21st Century Challenges

MIT’s Technology Review just completed a survey of 50 experts about challenges they see in this century. The result was over 9,000 words; I try to keep blogs to 1,000. I culled interviews based on what seemed most relevant to sustainability, and tightened some copy without losing content. It’s long, but less than half the original, and with some profound thoughts.

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50 grand challenges

for the 21st Century

We asked experts from the world of science and technology

to describe the societal challenges that they think

matter in 2017 and beyond.


Bryan Lufkin

MIT Technology Review

1 April 2017




Ezekiel Emanuel,

Vice Provost for Global Initiatives

Chair, Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy

University of Pennsylvania
One of the big issues will be unemployment: automation, artificial intelligence, virtual reality. It seems inevitable it’s going to create displacement of workers, i.e. unemployment. Three things give people meaning in their lives: meaningful relationships, passionate interests, and meaningful work. Meaningful work is an important element of someone’s identity.


Viktor Mayer Schonberger,

Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation,

Oxford Internet Institute
My #1 issue is not the future of democracy (or related issues such as fake news, Trump, social networking bubbles, or even cybersecurity), but the future of humanity. As we are developing more and more ways to let computers take over reasoning through adaptive learning, we are faced with an existential question:

What is it – long term – that makes us human?

It used to be doing calculus, playing Chess (or Go), flying airplanes, driving cars, having a conversation, playing Jeopardy, or cooking (to name a few). What if data-driven, learning algorithms can do all that? What’s the essence of being human – radical creativity, irrational originality, craziness and illogicality? And if so, are we then shaping our learning institutions to help humans develop and nurture exactly these skills (our competitive advantages).


Bruce Schneier,

International security technologist
The Internet of Things is giving computers the ability to affect the world in a direct physical manner. As this happens to more and more things, the particular ways in which computers fail will become the way everything fails. This means more catastrophic failures, as bugs and vulnerabilities affect every instance of a piece of software. This will completely change how we think about the risks of computerised cars, computerised appliances, computerised everything.




Nootan Bharani,

Lead Design Manager, Place Lab,

University of Chicago
A pivot from climate change to segregation. Specifically, the widening gap between wealthy and impoverished people, worldwide. Climate change is a causal factor in the increased(ing) disparity. So too are racism and classism.

Climate change exacerbates the challenges thrust upon impoverished people. The use and habitation of spaces demonstrates this clearly – the quantity, quality, and increasingly, the ability of one’s space to protect from harsher and unexpected elements.

Solutions should be structural as well as grass roots. Sound policy as well as micro-local community-based. Intentional systems got us into this pickle, and intentional systems will need to be part of the process to reach toward common vision and goals.

Scratching the surface are programmes offered by governments and utilities, to assist homeowners to weatherise their structures. Impoverished communities lack the resource/capacity to capture full use of technologies – methods already known and commonplace in sustainable new construction. The most robust and innovative energy efficiency programs are yet to benefit those that would feel the greatest impact from the captured savings.


Rochelle Kopp,

Founder, Managing Principal

Japan Intercultural Counseling
One of the biggest challenges for the 21st Century as relates to Japan and Asia, and indeed the rest of the world, is related to questions of immigration (which includes refugee issues). These have received a lot of attention in the media, but discussions are often stuck at a basic level, and governmental policies and programs are often not sufficiently addressing the issues.

Specifically as for Asia: Japan, as well as Korea and China, are rapidly ageing and thus there will be increasing demand for labor in those countries, whereas many surrounding countries have surplus amounts of labour. Already we see Japan is very dependent on foreign labor in sectors like agriculture and construction, although not through formal immigration but rather through exploitative “trainee” programs.

Part of the debate around immigration and acceptance of refugees, both in Japan and other countries, relates to how to integrate people from another culture into a society. This is my field, cross-cultural communication and understanding. There is a lot of room for further application of the lessons of the cross-cultural field in areas outside of business (where they are most often being utilised today), to help countries address issues related to immigrants and refugees.


