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Sunday, 4 October 2015

The sum of things

And now for what was, my final input to the FET proactive consultation:

Most people are familiar with the image of a kettle being heated over an open fire. The kettle in this image is a proven classic design whose origin is lost in time. The form of this kettle design is, the way it is, because of the requirement to be able to suspend the kettle over a fire, which, in the distant past, was how people cooked. The handle enables the metal body of the kettle to be suspended from a hook over the fire, and the spout of course provides the route by which the boiled water can be poured into another receptacle. Surprisingly though, this design survived the transition from the open fire to the cooking stove with its hot plates, and then, in the early 20th century, the transition to the electric kettle. By this stage though, the design was no longer relevant, because the source of the heat had been built into the kettle. Yet externally nothing changed. It was only in the 1980s that someone understood that this iconic design was no longer necessary, and then had the courage to propose a new design – thus the modern tower kettle was born.

A similar thing happened in the early days of the film industry. Early movies were just, in effect, filmed versions of stage plays that followed a linear chronological sequence of events, which represented the norm at the time. Yet in this case, very quickly people released that the camera liberated the script from the constraints of time and place, and that no longer was it necessary to follow a linear flow of events, and that also the camera enabled illusions that were not otherwise possible. And so it goes with literature too. For centuries people wrote novels as a linear chronological order of events, until someone, just after the Great War, wrote a novel that jumped about in a time sense, moving backward and forward, from present time to past time, and thus modernism arrived in literature.

The message of the above is clear – we are indeed creatures of habit. And what goes for kettles, films and novels, is also a summary of a large number of the inputs to the consultation on Global Systems Science – many just accept the kettle as it is and propose adjustments and refinements. A few people however have proposed radically new designs. These new designs consider: the use of art as part of the methodology; inclusion of what is called citizen science; adding behavioural (social science) aspects to the recipe; introducing time as a central element of GSS; generalising GSS towards a new way of undertaking scientific research; integrating Responsible Research and Innovation as an integrated aspect of method; moving beyond interdisciplinary thinking to encompass transdisciplinary operation in the sense of transcending the traditional organisation of knowledge; and shifting the focus away from policy towards the design of new systems.

So what is FET about? Will we stick with the kettle design as it is, or reinvent it completely? Which best captures the spirit of FET? Which is higher risk? Which is more visionary? Which is more likely to lead to transformational impacts and the much talked about disruptive effects? At this challenging point in Europe’s long history, what does Europe most need – an old design that is no longer necessary or a new one that can contribute to the making of a different future?

By way of a footnote, I add to what I originally wrote, by saying that the tale of the kettle is a metaphor for Horizon 2020 and explains why this is just innovation nonsense, and why all accounts of it being anything else are just the equivalent to saying that the emperor is wearing a fine suit of clothes. Normally such words are uttered by sycophantic people who have a vested interest in saying such stupid things.

This sets the scene for that which appears in the coming weeks …

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