• Richard Potts

Sustainability, Technology and Building the Future (with a nod to the hunter-gatherers!)

This is a summary of my opening Keynote at Fireside Summit, a video excerpt is available here.

Richard Potts leading a nature & bushcraft walk @ Fireside '19

I believe we’re at a seminal moment in the human story. A pivot point, beyond which an uncertain future diverges into two choices; one where we maintain the status quo and one where we don’t.

The main themes of Fireside Summit were sustainability, technology and building the future.

But in order to understand what that future could look like, we need to go back in time to an earlier pivot point that set us on the course we are on today and defined everything about our modern world.

The formation of our modern society

That moment, in the UK, was 6000 years ago. A time when our hunter-gatherer ancestors were living as they had for thousands of years, in a place of incredible ecological diversity and abundance. (1)

But for some reason, our forebears decided to start farming. And despite the many hardships and challenges this would have wrought, they persisted with it for thousands more years and quite literally sowed the seed of our modern agrarian society.

Why did they make that choice?

There was no obvious “forcing” – no external event that prodded humans to fundamentally change their lifestyle and way of existing. It was unlikely that those early farming societies were superior in any way to hunting and gathering. In fact, all evidence suggest the opposite; early agrarian societies were risky (bad harvests = famine) and grim (more people living in closer proximity, with none of our modern-day systems of sanitation). (2)

We can dismiss notions of evolution or technological advancement. Farming wasn’t an obvious choice, it was a dangerous one.

The answer to why we changed everything comes down to one word: cooperation.

Humans started to cooperate with each other, on mass. Large groups of people trading and working with other large groups of people.

And it wasn’t just about trade – there’s a reason we find stone circles thousands of miles apart; they’re not trading posts, they represent something deeper, more profound. They represent the sharing of ideas and stories, over vast distances, transcending tribal and geographical boundaries.

Cooperation has allowed us to go from knapping stone tools to flying spaceships in an evolutionary blink of an eye!

In the past, there were three main omnipotent threats to human existence:

  1. Starvation

  2. Disease

  3. War/violence.

Cooperation has led to an enormous erosion of these threats in a very short space of time from an evolutionary standpoint.

Starvation still exists – there are bad harvests and famines in the world – but there’s no justification for these to have the impact they would in the past. There are more than enough calories produced to feed everyone on the planet, consistently. More people now die from diseases related to too many calories than too few.

Our medical revolution has allowed us to largely mitigate the virulent threat of pandemic, which our ancestors were constantly exposed to. Understanding of how disease spreads, it’s vector and incubation, combined with advances in medicine have allowed modern society to successfully defend against new disease threats like AIDS, Bird Flu and Ebola which have had no where near the impact that something like Spanish Flu had just 100 years ago. (3)

It makes a lot more sense for countries to cooperate and trade with each other in the modern world, than it does to go to war with them with an uneconomical desire to steal their resources. Modern warfare is more about protecting supply routes and maintaining global trade than the smash-and-grab violence of the past.

The cooperative future

The decision of humans to cooperate with each other led to numeracy and literacy; it’s much easier to spread an idea beyond your circle of influence if you can write it down and quantify it.

Cooperation led to the creation of fictional entities, like states and corporations. Those fictions manifested into realities through the creation of our institutions and bureaucracies.

Today, the complexities of our systems are beyond the understanding of any single human being. No one person can explain all the workings of the European Union or corporate law. It’s too complex and the cooperation too closely woven into the way our whole society functions.

So our modern society needs vast repositories for information, for the sharing and dissemination of our ideas and technologies.

That’s why, if we plot a course into the future from this moment in time we see three clear technological advances growing in influence:

1.      Data – the need to store more and more information and interrogate that information to make informed decisions.

2.      Computational Power – with predictions that the amount of data in the world will increase 10-fold by 2025 (4), the rise of the digital age has been fuelled by computer processing power such that data is in complete lockstep with computing evolution.

3.      Artificial Intelligence – In my opinion, AI is simply the interface between computers, data and us. It’s essentially just a dashboard that allows us to agitate the data we produce, understand it, and use it.

The 4th Horseman of the Apocalypse

While human cooperation has achieved incredible things and eroded the erstwhile omnipotent threats of disease, famine and war, the by-product of all this success is now our greatest existential threat.

It is the fourth horseman of the apocalypse and our most challenging foe to date.

Ecological disaster in the form of climate change, habitat and species loss, pollution and plastification of the oceans are combining into a perfect storm that humans need to bend our collective will towards addressing.

Just as we pivoted in the past, we need to do so again.

Cooperation requires a common goal, and there is no greater goal than overcoming a global threat. What we have achieved in mitigating disease and famine, we can surpass in building a sustainable future and rolling back the damage we’ve already caused.

This threat transcends politics and borders and dealing with it requires a wholesale movement, a true shift in the human narrative.

So, while education, political will, consumer behaviour and business responsibility all play a part in sustainability, technology needs to become the most ardent protagonist for change.

That’s why the technologies of the future – those embedded in data, computational power and AI – need to have sustainability at their core in order to be relevant and valuable.

From this point on, technology + sustainability will be the most potent force for change the world has ever seen.

Will you be part of the revolution?




·       University of Cambridge. What limpets can tell us about life on Mesolithic Oronsay. https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/what-limpets-can-tell-us-about-life-on-mesolithic-oronsay 

·       Binford LR (2001). Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets

·       Kelly RL (2013) The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The Foraging Spectrum


·       James C. Scott. Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States


·       University of Cambridge. Spanish Flu: a warning from history. https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/spanish-flu-a-warning-from-history


·       Seagate. The Digitization of the World from Edge to Core. https://www.seagate.com/files/www-content/our-story/trends/files/idc-seagate-dataage-whitepaper.pdf

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