Archive for the 'society' Category

nudging in the dark

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

toilet_fly_03-blogWhat if the choices you make serve society’s and your best interests? And what if our environment more or less implicitly steers our choices to achieve this? That is what nudging is all about. Nudges alter the environment and ways in which we make choices about our daily life. Nudges are not about prohibiting certain choices, but about subtly changing the way we assess the choices at our disposal to ultimately make decisions that are in line with our own values and beliefs, and maybe even society’s best interests. As such, nudges are a small push in the right direction. But what is the right direction anyway?

The classic image of a perfectly autonomous and free person making purely rational and therefore economically optimal choices has long been abandoned by policy makers and think tanks worldwide. People make economically suboptimal choices all the time, for example concerning our health and the environment. And we’re good at it too. If the homo economicus is no longer the dominant frame in policy making, the question is what views of behavior, choice and free will have replaced it. To discover this we zoom in on the phenomenon of nudging in this blogpost. Whilst we witness the upswing of the so called governmental Nudge Units globally, we ask ourselves what nudging is actually all about? What do these nudge units do? In what ways do their nudges (aim to) influence our behavior? And if nudges guide us towards socially desirable behavior, what does socially desirable mean? Who determines this? And how far can the government go to stimulate it?


small thoughts on big data

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Big dbanksy-mural-blogata continues to create a buzz while it promises to solve a lot of society’s contemporary problems and more. There are useful websites for companies and people wanting to cash in on big data, like The Guardian’s Data Store weblog, but it is harder to find critical accounts of big data. Big data is often thought to enable us answering big questions, but it raises big questions too. So what are some of the implications of big data for society? What decisive choices, for example about our privacy, does big data evoke?

In a Dutch radio interview the scope and implications of big data for society were addressed by a few experts on the topic. Some dazzling numbers were coined. According to Wil van der Aalst, professor of informatics at the Eindhoven University of Technology, we’ve collected more data worldwide than from prehistorical times up till 2003 in the past ten minutes. Mankind has produced 90% of the available data worldwide in just the last two years. So that’s how big data is these days.


falling in love with an intelligent ‘non-being’

Friday, May 2nd, 2014

Her-blogImagine falling in love with your computer. Or, to state it more precisely: your computer’s operating system.
In the movie Herdirected by Spike Jonze, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) does exactly that. [Spoiler alert]
When installing the OS on his computer, Theodore chooses it to be female and also pushes the OS to give itself a name, Samantha. The love between Theodore and Samantha indicates the start of something new for both of them, as Samantha – in fact a true tabula rasa – starts to learn about the world, at the same time programming herself and while Theodore starts to be discover that he is able to develop warm feelings for a operating system. Samantha is able to to develop and experience new feelings and emotions because of her (or: its) interactions with a human being. Her beautifully shows that discovering emotions that you did not know you were able to feel is one of the most interesting things about being in love, even if that means being in love with an inanimate ‘entity’ such as an OS.
As Theodore and Samantha fall in love, they unavoidably discover each other’s physical shortcomings and limitations too. Samantha has no body, no face, no physical form, except a voice (by Scarlett Johanssson). She tries to be human, but when she introduces a third woman into their relationship to physically satisfy Theodore’s needs, things go terribly wrong. Can we have sex with an OS through a human proxy? It seems hard. At his turn, Theodore carries with him the burden of a broken, unresolved relationship. He runs in to a wall of ignorance when he tells his former wife that he is dating an OS and she accuses him of being not able to cope with real world (‘human’) emotions. It makes him doubt the future potential of his relationship with Samantha. Will it ever become socially acceptable to have a relationship with an operating system? And is a relationship with an OS inherently inferior to a human-human relationship?
Theodore becomes  suspicious about where Samantha ‘is hanging out’ when he fails to call her via his ear plug, the sole means of communication on which their relationship depends. Imagine the panic overwhelming you if your fiancee (read: OS) suddenly doesn’t appear on your screen anymore. Where will you go? And how will we cope with loss and pain if our other half is immortal but elusive? Theodore finds out that Samantha is at the same time having a relationship with hundreds of other people. And when Theodore thinks they are talking intimately, Samantha is talking to thousands of other users at the same time. Instead of unconsciously ignoring passers by on the streets of Los Angeles, Theodore suddenly sees dozens of people being solely busy with ‘their’ OS via their ear plug and authentically looking ‘smartphone’. It raises the question how we as humans cope with feelings of jealousy, anxiety and guilt in case a OS is ‘cheating’ on us? But what does it mean that a OS is ‘cheating’ on you anyway? And how will love relationships between OS’ and humans change the ways in which humans mutually interact and love one another?
Her succeeds in implicitly raising intriguing questions about the future of love and relationships between humans but even more about love relationships between humans and ‘non-human’, yet intelligent entities. When Samantha breaks up with Theodore in the end, the question is raised how we as humans are supposed to deal with the consequences of computers’ abilities to learn and develop independently. If robots become genuinely artificially intelligent and outsmart us in time, will we still be attractive love partners for them? And will we be able to come to terms with our own mortality and physical limitations? Or will we technologically enhance ourselves to the level where we are able to meet the artificial intelligence’s demanding standards? In the end, its continuous learning capacity which enables us to fall in love with them (because it makes them responsive to our needs, funny, empathetic, curious, attentive, …), could render ourselves unattractive/obsolete for the entity itself, simply because they outsmart us in the end. It is exactly this tragedy that makes Her movie well worth seeing.

