Fred YOUN G PHILLIPS's Interview

Fred YOUN G PHILLIPS, IC2 Institute of the University of Texas at Austin, United States
Mini CV

 Dr Phillips attended The University of Texas and Tokyo Institute of Technology, earning the Ph.D. at Texas (1978) in mathematics and management science. Dr. Phillips has been a consultant to such organizations as Intel, Texas Instruments, and Frito-Lay Inc., and has consulted worldwide on technology based regional development. He is a founder of the Austin Technology Council, and was also a Board member for the Software Association of Oregon. He is a popular op-ed columnist and panel member in forums dealing with trends in management, technology, higher education, and economic development. In addition to current appointments, he has held teaching, research, and management positions at the Universities of Aston and Birmingham in England, General Motors Research Laboratories, Market Research Corporation of America, the University of Texas at Austin, Oregon Graduate Institute of Science & Technology, SUNY Stony Brook, and Battelle-Pacific Northwest National Laboratories.

Interview result

Are you working on any research projects at the moment?
 Yes, a couple. The most relevant one is about disasters – a reaction to feeling appalled at the way that various authorities and agencies mess up after instances like Hurricane Katrina or the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Well in the Gulf of Mexico, etc., and cannot seem to cooperate with one another. I want to find out the mechanisms underlying the ability of diverse agencies in the sectors of society, i.e. private, public sector ones and NGOs, to trust each other and work together efficiently following a disaster. The frequency of disasters, or at least those visible to us through media coverage, seems to be increasing each week, e.g. an epidemic or recently a dam breaking in Hungary releasing toxic sludge, etc.
 Is that going to be country specific, with differences in the way they react and the speed at which they react?
 Yes and it involves many countries, including those involved in the recent Asian tsunami.
 What angle would you be looking at that from – best practice lessons or a country comparison, or would you just look at American responses?
 I want to look at underlying sociological phenomena and maybe the alliance literature. I want to discover what can create trust among people who do not often work together or who have career ambitions that get in the way of the effective pursuit of the goal. I want to get to the bottom of it in terms of the psychology and sociology. It is not necessarily technological, but it concerns how we should better organise in the future to organise technologies. Look at how many tries it took with various different technical devices to cap the BP oil well.
 Can you envisage any major wild cards positive or negative that may occur in the next 20 years?
There was a mix of wild cards and weak signals. I called the weak signals ‘sleepers’. Everybody probably talks about the collapse of civilization or eco collapse, so I wanted to concentrate on some other things. Mining might be a weak signal. I read a report that compared the per capita GDP of countries to a host of variables and it turns out: ‘a 24/7 Wall Street Report based on IMF data shows the countries with highest per capital GDP have not necessarily the most universities nor the most credentialed knowledge work forces but the most mineral resources’. This is a strange echo of the early industrial age 200 years ago. Advanced technology is being overshadowed by mining again. Much of this is driven by China’s hunger for raw materials. We do not hear much about the Chinese colonization of Africa, but it is a very big issue that will affect world culture and the development of Africa and the emphasis on mining. Peru is a big mining country and its economy is doing very well, but it is because of exports to China. No country can survive for the long term on extracting and exporting non-renewable resources. I am concerned that every engineering school in the developing world will be devoted exclusively to mining engineering. I am exaggerating, but that is not a bad ‘sleeper/weak signal’. They are making money on resource extraction and that depresses the motivation for innovation in other spheres of life. Much of this motivation for resource extraction is driven by high tech things. The manufacture of advanced batteries, for example, causes countries to try to wrap up the world’s lithium supply. But a lot of it is just raw energy resources and construction resources, unrelated to high technology, such as oil, gas, iron. It will cause more environmental damage. You will probably read stories, especially coming out of Indonesia, about mining-related environmental disasters. It is very hard on local populations as well – villages relocated and destroyed in mud slides etc. The whole mining phenomenon is a weak signal.
 Of all the wild cards you have mentioned how should it be addressed by future research?

