Using technology for the benefit of humanity

On 13th October 2019, my interview with Mariana Espírito Santo was published in ECO magazine. This is a transcript of that article, translated into English from the original Portuguese.

A new economy is “using technology for the benefit of humanity”, says Rudy de Waele

Rudy de Waele says that one of the trends we are going to watch for is companies giving back to society and communities, without feeling the progress in their pocket.

Recessions, climate change, personalised medicine. What awaits us in the future? Thinking about these issues is the work of Rudy de Waele, futurist and strategist who works with global brands like Louis Vuitton, Microsoft and BMW. But to look forward, it is also necessary to analyse the present. And Rudy de Waele says that one of the problems will be that, despite progress, most people do not reap the rewards.

With the growing dominance of certain companies, namely technological ones, a way of giving back to society will have to be found. This is already happening, Rudy points out to ECO. It may come from supervisors and regulatory agents, but also from the companies themselves.

In Portugal for a conference on the future of health, HINTT 2019, Rudy also spoke about how the speed of innovation is much faster than the speed at which people can learn, which will create difficulties in regulating new technologies in the sector.

What does a futurist do?

We do a lot of research, we are connected to a network of futurists, we exchange opinions. We work hard with intuition. With our experience, we make predictions. There are many ideas that come to us that may seem good but take ten years to materialise. Futurism is not just about predicting what will happen but creating awareness. We didn’t spend enough time on that part. People are focused on solving problems, but in a very specific way, and with technology everything is connected, so we need to think more holistically. It becomes more important, the new type of design will arrive from there.

You work with companies in various sectors, from Coca-Cola to Google, to the World Bank. What are the main fears of companies?

Now there is a lot of uncertainty, because of the economy. The 2008 financial crash has not yet been digested, they are recovering but there are many fears that something worse will happen. The global political scenario does not look very promising either, it is very unilateral. Technology, namely “disruption”, also creates a lot of uncertainty because the big companies that are using technology become more powerful.

The top ten companies in the world are technological and all make money from data. Here in Europe, we don’t have a lot of data – we work with a lot of American companies, the data is sent over there and they make money from our data. There is something systematically wrong, so we need to rethink the basis of what we are doing and building.

We have financial, economic, political and social problems. Although we have made progress over the past two and three decades, we do not see it. Where is the money? It goes to a place where people don’t see it. We are going to have chaos and uncertainty before we can establish where we are going.

“We are reaching a new type of domination and concentration of power that we have not seen before.”

In this domain of technological companies, the taxation of these businesses has been increasingly discussed. Is this the way?

Taxes have never been a good driver for the economy, we know that historically. But technology companies have become so dominant. Before, companies were dominant in one sector, but technology companies are now entering the health sector and other areas.

We are reaching a new type of domination and concentration of power that we have not seen before. These companies have global power, they are powerful in all countries. We have to find ways to compensate in some way for what is going on, and if there is too much automation a lot of people will lose their jobs, it will have to be compensated. Society cannot be the victim of this if only a small group in the company benefits.

There are many things that are happening that used to be the responsibility of society and the government. For example, with technology and science, we will live to 142 years on average, in 50 years it will be even later. Older people still manage to work. We have these changes in a society that are the responsibility of the government, and the government does not talk about it or is not concerned – it will create problems for us.

We have to think about the problems with the help of companies and find a way to compensate. On the other hand, companies do their part too. Two weeks ago, for example, several American companies came together and wanted to change the principle of the company’s profit objectives to build a healthier society. After seeing the first years of this imbalance, we will see in the next decade how we will be able to find balance again.

We just had elections in Portugal. How do new governments influence the forecasts and measures applied in the future?

I see that everywhere, not only in Portugal, we have a lack of leadership, especially in governments. Milton Friedman said the best that companies can give society is profit. People were focused on making a profit. Governments do not make a lot of money, so all the best jobs are developed in private companies.

All knowledge and intelligence are in private companies. Private companies need to be more aware and more responsible for society. Governments are struggling with a big vision, they are listening to big private companies and financiers, which creates an imbalance and is not a good way to create a healthy society. We need to reassess the values ​​that we have as human beings and a community.

What traditional habits will not change with technology?

The things that are not going to change are what make people happy. Going to a bar or restaurant with friends. Travelling, although there may be a change in the way we travel, due to climate change. What makes people happy is not going to change.

Work habits and how we work can change, how we can connect personal values ​​to what we do at work, and how we can be happy at work. More and more people are exhausted, statistics suggest that 50% of people who work are depressed or burn out, and it is because they do not focus on what makes them happy.

If we focus on these things again, I think we are going to create a new economy, where we can use technology for the benefit of humanity and not just for the benefit of the system that we created, which focuses on profit.

“I am asked about the power of China and the United States, but I think in Europe we have the greatest power of the future.”

Climate change is now a hot topic around the world. How will it influence future development?

The world is waking up. There was an inquiry in some European countries and 21% of people said that they flew less because of Greta [Thunberg] and because they are more aware of the damage they do. The European Commission is already implementing measures on diesel cars and the use of plastic, for example.

People ask me about the power of China and the USA, but I think in Europe we have the greatest power of the future. Europe is better positioned for the future because we have the best values. We have good philosophies, people who care about each other and the European Commission turns that into laws and regulations.