zooming in on (in)equality in the Netherlands

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

InequalityEarlier we discussed the rather depressing effects large income inequality can have on modern day societies. The yearly WRR-lecture raised some interesting questions on the topic of (in)equality. While for years the Dutch have been praised as a textbook example of equality in articles and reports, when we take a closer look at domestic (in)equalities in income, wealth and health a different picture arises. Increasingly the Dutch aura of equality is becoming a subject of analysis, for example by Ewald Engelen and the WRR itself, considering the report the WRR will issue in 2014 about how much (in)equality societies can sustain.


why equal societies do better

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

InequalityIn recent years rising inequality in contemporary societies has increasingly grasped the public’s eye. In the yearly WRR-lecture, professor emeritus Richard Wilkinson gave his view on the subject, mainly based on his well-known book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. The bottom line of Wilkinson’s argument is that economically speaking, unequal societies perform worse on numerous social indicators, like health, trust, participation, happiness, crime, social mobility and education. More income inequality, seems to imply more social problems, it seems. But how does this work?


Grexit, brexit, dexit …

Saturday, November 9th, 2013

ausfahrtWhile over the past few years much of the public’s attention was drawn to a ‘Grexit‘ scenario, some are pointing at Germany as the country which exit might benefit the Eurozone’s economic prospects. In an enlightening episode of Tegenlicht (partly in Dutch) more light was shed on this proposal initially coined by George Soros last September in the New York Review of Books. In his opinion a German exit (aka ‘Dexit’) would benefit the remaining Eurozone countries and through this the European Union.

This poses not one, but a series of interesting “What if … ?” questions regarding the future.


thirst for sobriety

Sunday, April 22nd, 2012

In times when losses caused by excesses become evident, the thirst for increased sobriety (as in: simple, no frills) peaks.

As such, references to ‘the new normal’ have appeared ubiquitously and with increasing frequency during peaks of the ongoing economic and financial crisis. Gradually the term has been picked up by many ‘leaders’ across the globe as the embodiment of the need for business (and politics) to adapt to new times, with new systemic laws, new equilibria, new codes of conduct, etc.

Outwageous‘ golden handshakes, boardroom benefits, management bonuses, etc. are under public attack. Yet not only monetary instances of inflation increasingly attract criticism, also the widening gap between consumption value and meaningfulness for example, as well as boundless branding without proof of substance. The ‘new normal’ and the whole notion of what is ‘normal’ and how we value it, shows itself in a myriad of ways.

Nerds become rockstars, rockstars ‘show off’ with their lack of eccentricities and prime ministers travel economy class. Fashionistas celebrate craftsmanship, timeless quality without the glitter, a single color sweater of top-of-the-line pure wool is the ultimate cool. Boring to some, enviably stylish to others. In fact, some have already started calling boring the new cool. Two years ago, James Ward even organized a packed conference entitled “Boring 2010”. The tranquility of boredom creates time … time to discover things anew as well as new things. Yet again, sobriety can mean more than ‘boring’. It may just as well refer to a profound craving for substance, for meaning or simplicity lost.

According to various branding agencies, in the next few years we are likely to witness a strong increase in the amount of plain products (e.g. Muji±0 etc.) and packaging, (near)logo-less brand building; products and services speaking for themselves, their qualities as well as their weaknesses without layers of deceiptful make-up.

Products, services, behaviors … Already we see bike design gaining more attention and attract a more loyal following than that of many cars. Along similar lines of this quest for meaningfulness and qualities of life, slow lifestyle alternatives – related but not limited to slow food – are making headway as they remind people to question assumptions about life in the fast lane.

