Great Experiments: Follow the Paths and Avoid the Dead Ends

Patchwork of Innovation

It would be easy to think that affluent nations are leading the charge into the future while others play catch up. In reality, the patchwork of nations we live in is more textured. While scientific and technological advances can be transported from one nation to another, the physical and social context they were developed in is not. Deployment of an advance ahead of others, in a different context to which it was conceived and on a large scale can be seen as a Great Experiment. Great Experiments from which many can learn.

Present Driven Great Experiments: Perfection Versus Baseline

The meaning of scientific and technological advances differ between nations. While some see advances as perfecting their situation, others see the same as providing a stepping-stone to achieve a reasonable baseline. Their starting points are different. For example, renewable energy generation in the USA is an alternative to a reliance on imports of energy producing material and easing pollution. In parts of Africa, renewable energy, esp. solar, advances baseline power availability.

In changing the baseline we also need to look for important side effects. For example in the case of Africa solar energy allows out-of-daylight learning, improves the deployment of mobile telecommunications and even improves water security through automated pumping. Overall then a greater social uplift can result from one technological or scientific intervention.

Raising a baseline need in the face of today’s challenges is one driver of Great Experiments. We may also experiment due to needs on the horizon.

Future Driven Great Experiments: Automation Versus Companionship

Great Experiments also occur when some nations lead others in facing challenges from the future. Japan can be seen as making a Great Experiment being one of the first to experience a much higher proportion of elderly people in its population.

Automation and robots have been developed for the purposes of industrial application in many countries. In Japan, adoption and experimentation with robotics is also seen as a social intervention. Robots can ease physical problems and, potentially by making them humanlike, psychological ones like loneliness. Companionship by the inanimate may seem alien to many cultures at the moment but possibly not in the longer term. Other nations, like Italy whose population is also rapildy ageing by proportion, watch Japan with the same challenge on the horizon.


There are many other Great Experiments at play once we use the lens. Military drones in the Middle East pave the way for more humane application in disaster relief. Electricity supply problems in South Australia foretell the unexpected consequences of transitioning to a reliance on renewable energy (network fragility, limitations on feeding energy in from point of consuption, changes in business of peak energy suppliers). Mobile telephone networks developed for affluent nations become de-facto banks for the poor in Africa in turn challenging the legacy role of institutions in Europe. ‘Sharing Economy’ businesses developed in the USA challenge social contracts like the minimum wage when moved to countries in the EU. Even within nations Great Experiments are taking place such as across industry comains. For example in the USA applying the work practices from “Silicon Valley” software development into traditional industrial domains like car production.

Why are these Great Experiments Interesting?

The Great Experiments already taking place highlight embedded constraints in our social arrangements. Stigmatised technology (robots), incumbent commercial contracts (energy sources) and banking acts (preventing non-traditional players) are examples of social constructs that may need to be challenged. In these cases we might make efforts to de-stigmatise technology, build models to weigh the environmental cost of fossil fuel fired energy against the cost of buying out contracts, and consider how – and experiment with – decentralised value exchange systems.

Seeing change as experiments rather than as inevitability gives us room to observe the side effects of our choices. We can learn how best to deploy new ideas and choices about their integration to suit our complex social needs as well as business ones. We can then follow paths to success and avoid dead ends.

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