As the world teeters at the tipping point of irrevocable change, it’s good to know that great minds are wrestling with strategies and concepts that might ensure our future after all.


The last 30 – 40 years has been a period of unprecedented achievement, and if this trend continues we are heading for a world unrecognisable by today’s standards, says Dr Ian Goldin, Director of the Oxford-based James Martin 21st Century School, founded in 2005.

Scholars, philosophers and practitioners across a wide range of disciplines collaborate at the school to formulate new policies, concepts and technologies that aim to make the world a better place. Various institutes are dedicated to tackling the issues associated with such heavy-weight topics as environmental change, the future of humanity, armed conflict, cancer therapy, emerging infections, stem cell research and ageing. At a time when prophets of doom are saying it’s already too late and that we don’t have a future, it’s refreshing to hear an optimistic voice. Dr Goldin is hopeful that we will live up to our potential and find new and better ways to cope with life’s challenges.

Since the 1970s life expectancy has increased by 20 years and illiteracy has been halved. Take almost any indicator other than climate change, he says, and you’ll see overall growth and improvement: ‘However boring you might find my presentation, you can take comfort from the knowledge that in the hour you have sat here listening to me your life expectancy has increased by 10 minutes!’ he assured his audience at an open lecture at UCT on Monday 10 March.

Goldin does concede that extraordinary developments in technology and other fields mask a growing inequality between those who can access the latest advances, and those who can not. One of the big questions to address in future will be how to ensure that innovation doesn’t only serve the select few who can afford to make use of it but benefits the masses.

With the deluge of information (currently, more is being produced each year than in the whole of human history) combined with technology that will take education to the world’s most remote corners, we are going to see an explosion of genius in regions like ours. But with the potential for transformation comes the potential for self-destruction. Individuals now have the power to access information that could annihilate. With each invention, ethical debates become more complex.

‘The question is: are we getting any wiser?’ asks Goldin. We live in a time of enormous opportunity but equally, in a time of great risk. ‘Humanity is at the crossroads. Are we going to work things out in a way that benefits everyone, or are we going to blow ourselves up?’

The areas the worry him the most are global warming, pandemics (historically, bigger killers than war), biorisk and human modification.

Global monitoring organisations tend to arise in response to crisis, Goldin suggests, which means that their thinking quickly becomes outdated and ineffective. It’s a tragedy that we don’t spend more time thinking about the future, he says, and exploring the right way to respond to it, given the fact that it has an essentially unpredictable nature.

Things seldom work out the way you think they will; consider what could/should have happened in South Africa as a result of apartheid, and the transformation that actually occurred. South Africans must remember that they already have changed their future, and can do so again to adapt to the strange new world we face.


Read about the 21st Century School at:


Categories: BLOG: On my mind

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