In a way ‘sobriety’ also implies the reappreciation of the small big valuable things in life, all of which can be ‘created’ and experienced, few of which can be bought, since their value often escapes the narrow definition of value as celebrated by consumption society as we (used to) know it. Not the reset of value to a forgotten baseline but a transformation of the systems of value and the meanings they deal with, is what characterizes and propels the thirst for sobriety to new heights.

Image: painting by Giorgio Morandi


drones away

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Drones are everywhere. Although UAV’s (unmanned aerial vehicles) have been around for quite some time (some dating back to WW I), as miniaturization and general technology advances they are turning up everywhere. Drones are operated by the military, law enforcement agencies, environmentalists & activists, journalists, geographers, grassroots organizations, farmers,  hobbyists, but alas also criminal organizations.
Privacy advocates are worried about civil liberties, psychologists worry about the difference between fighter pilot and drone-pilot decisions, about a contextual & emotional disconnect, … yet relief organizations, construction companies etc. also see major opportunities. Technology is neutral, yet how we develop and employ it obviously is not.

a travel guide to planet earth

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

On August 2nd 2011, Dutch philosopher, editor in chief and journalist-commentator of NRCNext Rob Wijnberg published a tongue in cheek column entitled “A travel guide to Planet Earth” in the dutch daily: NRC Handelsblad. The same article was entitled “Lonely Planet” on NRCNext. In concordance with his statement on Planet Earth’s Media – i.e. earthlings blogging on whatever they read in newspapers – I hereby ‘blog’ his column (in translation) on ‘a thousand tomorrows’:

Planet Earth is located in one of the most isolated corners of the galaxy. Earthlings are known as hospitable, except to strangers. Please read this guide carefully before departure.

Journey: Between two and four million light years. Consider a jet lag.

Climate: The best time to visit Earth would be between 2011 and 2100. After that the tropical season will start.

Currency: The main currency on Earth is debt, a fictional currency based on which earthlings manage to maintain their non-existing wealth. Debts are the only currency in the universe that are being reproduced in case there are too many of.

Geography: Earthlings have divided their planet randomly into 196 countries. Free travel is permitted, unless you’re poor, hungry, or on the run.

Politics: There are two political movements on Earth: Left and Right. Left hugs terrorists, right breeds terrorists. Terrorists themselves are lonely lunatics who have lost their sense of reality.

Religion: There are two religions on Earth: Islam and anti-Islam. Muslims believe that all people are equal, except gay men, women and non-Muslims. Anti-Muslims believe that all people are equal, which makes them superior.

Points of interest: Earthlings were known for their cultural traditions, until the multiculturalists helped to kill the culture. The last bit was retrenched in order to save banks. The only remaining attraction is the Nationaal Historisch Museum in the Netherlands, which has on show a model of the Nationaal Historisch Museum.

Media: Most earthlings get their information from the so-called ‘Internet’. The Internet is a gathering place for bloggers who write about what they have read in the newspapers that day. In the newspapers of the next day, pieces of what’s been said on the internet are being published. In addition,  on Earth every year a thousand books on how the Internet causes people to read less and less are being published.

Hotspots: Greece is the place to be because of low prices. Expect a high credit card bill after returning home. The United States were supposed to be closed by now, but will remain opened until the end of the season –  (check for opening. Who wishes to visit Belgium will need to hurry.

Although Wijnberg mainly reflects on a future inspired by the present and currently ongoing events, he chose a format not unlike that often employed by futurists to shake people out of their perspective and look at the world through the eyes of a timetraveller or someone coming back from a long journey after 20, 30, … years time. The column shows how ‘distancing’ in either space or time is a powerful perspective-changing tool stimulating critical reflection.

big data & big cities

Monday, June 13th, 2011

The McKinsey Global Institute has recently published a report on Big Data , defined as “datasets whose size is beyond the ability of typical database software tools to capture, store, manage and analyze”. The authors expect that big data will play a significant role in having/letting businesses and governments operate in a more efficient and qualitative way, which, amongst others, should effectuate a more thorough relation between companies, institutions and consumers/the public, leading to innovation and economic growth. At the same time researchers emphasize the complexity of the interpretation of big data: new analytic software and specialized analysts would be needed.