Chris Leinberger,

Nonresident Senior Fellow – Metropolitan Policy Program,

Brookings Institute
The political and societal changes I’m seeing are taking place at the micro-local level: the biggest sociopolitical movement has been the organisation at the “place” level, the neighbourhood level, at least in this country. It’s under the radar screen – we are fundamentally inserting a new level of governance in society, and it’s taking the form of neighbourhood associations at the super local level, taking the form of improvement districts, special assessment districts, like in Midtown Manhattan. These places are becoming organised.

Every neighbourhood in this country has a neighbourhood organisation – 30 years ago this didn’t exist. Business improvement districts in particular are making leaps and bounds in the management of our society and they are recognising and working with technology firms to far better understand how these places work. The next big technological jump is a software jump: we now have the hardware. The issue is coming up with software that will create the mega database that will understand every part of the built environment at the place level, and eventually, the metropolitan level.

Right now, nobody knows what’s in Midtown [Manhattan]. We don’t know what percentage is office; what percentage is retail. We didn’t have those data sets 15 years ago, we didn’t have the software, and we didn’t have the computing capability.

So when a city or business improvement district makes a major capital investment in the future, you could foresee the time that we’ll be able to say, “Okay, let’s build the Second Avenue subway. It’ll cost us $5bn and this is the expected economic and tax revenues we will get from that based on this data set, and we will then decide what to do – and we will look at secondary consequences like gentrification and see how we’re going to address that based upon those future projects we make.”

We will learn much better how to plan, build, and pay for these places; invest in the right thing. Right now conclusions are based on guestimations, like ridership. We’re getting closer to saying this is going to be the economic and fiscal benefit of doing that, and here are the unintended consequences we need to be concerned about: congestion, gentrification, displacement, whatever. All those tools will help Place Managements, a new field.


Nick Reed,

Academy Director

Transport Research Laboratory
Safety of travel – not just the 1.3m that die on the roads each year but the broader implications (effects on mental health and respiratory illness through poor air quality; need to move sustainable travel – walking and cycling to tackle obesity, diabetes, etc.)

Automation – as we move towards automated, electric vehicles, we need to consider the effect on employment and wider implications of how we access mobility. Travelling on busy roads at peak hours could become the preserve of those who can afford to pay – how does that affect commuting etc.? how will this change urban planning, etc.?

Automated vehicles are one AI application; what are the implications for employment (need for universal basic income?), privacy and security?


Shin-pei Tsay,

Executive Director, Gehl Institute
Within urban areas, a significant constraint today and into the future will be how people move around the city. Whatever technology may accomplish, we need to think about how space is used: automated and ride-sharing vehicles take up as much room as regular cars, whether they’re on the road or parked off the street.

In the future, urban space needs to be designed to maximize places for people to congregate, which are key to building social connections, fostering a sense of belonging, and encouraging community efficacy. Space for human connection is often not considered against technological solutions in cities.

Without the design of places to support a social dimension, cities will not thrive regardless of how much technology we adopt. Public health increases when isolation diminishes and people connect. We save billions in environmental costs if we create places that encourage people to spend time outside. We reduce economic limitations in labor markets when we plan for places that allow people to shorten commute distances and have access to stores, schools, and other daily services.

It’s fun to consider panaceas that theoretically solve age-old problems. However, not enough attention is given to the social impacts of new solutions. We must consider how they change the physical shape and design of cities in the future. Most importantly, we must be aware of how they might isolate us. By limiting our ability to socialize, technology may only generate new problems to replace the ones it “solved.”




Joel Garreau,

Author, journalist, Professor of Law, Culture and Values,

Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University
The major challenge consuming me is that the wheels are coming off the Enlightenment right now, on our watch, and it’s our own damn fault.

The GRIN technologies – the genetics, robotics, information and nano revolutions – are advancing on a curve. Meanwhile, we humans are trying to process this exponential change with our good old v. 1.0 brains, with precious little help at all from those creating this upheaval.

