Alex SOOJUNG-KIM PANG's Interview

Alex SOOJUNG-KIM PANG, Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, United Kingdom
Mini CV

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is co-founder of the Palo Alto Strategy Studio, a futures research group located in Silicon Valley, California. He also is an Associate Fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, and a visiting scholar in Stanford’s HPST program. He spent the spring of 2011 at Microsoft Research Cambridge, working in the Socio-Digital Systems group on contemplative computing. He wanted to figure out how to design information technologies and user experiences that promote concentration and deep focused thinking.

Interview result

What futures project are you working on at the moment?Who is the sponsor?What do you like about the project and what do you think will be the usefulness of the findings?
 Currently my biggest sponsored project is with Naval First Graduate School (NFGS), in Monterey, California.This is a project on future scenarios and their application to projects rethinking global public policy and national security. NFGS have been engaged in rethinking what national security means in today’s world with a variety of non-state actors; a world in which power is exercised not simply through what political theorists call ‘hard power’ but also soft power – where the armed forces are highly capable and uniquely qualified not just at blowing stuff up, but also at doing humanitarian and relief work, for example, moving 10,000 tents at very short notice into some inhospitable part of the world. Few organisations are good at that kind of thing, and it is the sort of thing that armed forces train for. NFGS are trying to think, firstly, about what the parameters of national security are in this world. This can translate into missions for the armed services, which then raises questions for the NFGS and similar institutions about the way in which they train officers. This is the most interesting work I am doing. It is one way of approaching interesting theoretical and methodological questions regarding the utility of future scenarios, particularly those that intercept other domains of expertise and other kinds of forecasting, and is also ultimately very practical. I am working with people who have to go out and do very difficult things. This brings to prominence questions about the utility of what we do in a more immediate way than one often finds when working with government policy groups or corporations or product developers.
 Why do you call it foresight/futures studies?What are the elements?How would the sponsor use the scenario?
 It is futures work in the sense that they are trying to grapple simultaneously with the changes that have already happened which they see continuing or accelerating and being important in the future. Officer training is a long game. They take people in their early 20s and the assumption is that you are teaching people who will eventually become admirals. So you are laying the foundations for careers that will play over the course of decades. It is a kind of applied foresight in that respect. It is also explicitly futures work in that part of what we are trying to do is map the future of things like civil-military relations, nongovernment organisations, and relief work. Part of this involves thinking about the ways that civil society groups evolve, what kind of capabilities they might have, how technology will enable them to do things like rapidly organise groups who can respond to challenges or threats and how new technologies or new forms of those organisations will facilitate or accelerate those capabilities. So in those respects I think of it as futures work. The scenarios are being used in courses on reconstruction and stabilization, to give people a sense of what kind of issues they will face as leaders. They are also starting to be used by groups doing things like reconstruction exercises, such as emergency response and stabilization. Table-top exercises involve assembling the range of people involved in an emergency response and eventually playing out everyone’s roles, looking at their communication, the overlaps with responsibilities and where there are white spaces on the map. Some table-top exercises are very operationally focused, looking at how well they have been planned and how well they will hold up. They sometimes have a future element, as they can also be used to do initial testing and prototyping for a new kind of response that will be possible to deploy in the next several years – for example, once everybody has a software radio, or the mesh networks that allow more effective communication in harsh conditions or difficult terrain. iKNOW is a project on wild cards and weak signals. We loosely define a wild card as an event or situation with low perceived probability. (We use the term “perceived probability” because “well informed” people might see the probability of a particular event much higher than someone who has never researched or been interested in it. There are different ways of classifying the wild cards, typically positive vs. negative. In the iKNOW project we are primarily interested in mapping them against a simple framework, into four types of wild card. The first type will perhaps tell us that some wild event may continue to happen. So wild cards we have had in the past may continue in a similar way in the future, such as earthquakes. Environmental wild cards are typical examples, these are not very difficult to imagine. Think about, for example, airplane crashes it is another wild card but different conditions so it is not difficult to imagine. The second type of wild card is the end of a particular technology or government or a company. So discontinuity of a service or big disruption, technological disruptions bring this type of wild card. The third type of wild cards are about the reemergence of an issue that you thought had been solved, e.g. war in Europe.It is a wild card even though it has happened before because you are not expecting it now, so is an issue of expectation. The fourth is a completely new technology or new problem, something that has never happened before. In terms of complexity this is the most complex. Because you are not expecting it there is too much uncertainty.
 Can you envisage, in relation to this project or any project research you have conducted in the past, any positive or negative wild cards that may happen in the next 20 years?
 One is the impact of the very wealthy. I have followed the revival of the wealthy amateur scientist, such as Wayne Rosing.1 He is the Senior Vice President of Engineering at Google, previously Director of Engineering at Apple, and an amateur astronomer. After retiring from Google, he decided he wanted to go back to astronomy. With several billion dollars of his own money he has been building a set of standardised telescopes that can be operated remotely, and installing them on mountain tops that he has bought all over the world. Essentially, he is building an astronomical network that can operate 24/7, enabling the continuous monitoring of interesting new phenomena with instruments which are exact and interchangeable, so the same kind of readings can be obtained whether you are in Montano or Moldavia. Another example is Craig Venter,2 who was one of the people who decoded the first genome sequence. Others include Paul Allen, the Co Founder and Chief Scientist at Microsoft, and a few hedge fund managers who were physicists and now as a hobby buy time at Brookhaven and sponsor experiments. These people now have the resources and, thanks to a combination of enabling factors – the internet, cheaper instrumentation and cheaper computing – the ability to do serious science in a way that ex-scientists even a generation ago could not. We are seeing the revival of a kind of 19th century ideal of science conducted by wealthy private individuals capable of doing self-funded world class research without the confines or the need for support from government agencies or academic institutions. They are also doing some of the most spectacular work in the area of life sciences and human sciences. Craig Venter and others are applying both the money they made and the knowledge and entrepreneurial skill that they developed as CEOs, founders of companies and venture capitalists, to solving big medical-related issues. This points more generally to a sensibility, on the part of at least some of the world’s rich, that they have the resources and capability to choose a big global problem and to spend money on solving it.I have heard of a few Silicon Valley billionaires talking semi-seriously about doing geo-engineering projects, spending $750 million to put enough sulphur into the upper atmosphere to bring down global temperatures. This is a fairly remarkable development. Philanthropy as it was traditionally practised was not usually aimed at quite such a global scale. The Rockefeller Foundation efforts to eradicate malaria was the one really good example of a privately funded project with this sort of scope. But there are a growing number of super wealthy people who believe that if they have the resources and the intelligence they can simply solve the problem of access to clean water or illiteracy, etc. It is just a matter of choosing what they want to work on and spending the money and doing it. 1 id=7349 2 So far we have seen fairly benign projects, like Bill Gates’ decision to eliminate malaria in Africa or conduct massive vaccination programmes. Sooner or later, someone will decide to stop climate change. Then we enter a whole new realm of private intervention. There will be people convinced they are acting in the world’s interest, but doing so in ways that raise fundamental questions about sovereignty, about the capabilities of the wealthy to act to mobilize resources and have global impacts that put them on a par with small nations. That is a wild card that is likely to play out in good and bad ways over the next couple of decades.
 What is the most dramatic impact you see for this wild card, positive or negative? What will be the big impact on society? Who will be the big winners and big losers?