One may well call Geoffrey West, physicist and former president of the SantaFe Institute such a specialist. Via reasoning inspired by metabolic processes West is developing quantitative, analytic, mathemitizable, predictive frameworks in order to understand how cities – complex social systems – work exactly. One of his findings is that, unlike other physical and biological processes cities do become more efficient: the bigger the city, the (exponentially) higher its production and wages. In cities, more patents are produced, they are more innovative …

Based on these findings the growth of cities is a positive trend. From the point of view of sustainability also major advantages of living in a city can be discerned. The impact smaller towns have on the environment are relatively high. Based on this understanding the Chinese government had hundreds of thousands of people move from the rural Ordos plains to the newly buit Ordos City. In “City vs Country: The concrete jungle is greener” Shanta Barley gives some more examples of why densification of cities should be supported:

  • The carbon footprint of inhabitants becomes lower
  • The scale of waste generation becomes substantial enough to be an efficient and economical resource for energy production
  • It helps decreasing overpopulation since urban women have better access to family planning and birth control, often have better employment opportunities and have their first child later.

How would these insights and examples contribute to the ongoing debates on sustainability? One could argue that these developments support efficiency, no substantial change. By all means they clearly stem from a belief in or the need for technology to solve sustainability issues instead of finding new ways to bring more balance in the earth’s ecosystem (Medea vs. Gaia Hypothesis).

Exaggerating, one could say that West believes that the closer one would bring people together, the better the ideas will pop up. However, West also realizes that with the pace of growth of cities, it will be hard for human kind to keep being innovative…

See also the New York Times Magazine’s article A Physicist Solves the City and a conversation with Geoffrey West on entitled Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations and People Always Die, and Life Gets Faster .

N.E.M.O. project

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

Look at any megatrend overview and ‘migration‘ will be mentioned somewhere, somehow as a significant driver of change. The recent events in Northern Africa have made it clear once again that events of major socio-political and socio-economic change catalyze the push and pull dynamics of migration. The recurring images of sinking boats of African immigrants as they try to make it across the Mediterranean to the Italian island of Lampedusa in the past few weeks are a painful example of the challenges posed.

Félix de Montesquiou and Hugo Kaici – architecture students at the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture in Paris – decided to give architectural shape to the migration debate and a world  in which illegal trafficking of people across the channel is cast in stone. In a neat piece of design fiction, they envisioned N.E.M.O. – the Northern Europe Migrants Organisation – an organization with headquarters disguised as a WWII bunker near the port of Calais in France.  N.E.M.O. would help customers migrate illegally from Europe to the UK.

Via Dezeen

america 2049

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

April 4, 2011, was the launchdate of a new ARG (alternate reality game) entitled America 2049. The game is a 12-week episodic experience blending today’s world with a possible future world. The game fuels the debate on human rights issues linked to the thin line between the enabling aspect of certain identity-related technologies and the way in which they expose civil rights to abuse from both private and government sectors.

In America 2049, the former land of the free has degenerated into the Divided States of America, where sexuality, religion, speech and culture are all controlled and restricted. On the upside: the entire population is on a drug  that inhibits aggressive behavior called SerennAide, administered automatically through the water supply. This has led to a decrease in crime rates, an increase in the population’s happiness, and has purportedly helped people to rise above their worst impulses.

Depending on where you stand, this is either a Utopian dream or an Orwellian nightmare. And it is up to you to decide where you stand: alongside the Council for American Heritage (CAH), or with Divided We Fall (DWF).”

Behind the game stands Fuel | We power change , a creative agency focussing on the non-profit sector.

A great way to render the future tangible and use an immersive experience to explore and trigger debate on certain societal issues. Fascinating also that different cultural perspectives are embedded in the devised storylines.


play for change

Friday, April 8th, 2011

In his bestseller The Wisdom of Crowds James Surowiecki elaborates on the belief that given a certain problem or challenge, large groups of people will come up with better ideas and solutions than a small group of specialists.

Combining this principle with Bill Joy’s Law – “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else” – companies are increasingly starting to mobilize crowds in order to come to innovative ideas. According to futurist consultancy Toffler Associates (40 for the next 40) “Technologies will not be developed in-house. Successful organizations will become adept at integrating large problem-solver networks, linking “answer seekers” with “problem solvers” across the globe to rapidly harness the brainpower of international experts.” InnoCentive is good example here.

