Nov 07, 2014
As one of the contributors to the Hieroglyph anthology, I was invited down to the White House in early October 2014 to talk about optimistic futures
The Hieroglyph anthology has certainly had legs. It brought a whole bunch of us authors and the editors to the White House to talk to the Office of Science and Technology Policy about how to engage a new generation of young people to go into the science and engineering professions.
Below is a photo of us taken by Ruth Wylie on October 2, 2014. Left to right are myself, Kathleen Ann Goonan, Edd Finn, Elizabeth Bear, Kevin Bankston, Kathryn Cramer, Vandana Singh, Ted Chiang, Madeline Ashby, Lee Konstantinou, and Neal Stephenson.
We also discussed other issues, particularly the future of governance and how to manage thorny issues such as climate change. My own story in the anthology, "Degrees of Freedom," is all about governance, so I was in my element.
This is where science fiction and strategic foresight meet for me--in events like this one. Oddly enough, this is not the first time I've participated in such a hybrid event; much of my history with foresight for the Canadian government and army has involved using my talents as an SF writer to both filter and refine ideas that come from foresight. I did my Masters thesis on how to employ storytelling methods to communicate foresight findings.
This visit to Washington was the capstone to a season of travels and adventures that took me to San Jose in August (for the Cognitive Computing forum), to UCLA in September (for the Digital Cash conference), and most recently to Phoenix for the World Bank's Evoke project. I'm now happily settling in at home to work on a new novel, but hopefully this is just a hiatus and I can get out to more speaking gigs soon.
Jan 16, 2014
Wearing my foresight hat, I've contributed to an article on open source biotech in this new book
A couple of years ago I contributed to a paper, "Open Source Biotechnology Platforms for Global Health and Development: Two Case Studies," whose other authors are Hassan Masum, Myra Khan and Abdallah S. Daar. The subject was open source models for drug discovery and alternatives to standard patent processes. The paper has now been published in the book Open Development: Networked Innovations in International Development (available from various sources, for instance here on Amazon).
Open development is closely related to ideas of collective intelligence (and I contributed to a book on that a couple of years ago) and to radical innovations like Bitcoin and the redesigning of democracy that I discuss in my Hieroglyph contribution. But in this case, it's the nitty-gritty details that matter rather than the grand sweep of exciting ideas. What are the open-source alternatives to traditional patents, and how do they operate? How can open-source ideas be practically applied to the problem of discovering new treatments, particularly for "orphaned" diseases that the big pharmaceutical companies find difficult to address? Open Development is a book for those who're interested in the details of how we can make a collaborative civilization work. As such it's important and timely, and I'm proud to have contributed to it if only in a minor way.
May 04, 2013
This position will let me use all my futures-related skills and experience
This summer I'll be joining the international strategy and innovation firm, Idea Couture, as Senior Foresight Strategist. If you have no idea what foresight is, head on over to my foresight page to find out. In a nutshell, though, I'll be helping some major corporations and organizations develop innovations and strategies around innovation, by presenting analyses and visions of the future beyond the next fiscal year-end.
This work isn't like the grandiose visionary prophecies of the classic futurist pundit--I'm not playing Toffler or Hermann Kahn here. My job won't be to rave about flying cars and jet-packs to the clientelle. Foresight's grown up a bit in the past twenty years or so. My role will be to provide inputs to particular stages of the strategic planning process. If that doesn't sound as exciting as science fiction, well, I happen to have another outlet for my visionary side: namely, writing SF! There's some overlap, as I'm a professional out-of-box thinker in both cases. But I've long been looking for a role where I can apply more rigorous approaches to the future to real-world problems. I can write stories in which humanity's solved the problem of global warming (or the looming food problem, or desertification etc.); or I can directly contribute, in some small way, to building that sustainable future. Or, I hope, I can do both.
I'll be joined in the Toronto office of IC by Jayar La Fontaine, a foresighter with a solid background in science and philosophy. Once the team is rounded out, this summer, we'll support the IC team in finding new solutions, and maybe we'll even innovate in the foresight space itself. It promises to be fun.
And, no, I will not be doing this instead of writing. Expect a new novel from me early next year, and more to come.