 These are individuals who are not interested in sponsoring projects that make marginal or incremental change; they want dramatic big changes. They want to cure cancer, eradicate illiteracy. So the potential winners are people who will benefit directly from these kinds of programmes. In terms of losers, number one would be if one of these people goes crazy or the project does not work out, you can imagine a James Bond supervillain as the black swan situation. The other negative impact is almost guaranteed – this will challenge the traditional parameters and powers of the nation-state. There are people capable of embarking on private foreign policy, private development policy that challenges both the power of countries and the power of existing international organisations like the UN or UNICEF or the WHO If Bill Gates is able to spend several billion dollars and cure Aids in Africa, the fact that the World Bank has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to very little good effect will call into question the utility of more conventional kinds of aid and economic development. That potentially is not a good thing. The idea that the way to solve the world’s problems is to make a small number of people fabulously wealthy and allow them to work it out is a vision that would appeal to people who have read The Fountainhead or to hardcore libertarians. But this is not a class of people to whom the other seven billion of us want to entrust the future. You already started to mention some signals related to the likelihood of such a wild card concerning the rich. The Wayne Rosen project of buying up mountain tops for astronomical observatories is one. Another is the more aggressive kind of science funding in places like the Steven Kirsch Foundation, which is conducting research on the degenerative disease that Steve Kirsch himself has. He believes he has about five years to solve the problem of what is killing him before it actually does. Physicists who have got rich on Wall Street are buying private time at Brookhaven National Laboratory,3 a physics facility on Long Island, to conduct experiments are others. In the institution-building realm you could also include the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics4 (established by Mike Lazaridis, the founder of Research in Motion, maker of the Blackberry.) He is not doing the research himself, but he had a clear vision that he wanted to create an institution that would support essentially disruptive innovation in theoretical physics. 3 4 interesting feature of the efforts of most of these people is that they tend not to be interested merely in funding work – basically giving work to programme mangers to support incremental or ordinary science. They believe they have become rich because they know how to solve problems. They see things like cancer or children’s literacy or access to water as just another problem, albeit on a massively larger scale. The assumption is: ‘I built a two billion dollar company and so I know how to solve these things’. It is a much more aggressive, outcome-oriented, entrepreneurial kind of science funding and philanthropy than we have seen with the Hewlett Foundation, which does plenty of work in children’s health but funds more normal kinds of programmes. In a way it builds on the original intent of the Macarthur foundation genius awards, to give money to people who are creative and notable in their field and assume the freedom and money would make them more creative and notable. In this case, the money is more targeted and believes itself to be smarter. An example is Craig Venter’s project, which equipped a yacht for genomic research in the South Pacific. He retraced the steps of the HMS Challenger, a Royal Navy expedition in the 1870s, which was a founding voyage of oceanography. It undertook a global tour, taking soundings and conducting ocean tidal current surveys. Venter’s project retraced the Challenger’s voyage and undertook genomic sampling of the ocean at different points. There are many such examples, which all tend to converge around big problems, large sums of money aggressively spent, and the vision of doing big, disruptive things.
 What can the European Commission do in terms of promoting particular kinds of research for a wild card like this?
There are two obvious possibilities. One is to work more formally with these kinds of people, in order to divide up the territory. Groups like the EU are good at doing essentially normal science – the kind of stuff that is not necessarily very flashy, but which builds careers and is essential for creating the knowledge from which the revolutionary stuff actually happens. We have seen a growing degree of risk aversion among science-funding agencies. A criticism levelled at the National Science Foundation is that, in their pursuit of a more quantitative results-oriented model for funding and evaluating science, they have tended to push people towards doing more cautious work. People like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Richard Branson can afford to take significant risks with a large amount of money, with the idea that if they do well they will be the person who funded this century’s Albert Einstein. So one possibility is more active collaboration to at least introduce some gentle coordination between these different types of science funding. The second possibility is to watch and see if there are things to be learnt from them about funding of science, construction of incentives that can be incorporated back into science policy and government funding. An example is the use of prizes. An interesting model is the Lunar X prize theory put together by Google,5 which others are using to do very targeted, specific, quantifiable or in various ways measurable things that could have significant scientific or technological focus and output. It is a model that can be picked up easily by more conventional science-funding agencies. 5 The tendency is to reward people – with, for example, Nobel Prizes or Fellowships for societies – for work already done, as opposed to identifying grand challenges that need to be solved. So DARPA,6 with its Grand Challenge programme, is a good early example of a conventional science agency which has adopted or co-opted a method of incentivizing and funding radical advances in high tech research, that got its start in the private sector. The term ‘sovereign wealth’ refers to extraordinary wealthy people who put their money in banks with anonymous marble facades. If you don’t know what goes on in the building you are not rich enough. In the same way, I think of the work of people like the Google founders and Venter as ‘sovereign science’. If it works out, the pay-off is very big; on the other hand, with a couple of exceptions, it tends to be carried out very quietly. I think these are two obvious lessons that conventional science agencies can learn from these people.
 If you were going to give a tabloid name for this wild card what would it be? Rich sourcing work?
 That is pretty good. Interestingly, it is made possible by some of the same tools that make outsourcing and democratization of innovation work. Billionaires are using many of the fundamental technologies that enable large crowds of amateurs devoting small amounts of time to participate in science; rather than being one of a billion people, they are one person with a billion dollars.
 What are your thoughts on the term wild card?

