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Joi Ito (Photo: Joi Ito)

Steelcase asked 100 thinkers to describe their wish for the next 100 years, and MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito hit it out of the park with this 150-word bon mot:

One hundred years from now, the role of science and technology will be about becoming part of nature rather than trying to control it.

So much of science and technology has been about pursuing efficiency, scale and “exponential growth” at the expense of our environment and our resources. We have rewarded those who invent technologies that control our triumph over nature in some way. This is clearly not sustainable.

We must understand that we live in a complex system where everything is interrelated and interdependent and that everything we design impacts a larger system.

My dream is that 100 years from now, we will be learning from nature, integrating with nature and using science and technology to bring nature into our lives to make human beings and our artifacts not only zero impact but a positive impact to the natural system that we live in.

Without understanding the density of allusions in Ito’s response, it would be easy to dismiss it as some kind of Gaian magical thinking. And Ito is way too positive a thinker to point out that his vision will come true one way or another. Innovation means we can do more with less, and occasionally unlock huge new reserves of a particular resource, but as in every previous century, in this one we will continue to discover and be forced to contend with the boundaries of the vast-but-not-infinite spaceship we inhabit.

On the solutions side, there is an entire book – or a thousand books – that could use Ito’s response as their starting point. Everywhere I look in the areas that I cover, I see efficiency and renewable energy; lighter, stronger and more capable manufacturing through through organic chemistry; biomimetics; the “Internet of Things” evolving into a responsive global nervous system; and most important of all, a recognition that in a world in which it’s difficult to predict which resources will be constrained next, “sustainability” is essential to success.

It’s cliche by now to point out that the 21st century could be truly awful, but it’s also willful blindness to imagine that it doesn’t contain challenges that are qualitatively different from those humanity has faced before. Somewhere between the doomsayers and the Pollyannas, there is a boundary layer where realism and a willingness to experiment intersect. It’s where everything that will be consequential for the 21st century is happening. People like Ito, who just get it, represent the kind of thinkers we should be paying attention to.

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Tagged: MIT, MIT Media Lab, sustainability

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