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Changing the World in 2004

2003 was a weird, in many ways unfortunate, year. But it also brought signs that there are forces loose in the world which are driving real change, which threaten to make 2004 a year of wild instability, profound strangeness, and perhaps, the beginnings of real transformation. So, in the time-honored journalistic tradition of year-end lists, we offer you this wrap-up of the driving forces and world-changing events we found most powerful in 2003:

The New Debate: 2003 was a good year for the growth of alternative systems for access to -- and distribution of -- knowledge and information. The two recurring themes were democratization and openness -- a heady combination. Blogs took off, providing a new structure for news and debate, one which takes good advantage of the deeply-linked nature of the Internet. WiFi exploded, giving more people a chance to swim in the infosphere, especially with the myriad efforts to provide free wireless. Indicators -- social, political, environmental, economic, biological, and more -- became easier than ever to access and understand. Most importantly, the tools for the creation and dissemination of information (whether seen as news or entertainment) moved more fully into the hands of individuals. Which is where, in our view, it belongs.

The Redistribution of the Future: If the Gibson quote ("the future is here, it's just not evenly-distributed yet") is our mantra, it's for good reason. Better distribution of knowledge and its manifestations are, in many ways, the most important world-changing efforts underway. Efforts like ThinkCycle, an international collaborative design group based out of the MIT Media Lab. Efforts like Millennium Development Goals, which make plain what it would take to solve some massive global problems (hint: less than you might expect). Even efforts by the World Bank to try novel, micro-level, sustainable solutions. But redistributing the future doesn't just mean charity. 2003 saw significant movement in the opening of technological and scientific projects, from open biotechnology to open source computer hardware. Open source models have enormous implications for the developing world, giving nations with limited financial resources a chance to move quickly to adopt new technologies, or even to play "leapfrog" by jumping over the developed world in the use of more distributed, sustainable methods.

The Rise of a New Politics – the Brasilia Consensus and the Second Superpower: Two ideas are likely to redefine global politics over the next year. The first is the Brasilia Consensus and the Rise of the G20+. Southern nations, formerly confined to the back of the globalization bus, have decided they've had enough. Now a coalition lead primarily by Brazil, South Africa and a newly-resurgent India are demanding that the UN, the Bretton Woods groups (the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank) and other international organizations address Southern needs if they expect Southern support. At the same time, global public opinion has been mobilized as never before. 2003 saw not only the largest self-organized protests in human history (against the Iraq war) but also the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, which has networked supporters in ways never before seen. Whether the Second Superpower is in fact at hand is still an open question, but something big is changing. From within and without, the "Washington Consensus" -- which dictated global economic, trade and governance reality since the end of WW II –- is crumbling.

Radically Sustainable Innovation – Neobiological Design and Natural Hacking:The designs found in nature, from the nautilus shell to the pattern of a sunflower's seeds, are staggeringly brilliant. Until recently, doing more than admiring those arrangements was difficult. But with the unlocking of genetic codes, the application of more and more powerful computers to design and architectural problems, and with the pressing need for more sustainable technologies, neo-biological design is poised to explode in 2004 in an orgy of biomimicry, neo-biological architecture and green buildings, and complete redesigns of everyday objects.  But neobiological design is only one part of the story. We're also gaining the ability to better monitor, model and collaborate with natural systems themselves. Whether we're talking about climate modeling, ecosystem monitoring or genetic engineering for environmental ends, our power to make plain (and thus work with) nature's flows, to hack natural systems, are exploding. Look for 2004 to be a year crowded with breakthroughs combining radical innovation and reverent exploration of the natural world – breakthroughs which will remake the way we interact with nature, and which may point the way to a wholly new form of sustainability.

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what's wrong with charity? micro-loans are okay but not micro-grants?

Posted by: martha on 3 Jan 04

Nothing's wrong with giving. Done well, giving is the most worldchanging tool of all. We certainly need astute philanthropy, because there will always be things that need doing in the world which make no market sense at all and which government will never find the will to fund.

But "charity" often ends up becoming more about the desires, ideas and emotional needs of the funder than creation of real opportunity for the recipient, and that's dysfunctional. Also, too much traditional charity is been about mitigating symptoms, not changing causes.

Redistributing the means of prosperity - through distributing better tools, increasing the flow of capital in poor communities through revolving funds and the like, encouraging the spread socially entrepreneurial models, teaching literacy and organizing techniques, etc. etc. etc. - is an approach that, in the hackneyed old phrase, keeps on giving. Give a person a fish, etc. etc.

But redistributing the means of prosperity is also redistributing power. Empowering people to change their worlds, and creating systems whereby their doing so creates the ability for others to do the same, is inherently political and contraversial and upsets people in powerful positions. Much easier to air drop some MREs on them at Christmas and call it a day.

All that aside, (just to ramble on a little more in a personal vein), I do believe deeply in charity as an individual and immediate act of lovingkingness. "Give, when you are asked for little," said a pretty wise fella.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 3 Jan 04



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