Folk are not stupid. They can clearly detect the ground moving beneath their feet, and that of their children and jobs and futures. When the ground moves beneath her feet, any sane primate looks for something apparently solid to hold onto. Anybody with apparently simple stories about what’s going on, forcefully told, will get attention.

The most common job in most states is truck driver. So what are we doing? We’re obsoleting these jobs as fast as we can, with a hand wave about, “Oh, they’ll find better jobs.” Meanwhile, the rate of suicide, drug addiction and protest voting among the solid middle-aged former middle-class soars.

These guys are not stupid. They know they’ve been had. And we’re going to pay for it. And don’t tell me the solution is to have the robots just give them a guaranteed income. Humans require meaning as surely as food.

The days when scientists could not [care] about the impact of their work on cultural, values and society are over.

It’s not that these scientists are stupid. It’s that they’re tunnel-vision. They don’t wake up thinking about how they can change the human race. They wake up thinking about how they’re going to wire the goddamn monkey.

Fix it. Get out of your silo. If you can’t figure out the societal and cultural implications of what you’re doing, start seeking out people who might, and start systematically having lunch with them. And then invite the most interesting ones into your lab with the goal of them becoming partners.

One example was the scientist spending her life finding biomarkers for a disease for which there was no cure. Mercifully, her lab started systematically bringing in partners from entirely outside. One of them asked, “What’s the point of creating despair? Might find it interesting to search for a biomarker for a disease to which there is a cure?” To which she replied, “Of course.” Once it was pointed out to her, she happily did find another interesting biomarker problem that was culturally useful.

Culture moves slower than innovation. That’s just what humans are like. Deal with it, or watch the collapse of the Enlightenment as they ever increasingly come at you with torches and pitchforks – and correctly so.

You cannot give an intelligent species nothing to do. If you don’t give them something interesting, they will come up with something to occupy their great minds. And you may not like it.


Robert Sparrow,

Adjunct professor,

Centre for Human Bioethics,

Monash University
What does justice require of wealthy Northern states when confronted by mass migration from increasingly impoverished Southern countries as a result of accelerating climate change?

How should we respond, both ethically and emotionally, to the knowledge that we are living through one of history’s fastest periods of extinction and that this catastrophe is the result of humankind’s activities?

As technological developments increasingly drive social change, how can democratic societies empower ordinary people to have a say in decisions that shape the technological trajectories that determine what the future looks like?

How can the public have meaningful input into the character of algorithms that increasingly determine both the nature of their relationships with other people on social media and their access to important social goods?

Should we use “gene drives” to try to eliminate disease vectors in nature?

How can we ensure that questions about meaning and values, and not just calculations of risks and benefits, are addressed in decisions about human genome editing?




Carey King,

Assistant Director,

University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute
We need a discussion as to what political leaders, business leaders, and citizens think is an appropriate distribution of wealth. This focuses on the question “How many people have what, independent of the size of the economy?” (though the two are linked,) instead of discussing how to shape policies and taxes to achieve an unspecified growth target independent of wealth distribution. Trump, Brexit, and Le Pen are representations that people understand growth only for the elite in the West is no longer tenable.

An issue that has not received enough attention in the media and popular understanding is that the Earth is finite and this fact will have real world physical, economic, social, and political implications. Neoclassical economics ignores this fact, yet it is used to guide most policy, including for climate change mitigation. We’re using an economic theory incapable and inapplicable for informing an unprecedented economy transformation.


Vijay Padmanabhan,

Technical Advisor (Urban)

Asian Development Bank
The major challenge we will face due to urbanisation will be ‘water security’. We are already grappling with this problem across developing countries and with deteriorating river or surface water quality, lack of sufficient ground water sources and increasing dependence on sea water as a supply source, we need innovations in water management. Treatment technology, water aquifer mapping, recycling and reuse of wastewater, etc. are areas of R&D investment.

ADB is working with utilities to address these issues and will be exploring opportunities to bring in value for money propositions so that the utility benefits in the long term. We are also connecting with industry leaders to understand market trends so we can bring the best to our developing member countries.


