of the connected world and a uniquely human way of thinking about things”.

In a world where automation will eliminate millions of jobs, Stevenson says employers will desperately need things that machines can’t do, such as collaboration and system thinking.

“That’s an area where Ireland has a number of excellent strengths,” says Stevenson. “The Irish are very good at teamwork, laughing at themselves, making mistakes and moving on and being empathetic.

“Certainly, the conversations I have had with Irish chief executives have had a different tone and much more awareness of the man on the street than you would have in most other countries.”

To back up his argument, Stevenson cites Ireland’s top ranking in the first ever Good Country Index, a survey that rates ranks countries by combining 35 separate indicators from the United Nations, the World Bank and other international institutions.

Ireland is the best country in the world because it has made the greatest contributions to humanity and the planet, according to the inaugural 2014 survey. Ireland beat off Finland, which claimed second spot, while the UK came seventh and the US trailed in at 21st.

Stevenson, who will be speaking at this year’s Irish Times Innovation Awards on October 11th at Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin, advises corporations and organisations such as the GSMA, the global trade body for mobile network operators. He also sits on the boards of the Civilised Bank, an ethical lender; and Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge, an initiative designed to award sustainable ways of removing greenhouse gases from the air.

Stevenson (46), who was born in Derbyshire, got into futurology by chance – via stand-up comedy. Like Irish funny man Dara Ó Briain, he liked to focus on more cerebral “geekish” humour involving algorithms and astrophysics.

“I spent years doing the comedy circuit in the UK doing gigs about pharmacology, quantum physics and philosophy, and that taught me the vital communication skills and got me a book deal,” he said. “Everyone started calling me a futurist at events but I never called myself that and would call myself a reluctant futurist.”

The future of banking

His first book, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, was internationally acclaimed and translated into 12 languages.

Stevenson believes there are two industries underpinning the world economy that desperately need to change: energy and financial services.

“Both of those industries have grown up in a particular way, both have a particular culture and it’s now massively out of date and no longer fit for purpose,” he says.

Stevenson advises Civilised Bank, a new lender that only received a green light from UK regulators in May, to start taking deposits. It wants to return to a more traditional model of banking by using local community representatives with access to the latest technology.

He helps the bank to look at new technologies in the context of how you make society “more humane, just, equitable and sustainable”.

For all of his future-gazing, Stevenson is unsure of what the bank of the future might look like, but he does think it will be a lot smaller thanks to new transactional technologies such as Blockchain.

“The current banks will be the equivalent of Blockbuster,” he said. “The introduction of Blockchain removes a lot of jobs from the sector, which is a good thing because banks are predicated on being trusted third parties and most people say they don’t trusts banks and they are full of untrustworthy things called people who are motivated by the wrong things.”

Stevenson likes to practise what he preaches and is now working to set up a new type of primary “school for the future” in Brighton. “The fact that most kids think learning is a chore is a staggering and systemic failure,” he said. “Our teachers will be curators of learning strategies,” said Stevenson, who is still working on the model.

No political inclinations

He has been approached by “several political parties” to work with them in a post-Brexit and post-Trump environment, although he keeps telling them he thinks a political party is “a ridiculous idea”. He is guarded on contentious issues such as the scrapping of Trident and Jeremy Corbyn’s nationalisation polices because he doesn’t know enough about them.

His latest book, We Do Things Differently, traverses the world – from Brazilian favelas to high-tech Boston – to find the advance guard reimagining our future.

In Rio’s favelas, he found a system of participatory governance, where citizens work together on projects and spend the government’s money, rather than the government spending it for them. “The scheme is even making politicians popular,” he says.

On his journey Stevenson met innovators from different backgrounds, including poor farmers, software geeks, some of the world’s highest-ranking scientists, eccentric cranks in sheds, a nightclub owner turned head teacher and an international basketball ace turned engineer.

Ever the optimist, Stevenson believes that this oddball collection of innovators can transform the way we organise our societies for a better future.

“The future is just a mirror and we are looking into that mirror right now,” he says. “And if you look into that mirror and don’t see a world of sustainability, compassion, humanity and justice – then why are we getting up in the morning?

“These are all things people agree with after a few pints of Guinness on a Friday night in the pub, but we need to be addressing them on a Monday morning as well.”

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