Creative chaos with invited top lecturers

On Wednesday, IVA’s CAETS conference continued on the theme of ”creative chaos”. Among other things, solar geoengineering to come to terms with climate change, the pharmaceutical industry’s future business models and sustainable plastics were discussed.

The first day of the CAETS conference presented a tough series of future challenges for the world. On the second day, the conference rather tried to look at potential solutions to these challenges.

A very visionary, albeit controversial, presentation was held by Jesse Reynolds, researcher in environmental legislation at the University of California. He talked about climate change, and how today’s climate measures have to a great extent been inadequate.

– Only two countries in the world – Morocco and Ghana fulfil their commitments in accordance with the Paris Agenda. Why is it so? Jesse Reynolds asked the auditorium.

One explanation is that the costs are local and the earnings global, Reynolds said. Global earnings surpass global costs for most of today’s climate measures, but local costs outperform local profits.

To address the challenges, many techniques need to be tested. To date, a rather untested technique would be to imitate the natural cooling techniques that occur through, for example, volcanic eruptions, when dark ash clouds limit solar radiation. These could be mimicked by aerosol injections of, for example, sulfur in the stratosphere, which would cool the planet efficiently and quickly.

– At the same time, there are deficiencies such as the greenhouse effect warming the planet differently than what the blocking of incoming solar radiation would cool it. Thus, there is concern about regional climate deviations.  And there are aspects to keep in mind such as sea acidification and more.

Nevertheless, Reynolds suggests that solar shielding geo-engineering be tested on a certain scale:

– In light of the great climate risks we should seriously consider this technology, he said.

In a subsequent panel discussion, the possible need for new business models for future health was discussed; Anna Sandström, Kevin Outersson, and Aled Edwards, participated. The latter is the founder and CEO of the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC), a non-profit organisation with the aim of making all research results available to the Academy. Edwards is critical of commercial drug development as such, but believes that the primary challenge is that research has not come far enough yet.

– It is not the business model or access to funding that is the problem, but rather that we do not understand the human body. If I were to give AstraZeneca a billion dollars and tell them to find a cure to Alzheimer’s within five years, they would still say ”no, we don’t know how to do it,” Aled Edwards said. However, Edwards pointed out that companies have disadvantages in that they compete with each other and have business secrets, leading to huge duplications of work worldwide. In addition, they have an obligation to their shareholders to maximise profits, leading to companies setting their prices too high.

– We are part of the solution too. The way we work now is much more transparent, much more focused on publishing and with more focus on collaboration, said Anna Sandström, Science Policy and Relations Director Europe at AstraZeneca.

– You have to have the business community involved, with factories that manufacture the medicines, vendors distribute the medicine and so forth. However, there is no law that companies also must develop the medicine, Aled Edwards pointed out.

Universities should not own the process of developing new drugs, said Edwards, as their incentives are to keep profits for themselves. But is the SGC model really applicable to all fields?

– The industry usually draws a line between the precompetitive and the market ready area. So the responsibility differs depending on the kind of drug you are talking about, said Kevin Outersson, Executive Director and Principal Investigator at CARB-X Center, researching new antibiotics.

Anna Sandström partially toned down the dividing lines between the company’s model and that of external researchers, and highlighted, among other things, how AstraZeneca supports incubators around the country:

– We have no interest in these companies, do not receive any funding from them, but only allow our employees to use their enormous skills. We must be attractive for collaborations, she said.

– But an interesting point is why AstraZeneca don’t conduct research in early stages but instead leaving it to other companies do so. It is not because they are kind-hearted, but it is a financial decision based on the fact that investment in research does not give the same return as investment in marketing, Aled Edwards said.

Anna Sandström partly opposed Edwards and the charity organizations’ business model:

– You also underestimate the skills you need to develop medicines for the patients, said Anna Sandström

After a coffe break, the discussion instead went on to plastics and how to manage it sustainably in the future.

– Plastics have helped us save resources and life, by extending the life cycle of food and other things and has been used as a construction material and so forth, said Rajni Hatti-Kaul, Professor in Biotechnology at Lund University.

However, Hatti-Kaul pointed out that we do not have a good system of collecting plastic today, where the majority is dumped in landfills or is incinerated. In addition, a lot of plastics end up in nature, in animals and even in the form of microplastics in people’s digestive system.

– We need to design materials for recycling and re-use, and create infrastructure for collection of plastics, Professor Rajni Hatti-Kaul pointed out.

If one manages to switch from wear-and-tear plastics to recyclable materials, according to the research, one can reduce as much as 65 percent of the plastics used today.

A new possibility is chemical recycling, where longer polymers are broken down through hydrolysis or biodegradation. Molecules that biodegrade the plastic could also be made available on a broad scale.

– You could rent these molecules instead of selling them, Rajni Hatti-Kaul suggested.

If you move the perspective from the plastic economy to production and industry in general, there are few more exciting speakers today than Erik Brynjolfsson, Professor at American MIT. He spoke at the CAETS conference about today’s paradox between how quickly artificial intelligence (AI) has grown and how little productivity has increased.

Techniques for deep learning in machines today can surpass people in discovering different photo motives, understanding the messages in human speech and much more.

At the same time, the productivity increases expected from AI have not been realised – productivity in the USA in 1995-2004 was on average 2.8 percent, while it 2005–2018 had fallen to 1.3 percent.