William Ryerson,

Founder and president,

Population Institute and Population Media Center


The human enterprise has outgrown the long-ability of the planet’s non-renewable resources to support us at our current numbers and rates of consumption and waste generation. Climate change is just one piece of evidence of this fact.

Technological improvements, while important in reducing per capita impact, are not sufficient to make us sustainable unless we stop growth in human numbers, reduce average consumption, and simultaneously lessen the gap between the planet’s richest and poorest people. Sustainability is a term that is misused and not well understood, but any activity that is not sustainable will stop.

So far, non-renewable resources are primarily driving our economic engine. By definition, non-renewables are being depleted and most will stop being economically available in this century. We must plan rapidly for the day when humanity can live using just renewable resources, while maintaining the biodiversity that makes the planet habitable. In truth, sustainability is the ultimate environmental issue, the ultimate health issue, and the ultimate human rights issue.

Strategies that help to bring about changes in societal behaviour, including reproductive behavior, are critically important in achieving sustainability.

Use of entertainment media is a key component of such strategies, since a large share of humanity consume entertainment mass media during free time. For that reason, Population Media Center utilises long-running serialised dramas in various countries to create characters that gradually evolve into positive role models for the audience, to bring about changes in social norms on a broad array of critical issues.


Jim Watson,

Director of the UK Energy Research Centre
We need to think about how the system will fit together as our energy systems change.

Globally speaking, 1.5 billion or so people do not have access to modern energy services. There will be a lot of rising demand from regions like Africa.

One of the big challenges of deploying new energy technologies, particularly intermittent renewables like wind and solar, is the impact they have on the system. It used to be that in the summer it was a really quiet time for the grid operator compared to the winter, but now they are having this peak in generation in summer due to solar energy when demand is low. They are having to juggle this as we cannot store electricity in large quantities yet.

With the sort of changes we are seeing in energy systems around the world, cheaper and better storage is going to be a big part of the solution. When it comes to heating somewhere like the UK, you might need storage that lasts several months. A lot of energy generated in the summer you need in the winter to heat homes. This area is ripe for innovation and is a critical part of this new system we are trying to create.




Peter Barron,

VP Communications, EMEA,

Google was built on providing people with high-quality and authoritative results for their search queries. We strive to give users a breadth of diverse content from variety of sources and we’re committed to the principle of a free and open web. Judging which pages on the web best answer a query is a challenging problem and we don’t always get it right. When non-authoritative information ranks too high in our search results, we develop scalable, automated approaches to fix the problems, rather than manually removing these, one-by-one.

We recently made improvements to our algorithm that will help surface more high quality, credible content on the web. We’ll continue to change our algorithms over time in order to tackle these challenges.


Rohit Chandra,

VP Engineering,

Search providers face a confluence of human and technology challenges. While we provide the portal for users to find information, we depend on content creators and distributors to apply journalistic discipline to what they are creating. The scale of popular social networks has democratized publishing, which effectively lets anyone – regardless of their intentions or qualifications – produce content that can appear journalistic.

Another challenge is that technology-driven online engines learn through click-feedback or “crowd-sourcing.” That runs the risk of perpetuating a “herd-mentality”; if lots of users start chasing a particular news source (maybe based on shock value rather than credibility), AI-systems could accidentally “learn” and treat that source as highly valued or credible.

I see a need in the market to develop standards, perhaps from an organization like Nielsen. Facebook and others are working on this, too. The answer has to be a combination of technology and editorial; we can’t fact-check every story, but there must be enough human eyes on the content that we know the quality bar stays high.


Eddie Copeland,

Director of government Innovation


(UK charity looking at the future of democracy in the digital world)
Rather than waiting for politicians to make decisions and then we all argue over whether what they say reflects reality, we could have tools that engage people much earlier in the process so they can be involved in formulating ideas and drafting legislation, following the course of how ideas go from concept to becoming laws and how effective they are in reality.

It might give a fighting chance of people feeling part of a system rather than observing it from the outside.