In China and the USA, the systems are not sustainable, they will be destroyed. We have a very healthy approach in Europe. This influence will grow and we will see the change, and Europe will be the first place where we will see it.

You came to Portugal to discuss the future of health. What will be the next big innovations in the sector?

Genetics, genomics. Synthetic biology, because we can now edit the human genome, which means that we can cut human diseases in a cell. What does that mean for the future? Are we going to create perfect babies, as the Nazis wanted? What does it mean on an ethical level? Are we creating a super race, defined first by people who have money, who will then dominate, because they will be perfect? Will they dominate the people who are not perfect?

There are so many different ethical issues, and we are not prepared for that. Because the speed of innovation is much faster than the speed at which we can grasp these things on a mental level. Even after understanding, how can we put these things in the legislation? There is a great need to address these innovations urgently. Since innovation can come from unregulated sources, they can come from the heads of people who have bad intentions.

The second innovation in health is nanotechnology. With this, we will be able to cure and detect diseases much faster than we ever have. For example, there is already a device that can detect if you have lung cancer with only the chemicals present in your breath. We can swallow pills with nanotechnology that can communicate what is happening in the stomach. We will have a lot of innovation in the next two to three decades, especially in the health sector, it is one of the most innovative sectors.

With all these ethical issues, how is the use of this technology regulated? Is it the responsibility of the Government or companies?

A good dialogue between the Government and private companies is essential. If it has to do with health, whether the person gives the rights to a company to improve their health is a personal decision. If there is a good dialogue between the two, it must come from both. As the CEO of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology said, it has to do with the ecosystem, who is present in it. Creating a dialogue around you is essential for progress and regulation.

The new technology developed in healthcare comes with costs that only those with more assets will be able to pay, in the beginning. Will this create more inequalities in access to health care?

If we don’t change our values ​​it will be like this. If we believe that there is the 1% and the 99% it will happen. Good communication and vision that we are here together on the same planet, that’s the system that we have to believe in so that it doesn’t happen. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past few decades. We emerged from two world wars and we managed to create a tremendous health system for everyone out of nowhere.

So I am very positive about humanity. We launched the atomic bomb and we still managed to find regulations and a good balance. Use a negative element to create a positive result.

There are more and more apps to control health, and even the new Apple Watch already has a function that allows you to take an electrocardiogram. This is the trend of the future, will people become their own doctors?

If you look at startups in the field like Oscar and Lemonade, startups that use personal data for new models, this is the future. The new generation has a very different mindset about personal responsibility, to stay healthy and measure data to pay less than someone who doesn’t want to take responsibility, it is a choice.

It is a difficult ethical issue because, for many diseases, it is not known how they are or where they come from, bad behaviour or addictions. We know that some diseases originate from certain behaviours, if we take responsibility by not smoking or eating healthy, then we should pay less. The mindset will grow with the new generation and new technology.

“When we stop investing in the future, we have to be ready for the most dramatic surprises. We must continue to invest.”

With increasing use, antibiotics are starting to stop working. How will it be resolved?

This is a good example of what happens when you stop innovating. For many years, the health sector has been investing in research into bacteria and more for antibiotics, and in the past two to three decades they have stopped investing because they thought they had solved the problem. But the bacterias are more resistant and now antibiotics are barely working. So we have to reinvest.

The lesson of innovation is to continue to invest, to never stop innovating and to move forward. A living organism, nature, is constantly evolving. When we stop investing in the future, we have to be ready for the most dramatic surprises. We must continue to invest.

What hinders the development of health technology?

One of the problems is that pharmaceuticals become too powerful and stop investing and innovating, they just sit on the throne, which is never a good thing. One of the reactions that we see in several communities, which is already happening, is that in many communities, people are against drugs and prefer a preventive type of medicine. They begin to take better care of the body, like personalised medicine, the more they know about the body the better they can take care of themselves. These people no longer need pills.

The health and medicine sector will be more about preventive and personalised medicine, but we will still have health care for heavier diseases, it is very useful to have good care. If you know the genetics, the type, you can see how sensitive you are to a certain type of disease so you can bet more on prevention.

More and more people are becoming vegetarian or vegan. Will this have an influence on health care?

I became a vegan two years ago and it changed my life completely. I am much more dynamic, resistant to many things and I feel healthier. Not polluting the body with bad fats or sugars is a way to get healthier. The younger generation becomes vegan or vegetarian because of health and climate change.

It will have a big impact. In the UK, one in three young people has become vegetarian or vegan, which is a huge step forward. We will have more empathy for each other and for other beings on the planet. It may seem spiritual but I believe that this is the way to go, because the other way is not sustainable.

What are the risks of advances in technology?

The risk [of advances in technology] is to become robots. It is not about robots taking our jobs, which many people fear. This is a good thing because the robots are doing are mainly routine tasks, which are jobs that we don’t like to do anyway. It is not perfecting us as humanity.

The bad thing is that people start to behave like robots, we start to react to mobile phones and notifications, we only react to outputs from the outside world, we don’t think any longer what makes us happy. There is more to life than just the cell phone, to be aware that there is more to life than just work. We can change that, the belief that we have to work hard to have a good life. 

You can live a good life with less if you change your thinking system.

 

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