– We can see digitalisation everywhere except in productivity statistics, said Erik Brynjolfsson quoting Nobel Prize Laurate Robert Solow.

However, the quote came from 1987, that is, over 30 years ago. And Brynjolfsson showed how historical research provides evidence that factories in the shorter term rather experience slower productivity after thorough technological breakthroughs than before. This is true when it comes to the invention of the steam engine, the electrification, the internal combustion engine or the computer.

The reason for this is above all a delay in the economic system, which means that we cannot really benefit from the innovations until several decades later, says Brynjolfsson. For example, he highlighted old steam engine-driven factories that started installing electric power. As long as 30 years after the electrification came the productivity gains, as the other parts of the factory had previously been optimised for central steam engine operations.

But a few decades later, when the factories were built for electric power, when a new generation of employees learnt to handle the new technology and the surrounding infrastructure changed to support the new factories – did productivity really increase?

– Oh, my God – yes! This led to a doubling, tripling, quadrupling of production! said Erik Brynjolfsson enthusiastically.

Also on day two of the conference, Kenyan Brian Mwenda, Founder and CEO, Hope Tech Plus Limited, presented his recent invention: the new portable devise 6th Sense. By transmitting acoustic waves, the device makes it easier for visually impaired people to move around.

After lunch, Ruth Graham, Higher Education Consultant, talked about how global engineering training is currently changing rapidly.

– For the past five years, Governments around the world have invested significant sums in engineering education to produce these future technology innovators, she said.

In a large study commissioned by American MIT, Ruth Graham interviewed over 200 people from 21 countries worldwide about the future of engineering education. The study shows that today’s leading education have a strong focus on traditional curricula and a rather modest representation of women.

– But tomorrow’s leaders have a multidisciplinary approach, are clear about their vision and promote greater equality, said Ruth Graham.

Furthermore, Graham has found how the leadership in engineering education is being transferred from North America and Europe to Asia and South America.

– The programmes will also be individualised, multidisciplinary and show how your education will be useful in society.

However, in the future, it will become important to see how small, niched top class education can scale up and attract more students.

Yewande Akinola, Principal Engineer at the British company Laing O’Rourke, also participated in the conference. She highlighted the importance of diversity in the engineering profession in order to maximise the potential in achieving the best possible results on a broad front.

A long-term perspective was then discussed by Li Jinghai, President of National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC). He called for nothing less than a paradigm shift in the science system. Among other things, cross-border research is becoming increasingly important, and is to a greater extent rewarded the Nobel Prize, according to Jinghai.

Even more important is to understand the missing links between narrow, inter-science research and real knowledge systems, which combine several different fields of research.

One way forward is to understand the intermediate level between the micro and macro scales of, for example, materials, reactors and social behaviour. Instead, a kind of meso level is needed, Li Jinghai believes.

– We still use average scales when it comes to, for example, chemistry or climate science, which results in excessive deviations.

After starting to examine the meso level in chemistry, Li Jinghai and his colleagues have come up with a model for how this scale needs to be applied and investigated in a large number of other areas, both in the humanities as well as in the science.

Furthermore, Jinghai advocates that different fields of research come together by forming thematic teams that discuss complex issues.

The conference then focused on future transports and transport systems – an area with significant challenges but also great opportunities.

– What happens now is that our transport systems are becoming increasingly digital. We can also design our transports so that they better suit our needs and the surrounding environment, said Dan Work, Professor at the Vanderbilt University.

Work and his colleagues have studied, among other things, whether we get more resource-efficient goods and passenger transports and better utilisation of infrastructure, if we automate – or the opposite.

– If you give people services that are easy to use and automated, people will want more of them. We also have the opportunity and the technology to get cars to travel very close together at very high speed – which gives a high capacity utilisation, Dan Work said.

Idil Gaziulusoy, Professor of Sustainable Design at the Finnish Aalto University, then discussed how engineers and others need to invest more in design for a transition to a sustainable society.

– Transitions are primarily design challenges, said Dr. Gaziulusoy, pointing out, among other things, how we need visions about what kind of society people want and based on these visions design sustainable solutions.

Within the framework of a 3.5-year project, Gaziulusoy and her colleagues presented a number of scenarios for the year 2040, where the visions can be about all from government-owned or large-scale company-oriented societies to diverse entrepreneurial networks or collective housing.

– The visions were distributed along an axis in terms of efficiency increase in one end and reduced consumption in the other, which in principle are the two opposed parameters, said İdil Gaziulusoy.

Developing the visions is one thing, but building them into society is far more complex. This became clear in the subsequent panel debate with Dan Work and İdil Gaziulusoy.

– We not only design these systems for today’s situation, but for the future 50 or 100 years from now, said Dan Work, regarding how difficult it can be to know which the desirable infrastructure will be in the longer term.

Finally, Yuko Harayama, former Executive Member of the Council for Science, Technology and Innovation in Japan, talked about ”Society 5.0”, a human-centered society that balances economic advancement with the resolution of social problems. The concept evolved partly as a response to Japan’s needs after the great earthquake and the Fukushima accident in 2011.

– What we need today is not technology-driven but human-centered development. Our core values are openness, sustainability and inclusion, said Yuko Harayama.

Contact information

Elin Elliot
International Secretary to the Academy
Phone +46 8-791 29 28