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World Future Society Conference

Over a week ago I went back-to-back first to the AlwaysOn Innovation Summit (AO2003) then to the yearly conference of the World Future Society (Oddly enough, they took down the conference web page already, which makes it really tough to link to any particular session).

I would have preferred to have at least a month in between the two, but it gives me the chance to compare one with the other. I wrote about the Too Much On at the AlwaysOn?, therefore this post is mainly about the WFS conference.

The World Future Society was founded in 1966. My guess is they were riding the wave of the promises of NASA space travel as well as “The Jetsons” cartoons on TV. These promises of flying cars and towns on the ocean floor never materialized and that also deflated the field of future study. People just lost interest.

With the acceleration of change in the last few years, my feeling is that the interest in the future and what it has in store for us is on the rise. But my perspective may be a bit biased; after all I am running a Futurist Salon and am helping to organize the first Accelerated Change Conference at Stanford in September.

Future Studies is a wide field and that reflects in the World Future Society. Members reach from the progressives moderns, for them more technology is the solution to all of our problems, to environmentalists that see doomsday scenarios just around the corner. The most famous of these is “The Limits to Growth” report of the Club of Rome.

Matthew R. Simmons revisited that report in 2000. His sad conclusion: “As the 20th century came to an end, wind and solar collectively only created one-tenth of 1% of renewable electricity in the U.S. What this means, in simple arithmetic, is that the two “promising new energy techniques,” heralded to hold such promise when The Limits to Growth was first published, still account for only 1000th of 1% of U.S. electricity generation! To say that no progress was made in this taxing energy issue since The Limits to Growth first hit the bookstands is a colossal understatement.”

Looking back, I realize that this is one of the charms of the World Future Society Conference – the huge spectrum of ideas and viewpoints offered there. I very much enjoyed the chance to sit in a session called “The Chaplains of Tomorrow: Universal Quality Enhancers” Not being a native speaker I didn’t even know what a Chaplain was, Charlie Chaplin is the closest I ever got to this word before. After 10 minutes I understood that it is not for me right now and moved on.

It is a big cafeteria system, where you pick and choose from a dozen parallel sessions. You can go through the event without ever getting your viewpoint challenged may it be doom or utopia. But I am a firm believer that the real interesting stuff happens at the fringes, when different fields come together.

This is the strength of the World Future Society Conference and they should put a stake into the ground and claim: “Here is the one time in the year where all these disciplines come together”. You only have to look at the column headers of the schedule at a glance to see that this is true: Business, Economics, Environment, Futures, Globalization, Governance, Health, Learning/Education, Science/Technology, Society, Values.

With a few well-selected panels (and there were too many of these at the AO2003), one could very nicely bring the different viewpoints to the forefront and create a fruitful dialog. It would be great to enhance that dialog with additional channels, like a conference Wiki or chat. Maybe the organizers should talk to the Socialtext folks that were running these things at the AO2003.

Looking at the session topics of the upcoming TechEd in Las Vegas or Basel, I think it would do us good to add some sessions that go beyond just SAP Technology. I got hopeful discovering Globalization as one of the topics, but behind it are only a BW workshop and a Unicode@SAP lecture.

How about dedicating 2% of all sessions to future trends, social and political implications of technology? If I am not mistaken we had almost 200 educational sessions last year, so 3-4 of these could cover such themes as: Future of Work, Digital Divide, Future of Democracy, Transparent Society, …

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