 I was thinking about that in the mining context. Around 200 years ago, some of the world’s greatest applied mathematicians were coming out of the French Mining Schools. That benefited a wide range of disciplines far beyond mining engineering. Men like Mange and Fourier came out of the Ecole des Mines, and were major contributors to civilization. The mining schools are still very good, but they cannot claim to be great contributors to civilization. I cannot say whether the wheel of innovation that came out of mining schools could ever be replicated. Given that the world’s economies will be preoccupied with mining for the next couple of decades, then the scope for research is on minimizing environmental impact, minimizing adverse impacts on indigenous populations, developing more efficient and safer mining technologies. The Chilean president vowed to do many those things after rescuing the miners. There is scope for research there and focus on innovation. We know where the action is going to be, so lets accept that and build our innovation efforts around those points of action. I suppose discussion of China and this influence on mining then ties into the rise of Asia and its potential decline. China has an ageing population. There is a general assumption that these economies are rising and rising. The cover story of Foreign Policy magazine in November 2010 is ‘Old world: the greying of the planet and how it will change everything1. This is not so much a wild card, because a wild card was a surprise. We thought 15 years ago that even in the developing world the proportion of the population under 15 years of age would be huge and growing. That is not what happened and it is surprising, because usually demographic trends are predictable. There is an article in the same issue on ‘The great battery race’2. I don’t know if you would call that a wild card or weak signal, probably not quite either. But the world’s countries are competing to develop a battery that can get the equivalent of 6,000 kilowatts per gallon of gasoline. This is the next trillion dollar thing, and would have implications for the electric car market and so many other things that could be done without ready access to electrical mains. We got a trillion dollar figure with the internet in the 1980s, and now everybody wants the next trillion dollar trigger and they think it is battery technology.
 What are the weak signals that, if detected, could hint at a growing likelihood of the wild cards that you mentioned?
 The reunification of Korea. As Kim Jong-il hands over power to his young son, this could be one of these points of instability that could make things much worse or much better . As North Korea exports nuclear technologies to everybody under the sun, including Iran, this could have implications for nuclear proliferation. A regime change in Iran is not out of the question, so that could also be a wild card. Whether we have nuclear explosions in the Middle East depends to a large extent on Iran’s behaviour. 1 global_aging Phillip Longman, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the Washington Monthly, is author of The Empty Cradle. 2 battery_race?page=full
 With this new multipolar world, the touch points for forecasting future technology lie in the political and social matrix around the technology, rather than the technology itself. This is why I am talking more about politics and sociology than technology, with the exception of this battery issue. Which of the wild cards or weak signals should be given top priority in EU research?

 The ageing population is certainly one of them. On the sociology side, Angela Merkel is saying multiculturism is dead. That is quite a dangerous statement, but it could use research support. One of my wild cards was the breakdown of the Euro and the dissolution of the European Union, so how to keep research and innovation going under that circumstance would be a policy challenge. Some European countries are in a position to exploit the melting of the Arctic. That is about undersea resources, and in the Gulf of Mexico too better technologies are needed for deep water drilling, etc. So that is probably a good priority to think about. I have not discussed Russia. America seems appalled by what seems like the worst of the ‘Wild West’ regime in Russia right now; it is capitalist, without support from the rule of law. Yet America went through that same stage of gangster-based capitalism in the Al Capone years. Because of oil and gas, Russia has Western Europe wrapped around its little finger in some ways. So sociological research is needed to understand the transition from gangster capitalism to rule of law capitalism, how it works and how it could be accelerated. Russia is being depopulated and there are many Chinese people looking with interest at that Russian/Chinese border – but that is maybe not technology. I am curious why China seems content to buy Africa but not make financial offers for parts of Siberia. It might be a cultural thing, and there could be armed conflict between Russia and China, which would be a weak signal perhaps.
 What did you think about our definitions of wild cards/weak signals?Did you think the definitions we are using were accurate, because you use the term ‘sleeper’ for a weak signal?
FP: Yes quite accurate. Oliver Markley3, who was in the futures programme at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, has a paper forthcoming in Technological Forecasting and Social Change, in which he breaks down the wild card concept to several cogent and useful sub-categories.
 Are there interesting lessons from previous foresight studies that employed the wild card and weak signal approach?
The ideas of Oliver Markley (mentioned above) stand out.
 What are the best methods to identify wild cards/ weak signals?
 Talking to a variety of interdisciplinary people is the best way to do it – category A people in science and technology fields who have broad interdisciplinary vision. People with a systems background or an inclination towards systems thinking are always considering what is connected and how, and what is going to be the impact of this on that, without necessarily being constrained by the causal patterns in the prevailing theory and one academic silo.

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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