Ben Fletcher,

Senior software engineer

IBM Watson Research

(who worked on a project to build an AI fact checker)
We got a lot of feedback that people did not want to be told what was true or not. At the heart of what they want, was actually the ability to see all sides and make the decision for themselves. A major issue most people face, without knowing it, is the bubble they live in. If they were shown views outside that bubble they would be much more open to talking about them.


Kevin Kelly,

Founding executive editor

Wired Magazine
The major new challenge in reporting news is the new shape of truth. Truth is no longer dictated by authorities, but is networked by peers. For every fact there is a counterfact. All those counterfacts and facts look identical online, which confuses most people. The only way a fact becomes accepted as true is to be networked with other facts considered to be true. Like in Science, all truth is provisional, although some is more provisional than others.

The Truth is really a network of truths, and each of these true facts is probabilistic. The probability of a fact being true is increased by the degree it is networked with other true facts and the reliability of truthfulness by its source. So the challenge before us is to begin to construct a truth signaling layer into the fabric of facts, particularly online. This will be a multi-generational effort that resembles Wikipedia’s construction, but goes far beyond it.


Alexios Mantzarlis,

Chair, International Fact Checking Network
I see a challenge in the flood of reasonable-looking information out there making it harder to distinguish between sources of information. Search algorithms are as flawed as the people who develop them. We should think about adding layers of credibility to sources. We need to tag and structure quality content in effective ways.


Will Moy,

Director, Full Fact

(an independent fact-checking organisation based in the UK)
Even if we have structures that impose constraints on people in power and we put pressure on powerful people to be honest with us, all of that is being circumvented by social media. On Facebook, political bodies can put something out, pay for advertising, put it in front of millions of people, yet it is hard for those being targeted to know they have done that. They can target those people based on how old they are, where they live, what skin colour they have, what gender they are.

These messages are so common and so targeted, they have a massive influence on public decisions. We have never had a time when it has been so easy to advertise to millions of people and not have the other millions of us notice. You can’t take out an advert in a newspaper and not have the people you are not targeting not notice. That’s a profound change. We shouldn’t think of social media as just peer to peer communication – it is also the most powerful advertising platform there has ever been.

We need a more equipped environment – we need watchdogs that will go around and say hang on, this doesn’t stack up and ask them to correct the record. There is a role for watchdogs and a role for all of us.


Paul Resnick,

Professor of Information

University of Michigan

(who developed a tool for identifying rumours on social media called RumourLens)
The fundamental challenge we now face is how to handle a setting where anybody can get their views disseminated without intermediaries to prevent the distribution. Somehow there still has to be some process of collectively coming to some agreement of what we are going to believe and what we think are consensual facts.

A lot of what I have seen in terms of approaches to deal with that are trying to do things that are focused on assessing the content of factual claims to try to verify whether they are true or not.

I don’t think that at its heart will be the mechanism. I think that it is going to be not figuring what to believe but who to believe.

Most individuals can’t personally verify most factual claims that we hear. If you think about some of the things you personally believe that are fact, there are many that you have not personally verified. It would be tremendously inefficient for all of us to try to personally verify all of these things. We have to have a setting where we trust other people.


Victoria Rubin,

Director of the language and information technology and research lab,

Western University, Ontario, Canada
If people are willing to blatantly refuse to believe that something is a lie, no matter how hard you try, they won’t listen. I’m not sure what amount of evidence is needed in this new paradigm of journalism to get newsreaders out of their new bubbles. Human psychology is the main obstacle, unwillingness to bend one’s mind around facts that don’t agree with one’s own viewpoint.

We’re studying how news framing affects attribution of blame for events described in the news, and whether there is mitigating effect of partisan beliefs. The second newer misleading type of fakes that’s gaining traction is native ads (specifically, in news), or sponsored content that’s disguised as editorials, or what’s formerly known as advertorials. Such misleading practice constitutes an internal threat to the profession of journalism and may further deteriorate mainstream media trust. If users are unaware of the Native Ads’ original promotional nature, they may find themselves insufficiently informed or misled by its content.

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I like the varying perspectives from this diversity of specialists. I found many nuggets on which to muse; I hope you did, as well.

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