 I have been reading Hazel Henderson’s7 work on the various ways the term ‘wild card’ is used. My issue is that the question of whether something is a wild card is purely a matter of observer perspective. Are there phenomena in the world that can genuinely be called wild cards in a more rigorously statistical step?It seems that wild cards are often things we know about that our clients don’t – and the wildness is the function of how surprising they are to someone. I am still working on whether or when it is anything other than that. I tend to think of ‘wild card’ and ‘weak signal’ as thoroughly interchangeable.
 What are the interesting lessons from your previous work in this area where you might have used wild cards? Have you used wild cards in the past?
 I have noticed that part of what futurists do is arbitrage wild cards. For example, you talk to transhumanists, who are serious about the idea of living to be 250 years old and are doing all sorts of crazy things to make this happen. They sincerely believe that what they are doing is going to work. On the other hand, you take this to project managers at a pharmaceutical company and talk to them about it and you show it to executives of consumer goods companies. They think it is the craziest thing they have ever seen. So, like product designers or successful entrepreneurs, some of what we do involves moving knowledge across borders or between communities who normally do not talk to each other, and we generate a certain amount of surprise. Many of the wild cards I talk about with clients are wild because they are phenomena that I have observed somewhere else that I know clients are unaware of. And there is value to that activity.
 What other methods do you think we should be using to generate the next generation of wild cards and weak signals and perhaps to further advance their analysis,? Or what of the methods we are currently using should be strengthened?
Two things. First, it is possible to mine content that professional futurists or other people interested in the future are already producing in places like Twitter, Delicious and other social media. There is a lot of publicly available material. Whilst it is not very detailed, by aggregating it, we can begin to learn something about what interests the futures community as a whole and what kinds of things people are seeing that are novel and interesting. Some analysis of that would be useful. Second, it would be interesting to try to look more systematically at a package of wild cards and present them to a variety of different professional communities and try to map how wild they are in each. This would give us a better sense of whether there are certain kinds of things that people think are genuinely surprising. If you get a diverse enough group, you can begin to sift out the things that are interesting mainly because of perspective. These are interesting in the way that a wonderful building is interesting to a tourist, but not to someone who walks by it every day. Those are things that are more universally compelling.

Interviewer (Institution)

Manchester Institute of Innovation Research

Manchester Institute of Innovation Research

Innovations - new products, services and ways of making or doing things - are fundamental to business success and to economic growth and development. Manchester is one of the founding centres for the study of science, technology and innovation. The Manchester Institute of Innovation Research builds on a forty year old tradition of study in the area. More...

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