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A Knowledge Network Asking Tomorrow’s Questions

The opening years of the 21st century have already been marked by developments in technology that would have been hard to comprehend just a decade earlier. For many people, Facebook and other social media have changed their lives. The main focus has been on digital advances enabled by the internet. Yet parallel developments in biology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, virtual reality, and other fields have been equally revolutionary if less evident. And these technologies are “converging,” powered by the exponential advances in computing power symbolized by Moore’s Law, breaking down the barriers between traditional disciplines as our knowledge vastly expands and our capacity to control nature increases. Together with growing benefits for human health and well-being come threats to security and more subtle threats to our values. While those who are most optimistic about the speed of technological change may be mistaken, it is moving faster every year.

At the same time, the world is facing a series of crises. The recent disasters in Japan remind us how difficult people and their governments find it to cope when things go badly wrong, despite wealth and technology. The unfolding “Arab spring” has reminded us of the complexity of human societies, and demonstrated the impact of digital technologies in raising expectations and accelerating change. Energy, climate change, the growing impact of robotics and artificial intelligence, the prospect of “personalized medicine,” the promise and threat of synthetic biology . . . technology-related questions frame the agenda for politics, the economy, and the social order.

How do we respond?

The United States has long dominated the global technology agenda and served as the spearhead to innovation of all kinds. Yet on almost all indicators, this is no longer the most competitive or innovation-friendly economy. And perhaps the single most troubling feature of Washington, DC is the absence of serious engagement with long-term technology issues from the top of the federal policy agenda – and, alike, from the efforts of think tanks and other groups to shape that agenda. Nowhere is the short-term nature of political vision and decision-making both inside and outside government more evident than here.

C-PET is being developed to address this complex situation. Most think tanks take clear positions on issues of controversy, or have a clear ideological/partisan orientation, or some combination of the two. We put as much effort into how we think as what we think. We are a knowledge network, drawing together thinkers with wide interests and deep expertise from across the silos within which so much thinking still takes place. And while most “think tanks” focus on answers, we ask questions; indeed, our chief focus is on clarifying what the big questions are – “tomorrow’s questions.” It is as we identify, clarify and prioritize the “big questions” raised in future perspective (our rule-of-thumb is a 10-year time horizon) that we cultivate a context within which solutions can be developed. By determining to be nonpartisan and non-ideological we are not stating that we have no view. We are rather affirming our commitment to the long term, to the framing of questions as the context for answers, and to the participation of thinkers of diverse views in the conversation.

There are several reasons why we are focused on Tomorrow’s Questions. For one thing, the pace of change, which is quickening, lies beyond the grasp of most decision-makers. Think tank like other policy groups typically operate on the assumptions of a static order of things. At C-PET we know we operate in a flux in which the extraordinary changes of the past decade are mere prologue to the shifts that lie ahead of us. Secondly, America’s political traditions – both of the two main parties and the various strands within them – bear little correlation with the emerging issues that will shape the politics of tomorrow. As individuals the many people in C-PET’s network may have strong views on the deficit and foreign policy and welfare and the appropriate level of regulation for markets; but we acknowledge that a sea-change is taking place in which the salience of these and other key current issues is subject to a fundamental paradigm shift caused by technology impacts, intended or not. Third, the explosion of knowledge is leading us into a situation in which “expertise,” while crucial, will no longer play the part it has in the past in shaping choices. Wisdom to make decisions will come from inter-disciplinary groups in which networked relationships between experts shape a capacity to assess the fountain of facts and determine what matters; in which intuition and the ability to select from overwhelming quantities of data across many fields will determine understanding. So a knowledge network spanning disciplines, in which leading thinkers are teamed together, offers the context for the defining and, ultimately, resolution of the great issues that confront our generation.

At the heart of the problems faced by America lie the failure of policy leaders to take decisions in light of the issues raised by the future – what we call “Tomorrow’s Questions.” Political accountability is short-term, and as a result the dramatic impacts of exponential technological change are not properly considered as policy is set and priorities established. This impoverishes decisions across the board, since technology issues affect all areas of policy, and in the future will do so even more than today. While not every issues is about technology, the impacts of technology increasingly shape every issue. Only within the purview of energetic engagement with the significance of emerging technologies can policy choices be properly made.

The C-PET Principles

As we seek to identify, clarify, and prioritize Tomorrow’s Questions, we embrace the following working principles:

  1. Concurrent engineering of ideas: The knowledge network must span disciplines and interconnect traditional silos of expertise.
  2. Engagement of a full range of opinion: All articulate views must be round the table all the time; outlier positions are especially important to counter groupthink and ensure an open-textured context for creativity in the knowledge network in the face of very rapid and in some measure unpredictable change.
  3. A medium-to-long-term perspective: A 10-year time horizon is crucial as the context for current decisions.
  4. Core role for values: Values shape both policy and markets, so they are key to innovation and the embrace of change and the future.
  5. Global perspective: Context for every issue must be global; the United States should seek to be both lead global competitor, and lead global citizen.
  6. Positive sum outcome: We respects differences and focus on clarifying key issues, areas of consensus and areas for further discussion.