Good news: a research project I helped to write has been approved for funding by the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies program. The project is led by one of the scientists I admire the most, David Lane, and rests firmly in the complexity science tradition associated to the Santa Fe Institute. We intend to attack a big, fundamental problem: innovation is out of control. Humans invent to solve problems, but they end up creating new and scary ones. Which they tackle by innovating more, and the cycle repeats itself. Cars improve mobility, but they come with global warming and the urban sprawl. Hi tech agriculture mitigates food scarcity, but it also gives rise to the obesity epidemics. To quote one of our working documents:
While newly invented artifacts are designed, innovation as a process is emergent. It happens in the context of ongoing interaction between agents that attribute new meanings to existing things and highlight new needs to be satisfied by new things. This process displays a positive feedback […] and is clearly not controlled by any one agent or restricted set of agents. As a consequence, the history of innovation is ripe with stories of completely unexpected turns. Some of these turns are toxic for humanity: phenomena like global warming or the obesity epidemics can be directly traced back to innovative activities. We try to address these phenomena by innovation, but we can’t control for more unintended consequences, perhaps even more lethal, stemming from this new innovation.
We want (1) build a solid theory that concatenates design end emergence in innovation and (2) use it to forge tools that the civil society can use to prevent the nefarious consequences of technical change. It does not get any bigger! And in fact we got a stellar evaluation: 4.5 out of 5 for technical and scientific excellence and 5 out of 5 for social impact.
The project commits to building Dragon Trainer, an online community management augmentation software. The idea is to make a science of the art of “training” online communities to do useful things (like policy evaluation), just as you would train an animal too large and strong to push around. I am responsible for producing Dragon Trainer, and it is quite a responsibility.
I am superhappy, but worried too. Taxpayers foot most of the bill, and this makes it even more imperative to produce the absolutely best result we can. I will need to work very, very hard. I am seriously thinking of devoting myself to full time research for a couple of years starting in 2012. Does this make sense? What do yo think?