The Age of Ideas: Idea City 2013 [Part Two]

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Earlier this week I wrote about some of my experiences co-hosting the live web cast of Idea City, notably, my tete-a-tete with Bina 48 – the smart, sad, surprisingly poetic robot. The big takeaway for me from this year’s event, which focused on technology, was that this is the age of ideas. Now is the time for innovation, but also for the discussion and reflection that arises when people come up with big ideas.

From robots to economics to architecture and the environment, it seemed that the theme of the conference was thinking differently; these weren’t just ideas, they were big, crazy, fantastic, “stuff of science fiction” ideas. As tech visionary Naveen Jain put it, to succeed right now, “You don’t need to think outside of the box, you need to think in an entirely different box.” Jain, who is a founder of Singularity University and Moon Express, has an optimistic view of the future. He says that doing well and doing good are intertwined through the relationship of scarcity and abundance, explaining that the entrepreneurs of tomorrow will find great success by solving great problems. In other words – yes, maybe there will be less jobs for doctors as robots fill more and more roles in society (see Geordie Rose’s concerns in my previous post from Idea City), but the real focus with innovation is for there to be less disease, and less actual need for those doctors. It’s just a matter of shifting the way we view things.

Izhar Gafni's cardboard bike.
Izhar Gafni’s cardboard bike.

Traditional technologies adapt to the future
Case in point: Israeli inventor Izhar Gafni, who was one of the darlings of the conference with his cardboard bike. The bicycle, which costs only nine dollars to produce, has the potential to change transportation habits from the world’s most congested cities to the poorest reaches of Africa, Gafni says, by making this environmentally friendly mode of transport available to all. The bike is just the beginning, next Gafni has plans for bike attachments such as wagons, to help transport everything from books to clean water, and a cardboard wheelchair.

As we saw people talk about the possibility of bringing back the wooly mammoth and of one day lighting dark streets with glowing plants, participants were forced to question not only the great potential, but also the implications of all of these possibilities. Just because we can do something, doesn’t always mean we should – a hot debate perhaps most evident during an onstage conversation between Moses Znaimer and Cody Wilson, the inventor of the infamous 3D printed gun.

Wilson, a compelling and articulate speaker, spoke defiantly of his creation as an agent of change in a country and government greatly in need of it. And yet as much of the audience was quick to point out, while his creation may have been meant to spark dialogue, at the end of the day, it created real, functional guns. Over 100,000 copies of Wilson’s instructions for a 3D printed gun were downloaded before he was forced to remove the files from the Internet.

The (3D printed) city of the future.
The (3D printed) city of the future.

“The kids are alright”
Despite debate and controversy, the mood of the event was positive. As Don Tapscott put it, “the kids are alright,” and much of our fears when it comes to the negative implications of technology on humanity are little more than myth. Either way, it was fodder to the flames of conversation, sparking engagement and debate over issues that we need to be talking about – now.

In 20 or 30 years, when many of these inventions and innovations have come to pass, we won’t have the opportunity to decide for ourselves how we want to live with them, they will be invisible to us, embedded into the infrastructure of our lives. Right now we’re in a time of flux, a time of shift, and we can see the changes around us. This is the age of ideas, which also means the age of dialogue, conversation, reflection and creativity. Now is the time to talk about the relationship we have with technology, with reach other, and with the world around us, and that is why right now ideas are more important than ever.







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