We asked the fundamental question: Is technology in the process of fundamentally transforming our society into something we have difficulties imagining? To address this question the workshop brought together scientists, business leaders and storytellers from a very broad spectrum of fields to identify and explore what these changes are and how we could prepare for them. Thus, the aim of the workshop was to define a new interdisciplinary research agenda about the postindustrial societal transformation.
The workshop was a success with many tangible outcomes: Two living documents are still under development by a subset of the workshop participants, one on a scientific identification, documentation and characterization of the emerging societal transition, and another document summarizing these findings for engaged citizens, the press and policymakers. A number of new cross-disciplinary scientific collaborations were started during the workshop (e.g. between computer scientists, economists, physicists and historians). Further, a number of research proposals have already either been submitted or are under development seeking to address the open questions identified and clarified at the workshop. These include an internal grant at Oxford University and two European Commission grants. Finally, follow-on workshops are in the planning including a new Lorentz Center workshop and a Santa Fe Institute workshop.
Because this international workshop was one of the first of its kind it was also the first forum where critical and in depth discussions could occur across traditional disciplinary boundaries. Surprisingly quickly the workshop participants reached consensus about the existence and the character of an ongoing technology driven societal transition. Thus, for the workshop participants, there is an experience of “before” and “after” the workshop. We now know the transition is real.
We believe everybody had several “Aha” moments during the week, mainly because of the diverse perspectives on the same broad set of issues. In that respect the workshop was also successful as everybody acquired new potential collaborators and vocabularies with which to approach and describe the current transition.
The workshop schedule was divided between daily (i) 10-minute plenum presentations, (ii) group work activities focusing on (pre-selected) broad crosscutting issues, (iii) plenum discussions, (vi) public lectures and discussions as well as (v) a policy discussion session with a parliament member. None of the participants, including the organizers, had previous experiences from bringing together so many different competencies that within a week should address such broad and complex issues. However, all but (ii) worked well and as the organizers had hoped for. The group discussions and writing did not work as anticipated. The organizers should have been more specific about what was expected from these groups. We had created a password protected online wiki with background information and guidelines, were people could share references and develop documentation that would allow us to do further writing after the workshop. This has only happened in a limited manner. Perhaps this goal was too ambitious in such a diverse group.
It was a great pleasure working with the Lorentz Center both before and during the workshop. However, we have one important suggestion for process improvement: If a Lorentz workshop proposal is rejected and is given the option to resubmit (as we did), it should be clarified what that means. We were under the impression that a rejection of our workshop proposal was also a likely outcome after a resubmission. With this uncertainty we could of course neither confirm financial support for the workshop participants nor engage in a serious dialog with external sponsors. When the workshop was finally approved many high level key invitees had predictably made other commitments and the timeline for obtaining external sponsorship was too short. This meant that the workshop didn’t have sufficient representation from several key areas including synthetic biology, cognitive science/psychology and big history/anthropology.