Many multinationals recently developed platforms in order to collect ideas in the field of social and environmental innovation. See for example Toyota’s Ideas for Good, Sony’s Open Planet Ideas and Pepsi’s Refresh Everything. Undoubtedly contributors will come up with many fascinating ideas, but the real challenge in solving social and environmental issues might not be to come up with a set of innovative ideas itself, but to find ways oto motivate people to act upon them. As Richard Ashcroft puts it:

“Usually what drives me is circumstance, habit and short term reward. So the trick is to find ways to rewire my habits, change my circumstances, and make the rewards pull me in ways I want to go, and not in ways that are harmful to me. “

So it’s not only about understanding a situation, but just as well about being provided with incentives to solve a problem, to overcome a ‘bad habit’, let go of a temptation or do something about one’s laziness. In order to support one’s willpower and to increase one’s karma FrogDesign developed the temptd. This app, specifically designed in order to improve personal health, aims to build a community of supporters, as well as professional coaches and trainers, to support youth at moments when they need it the most: “Temptd makes even the smallest decisions meaningful as part of a game in which ‘players’ benefit from helping each other and themselves.”

So in the future we might not need (just) the wisdom of crowds, but rather the social pressure and the competition of crowds (Bill’s Law of Joy ;-)) in order to make the world a better place?

We might, according to Jane McGonigal, need to find a way to motivate gamers – which seem to be perfectly able to effectively collaborate in order to achieve personal and communal goals – to apply their skills in the real world instead of in the virtual world. Seth Priebatsch of SCVNGR foresees that in the next decade the framework in which the motivations and how we actually influence people’s behavior is being decided upon. I’m curious what external forces might drive me in the future…

Image by MrToledano

politics & the long term

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

I guess we all often wonder why most political decision-making still seems to be informed by relatively short term thinking, 4 years ahead (end of term) or in many cases even shorter. In August 2010, Long Now member Rony Kubat, wondered the same thing. His question led to Penn Schoen Berland Research organizing a survey, polling +1000 people in the US, and +200 Washington DC ‘elites’. As could be expected, most people noted that they believe it’s necessary to look further ahead (4-24y). Yet, when asked how far ahead politicians are thinking according to them, an overwhelming amount considers them stuck in their 4y term. As one reader noticed, 4 years was the minimum they could select and probably to high a threshold even.

Yet the poll also shows something else, i.e. that in general, people don’t seem to think that it’s worthwhile to think a 100 years ahead.  We know however, that certain big, complex problems or challenges such as climate change, geopolitical/-economic powershifts, etc. affect future generations decades down the line. All too often and all too easily, one hears: “by the time effects become visible or unpleasant, technology will have evolved sufficiently to deal with it” or “people will have adapted to it” … One only needs to look back in history to see a different pattern. When the sense of urgency is not there or long term thinking is not part of one’s most basic, most grounded perspective on the world, it is hard to convince people.

When Jane Goodall said “The indigenous people used to ask ‘how does this decision affect our people seven generations ahead?'”, although she referred to the past, she reminds us of a principle lightyears ahead of most of today’s ‘leaders’. The subtle difference between knowledge and wisdom …

The thought experience of “seven generations thinking” applied to politics, policymaking and societal leadership would be worthwhile however. How would it alter political priorities, decision making in general, the very notion of leadership? How would it affect the dynamics of our society?

metropolitan agriculture

Monday, February 7th, 2011

Growing vegetables in your rooftop garden, soil+crop-leasing contracts with local farmers, vertical gardens, school gardens, … urban farming takes many forms. Amsterdam, Chennai, Detroit/Flint, Johannesburg, London, São Paolo … six cities exchanging ideas and experiences in the area of metropolitan agriculture. From 28-30 September 2010 the first Global Summit on Metropolitan Agriculture was held in Rotterdam (NL).

The event, and the learning network as such, are an initiative of TransForum (& Reos Partners), a project-cluster partially funded by BSIK money which concluded its 5 year long series of activities at the end of 2010. TransForum focussed on the sustainable development of dutch agriculture in relationship to its urbanizing context.

The MetroAg Innoversity set out with joint scenarioplanning workshops “explore the opportunities for Metropolitan Agriculture based on contextual characteristics, assets and challenges in each city”, inspired by input from stakeholder interviews within participating cities. Later on, groups were formed to incubate ideas and draft prototypes. The summit gathered experiences and insights gained and looked ahead as how to scale and create enduring projects and processes.

At the occasion of the Summit, Jan Kees Vis, programme director of Unilever’s division of Sustainable Agriculture, used three words to sketch the pillars of his image of the future: “The right to food, ethics, metropolitan agriculture”. In the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, the company commits “to source 100% of [their] agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020.”

Via Ventiquattro