It is the Best Yet Most Perilous Time to be Alive

9 September 2016

Ian Goldin boldly proclaims that now is the best time to be alive. With so many incredible advancements in technology , healthcare  and industry we are moving in leaps and bounds. With so many dizzyingly possibilities, why are we left feeling paralysed with indecision, and why is inequality sky rocketing? On average, a child born almost anywhere in the world today will grow up healthier, wealthier and more intelligent than at any other time in history, but why then are we seeing such an uneven spread of gains?

Possibilities are ready to be seized, however with intense pessimism clouding over our world, many of us are not taking advantage of them. We interviewed Ian Goldin to discuss these ideas, find out how he researched for this ground-breaking book, ask his opinion on why modern politics  are drastically behind science and how we can learn from the past to make the most of this brilliant and terrifying future.

Q: Can you explain a bit about your book Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of our New Renaissance?

Ian: The book is about navigating perspectives on the time we live in. In many respects, this is the best time to be alive. There are remarkable opportunities available, but by the same token, it is also a perilous time to be alive, and there are great risks. The gulf between the people who are able to benefit and those who are falling further and further behind is growing; inequality is rising. The book analyses this and provides practical suggestions for business, governments, and individuals as to how to how to navigate in this age of rapid change .

In periods of fast transformation and growing complexity, it is inherently more difficult to make a decision on how to prosper in the future. The book draws on previous economic  policy, the renaissance which was a period of revolutionary technologies and massive leaps in literacy and technology , and the remapping of the world. So by looking back in time we are learning lessons from the past and understanding why periods of rapid change can also be periods of incredible extremism, and working out how we can avoid the mistakes of the past.

Mirroring the past, the modern world is being remapped

Q: So that leads me on to ask you my next question, as we all know life is full of stresses, so how can we use our knowledge from the past, particularly the renaissance and the other areas of the past you studied to combat these tasks? Can you give a specific example where the past helps us tackle the future?

The final chapter of the book is about the takeaways. There are many recommendations for individuals, students, businesses  and policy makers in the final section. To give a broad overview, in order to make the most of this time we need to ensure that we can understand what is happening, appreciate trends with positivity and to ultimately be proactive, in order to not to paralyse actions. We can take control in these periods of uncertainty in order to shape our destiny.

As we can see from history, the decision of where you live is as important now as it was in the past, as there is increasing differentiation and inequality in some areas and great opportunities to prosper in other places. Geography is paramount, as the world is becoming more mountainous not flatter. By this I mean, the location of opportunities change quickly.

To give a specific example of the location of opportunity changing in the past, we can use two prominent cities of Italy. Firstly, Venice, it was at the centre of the old world, but it became disintermediated by the ports of Europe because people stopped going overland to Asia, they went by ship. In turn, this impacted Florence, as it became much more important than Venice, because it was the centre of literacy and learning, due to the printing press there.

A similar process is happening now; we can see a global rebalancing happening at the moment. Certain places in Asia are becoming much more significant in the global economy and the Pacific ports of the Americas are becoming more important for trade. So we can learn from the decline of Venice, that we need to be more flexible as a society, because otherwise in times of accelerated change we will be left behind.

Q: So we know you work for The University of Oxford, but how did this play into your research for the book, and how did you conduct the research for the book?

Ian: I am the Director of Oxford Martin School at The University of Oxford, so I was lucky enough to be able to gather the research from the frontiers of excellent knowledge. In the book I use the latest data from 300 scholars from The University of Oxford in medical sciences, physical life sciences  and humanities to help readers to understand what the challenges of disruptive technologies are. I also had access to the labs and was able to discuss complex problems with my colleagues.

I had an excellent research assistant who became my co-worker Chris Kutarna, and we employed a whole lot of other research assistants who had expertise in various areas. Moreover, I was able to draw on a lot of the doctoral student’s research.

I also benefited from travelling a lot, I have been to China over 30 times and have worked all over the world, so this has given me a wonderful ability to assimilate, and understand what makes a successful society.

Q: In a successful society, you believe that politics would be in line with science. You have previously mentioned that it isn't, why is it do you think that politics evolve at a much slower pace to businesses and science? How can we bring them in line with each other?

Science evolves because people come together to prove their predecessors wrong, and then everyone agrees with you – for example, no one would say the world is flat now. On the other hand, politics  is about perspective and behaviour, unfortunately, political motives are not based on fact, they are emotionally charged. If you were a scientist promoting facts that are incorrect, you would lose your job, but this is not the case in politics.

Also, politics moves at a slower pace, because some problems are just incredibly difficult to solve. For example; how do we overcome unemployment? We will never have a precise answer for these questions because humans are not entirely rational, so we cannot evolve at a fast and linear pace.

Q: Humans are not rational so what can you do in your personal life to ensure you are not repeating the mistakes of the past, and to ensure you are making rational decisions?

This is always a challenge. I think it is very good to be in a challenging environment; I find university environments are always testing. I also read an enormous amount from various sources, such as scientific publications – the ones that are written in language that ordinary people like me can understand!

I think curiosity and travel  are extremely important too. I believe that when you travel, you should truly immerse yourself in the culture, get out of the capital cities, get the know the locals and understand the history of a place. I have lived in 6 countries and I want to continue moving around.

Finally, it is very important to try to mix with a diverse range of people with a number of opinions, in order to develop and evolve our own ideas.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

I am stepping down as director of Oxford Martin School after 10 years this year, although I will still a senior fellow at the University. But from this month I have a year sabbatical. I am spending some time in Florence, some time in MIT, and I plan to travel around different research places in order to refresh my knowledge. I will be visiting Silicon Valley, and then I’ll be back to the UK to work on economics and disruptive technologies.

Ian has opened our minds to the age of discovery, and how we have the choice to either seize the opportunities incredible new technologies present to us, or we face this time of change with pessimism. Looking back to the past, we can have a greater idea of the future and how to shape our lives in order to prosper.

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