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Science and technology historian, futurist, and author James Burke fascinates audiences with his unique perspective on the process of innovation and how it causes people and institutions to change. The Washington Post named him “one of the most intriguing minds in the Western world.”
For over 40 years Burke has written, produced, directed, and hosted award-winning television series on the BBC, PBS, Discovery, and The Learning Channel. He created and hosted three seasons of the documentary series, Connections. Each episode examined the interconnecting ideas, events, and coincidences that led to the technological advances of today. His other series have included The Day the Universe Changed, The Neuron Suite, and After the Warming, as well as a special for the National Art Gallery on Renaissance painting, Masters of Illusion.
He is the best-selling author of The Knowledge Web, Circles, Twin Tracks, and American Connections: The Founding Fathers Networked. He has been a frequent contributor to Scientific American and TIME magazine and wrote the entry on invention for the Britannica Online Encyclopedia.
Educated at Oxford, Burke has advised the National Academy of Engineering, The George Lucas Educational Foundation, and the SETI project. He has been named an honorary fellow of the Society for Technical Communication and has received gold and silver medals from the Royal Television Society.
The BBC's chief reporter for the Apollo moon missions, and a popular speaker for companies such as IBM, NASA and Microsoft, Burke takes audiences on a journey from past to future, following the serendipitous pathways of change. His presentations illustrate the vast interconnected network of cause and effect that drives history and describe the new kind of thinking required in the world that lies ahead.
The James Burke Institute for Innovation in Education is working to launch an online interactive knowledge mapping system to be used as a teaching aid and reference tool. The Knowledge Web, as it is known, will use virtual reality to help users explore information in a highly interconnected way.
His next book will be the provisionally titled The Culture of Scarcity.
Innovation for the Day After Tomorrow
Change happens today faster than most individuals, companies, and governments can keep up with. And as the world becomes increasingly networked, unexpected change can come from anywhere, for any reason. What worked yesterday doesn’t work today, and technology makes it easy for start-ups to disrupt the marketplace. Standing still is no longer an option nor is a flexible fast response. The trick is to predict change before it happens. Or cause it, by predicting market needs.
So how do we learn to predict, before we bet the farm?
Burke looks at how technological change happens, how it often has unexpected secondary effects, and the way we have trained our change-makers. Are we trapped in the specialist silos that once generated our best products and services? If so, how do we break out without risk? Are there new tools we can use to see patterns and predict trends? How do we identify the right ones? Can we use technology and Big Data to help control the process of change itself and shape the future the way we want it? What would that do to us?
As part of his investigation, Burke will discuss and demonstrate his latest project: an interactive knowledge web to be used as a teaching aid, a business management system, a tool for innovation, and a predictor.
Education for a Networked World
Education has not fundamentally changed in 8,000 years. Teachers still pass on specialist skills to students, who listen and copy. The lecture room of a university in the 11th century looks the same as it does today. At all levels, the educator’s job is to train students in single-subject areas, from reading to quantum chromo-dynamics. Society relies on students to enter the work world and carry out what they have learned, in expert and reliable ways, when they build bridges or move atoms or cure disease.
Throughout history, this education has always been for the few, because until now we haven’t had the means to give it to the many. But as information and communications technology undermines the old specialist values at the same time as it opens access to the majority of the population, we face a fast-growing demand for a new approach.
How can we use online technology to reach out to millions of ‘unqualified’ people? How do you teach a class of 2,000 students logging-in from all over the planet? With the breaking down of the old faculty silos and the rise of interdisciplinary studies, what kinds of ‘qualifications’ will the world of the future require? How will education change in the next 50 years?
The Future Isn't What it Used to Be
For thousands of years we have innovated our way out of one scarcity or another. Every social institution (belief system, our values, culture, customs) are all, in one way or another, there to handle the problem of not-enough-to-go-round. It has always been scarcity that has driven change. We invent so as to make the future more survivable.
The final flowering of this millennial process was the invention of invention itself: through science and technology. In the 18th century innovation re-shaped life with the Industrial Revolution and the more complex our world became, the faster it changed. Today we face problems on a global scale, as the sheer weight of numbers and speed of change put the environment and our continued existence under threat from pollution, degradation, disease and starvation, as population numbers begin to overwhelm the resources and carrying capacity of the planet.
At the same time, however, science and technology have brought us to the edge of a radically new way of dealing with scarcity. In 40 years’ time, when the first personal nano-factories begin to operate using the atoms and molecules in dirt air and water to manufacture anything we need, virtually free, we will face a question for which millennia of scarcity-generated innovation have not prepared us.
How will we deal with abundance that will render all social institutions and economic structures obsolete?