Apr 16, 2013
These will be taking place at Toronto Public Library branches in April; details below
Starting this week I'll be doing several talks and speed-forecasting exercises around the city of Toronto, to help Toronto Public Library celebrate Keep Toronto Reading 2013. Everybody's invited to come out and to participate. These are going to be short, focused sessions--an hour on average--so we won't have time for long debates or in-depth analyses. However, one thing I'll be hoping to do is an exercise I call 'speed forecasting.'
Scenario-based forecasting is a foresight methodology that goes back to the RAND Corporation and Hermann Kahn, the man who inspired the character of Dr. Strangelove. Generally, scenario design is a meticulous process that takes months and involves a research phase, consultations and often several rounds of workshops convened for experts in the field being analyzed.
We're going to do the whole thing in a half an hour.
While we'll be leaving the smoking wreckage of a decades-old methodology in our wake, I guarantee you we'll have fun and it'll be an interesting glimpse into the future. So, come on out on one of the following dates and places, and join in!
April 18, 2013: Spadina Road Branch
When: 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Where: 10 Spadina Road, Toronto
April 22: Pape Branch
When: 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.
Where: 701 Pape Avenue, Toronto
April 30: St. Lawrence Branch
When: 7:00 to 8:00 p.m.
Where: 171 Front Street East, Toronto
Oct 16, 2012
I'll be on a panel on this subject Nov. 7
My editor, David Hartwell, and Elizabeth Bear and I will be talking about the future of SF at the annual New York Library Association conference, which is being held in Saratoga Springs, NY. This is pretty timely as there's a fair amount of buzz on the subject lately, mostly touched off by Paul Kincaid's review of several Year's Best story collections; I've put in my two cents about that already.
So I've talked about rolling up our sleeves and reinjecting energy into the genre; but what does that look like? Well, for starters, it looks like Hieroglyph, which I'm part of. The Hieroglyph project is looking for new symbols of a viable future. If you imagine all our existing glyphs--the rocket ship, the robot, the flying car--as crusted and plastered over with decades of associations and past interpretations, then it seems really hard to see the excitement that once lay under all that cruft. (The quintessential example for me is Star Trek, where the first series was about the adventure of space exploration, and the subsequent series deteriorated into sentimental tales about managerial team-building in a variety of idealized office buildings called Enterprise, Deep Space Nine etc. Where's the excitement in that?) So what can we create now that has the same mythic dimension to it, the same instantly recognizable impact, as the finned rocket ship, or the metal man? Hieroglyph is about consciously crafting such new mythic symbols.
As an ironic counterpoint to that, one of my long-term projects has been to show how, without invoking any new science or technology, we can still invent entirely new science fictional settings, places so gobsmackingly cool that any number of novels and stories could be set there without exhausting them. (I'm talking of course about Virga, and my forthcoming Lockstep.) The idea here is that we are so far from exhausting the wonder in what we already have that it's hardly even necessary to invoke new tech or science to create fantastical and unheard-of visions. I've proven this with the worlds of Permanence and Sun of Suns; I'm about to do it again with Lockstep. There's nothing wrong with a new hieroglyph, but what we already have is amazing enough, if we get off our fat asses and use our imaginations a bit.
Partly, though, the future of SF has to do with reinventing the future itself. After getting a degree in foresight and practicing futurism for a few years now, I can see how the vision of the future of SF really has diverged from the projections made by professional futurists. Science fiction's future is no longer our future. But it could be.
So this is what we'll be talking about on the 7th in Saratoga Springs. And it's also what I'll be twittering about for the next while--and, most importantly, my next stories and novel are going to explore some new directions. Look to this space, and those. It's coming.
Apr 09, 2012
--And references my work for the Canadian military
Over at io9, Andrew Liptak has written a well-considered article about the national differences in military-oriented science fiction--contrasting American SF with Canadian, British and other nations' takes on the future (or lack thereof) of war. He extensively references my 2005 short novel Crisis in Zefra, which I wrote for the Canadian military. Zefra has been widely read and commented on; it was even excerpted in Harper's magazine. Liptak praises Zefra for presenting something different from the American perspective on war, by describing a multi-stakeholder peace-keeping mission without any of the 'winner takes all' characteristics of U.S. triumphalism.
To say that I'm ambivalent about war would be a huge understatement; I come from a Mennonite background, after all (you do the math). Nonetheless, while my attitudes definitely played into Zefra, the document is ultimately a reflection of Canadian military doctrine and forward thinking.
Yes, we think differently up here; and we wage war differently, too.