June 17, 2016

Look to Budapest for Europe’s Future

Look to Budapest for Europe’s Future

‘New’ Europe is rapidly establishing itself as a beacon of innovation, social organisation and cultural influence, writes Gergely Böszörményi-Nagy. 

A weird and wonderful mix of explorers, technologists, philosophers and startup founders descended on Budapest this month to do some serious thinking about the future of jobs, medicine, warfare, food production and government. The second annual Brain Bar Budapest, a festival on future thinking, took place against a backdrop of disharmony and protest in the continent’s leading nations, with strikers on the streets in France and Belgium and a possible ‘Brexit’ looming in the UK. Despite this, Brain Bar attendees reached some surprisingly upbeat conclusions.

Brain Bar’s over-riding purpose is to send the disciplines of tech and philosophy hurtling towards one another at speeds quicker than a Large Hadron Collider. We stand nervously at the impact zone to ask the important questions such as whether immortality through trans-humanism is desirable? Will virtuality detach us from our relationships with the external world? Can commercial brands, the largest employers on Earth, survive the age of additive manufacturing? Could robots outsmart humans and take control?

Luckily, we had some genuine expertise on hand to answer these questions including astronaut Chris Hadfield, media industry legend Sir Martin Sorrell, the world’s first real cyborg Neil Harbisson, philosopher Virginia Postrel and fervent transhumanist, Zoltan Istvan, among many others.

But our main theme was Europe itself — what does rapid technological and societal change herald for our civilisation and the collective political structures that currently support it?

The home of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution is caught between its illustrious past and a very uncertain future. Will technology exert a centripetal or centrifugal force on the continent’s institutions? And, if the latter, what will replace them?

There was widespread agreement that Europe needs to do much more to put its own stamp on progress and preserve its status as a beacon to the rest of the world in the fields of innovation, work ethics, social organisation and cultural influence. There was also a sense that this is a natural moment for the baton to pass from old Europe to the new one. The political crises besetting western capitals are creating a sense of paralysis. Conversely, there is a sense of renewal in Central Europe and clarity about what a post-crisis future should look like.

So what should it look like?

It is a future that fosters a sense of smart competition between Europe’s nations as the spur to innovation and value creation. This is especially true in the technological space. It shouldn’t be about making the cheapest computer chips; it’s about understanding how those chips are going to be used tomorrow. We need to lead the human innovation that will drive real intelligence.

Even our esteemed technologists accepted that technology relies on people just as much as humanity has come to rely on technology. The same is true in politics — institutions become elite when they move away from people. They need anchoring in our lives as they are lived, messy and frustrating as they may be. We face a huge competition from the East. Its rise will exert profound economic pressure on our European social model. Europe needs to be more flexible to remain in the ring.

No one caught this better than Commander Chris Hadfield who, with the sun setting on the façade of Saint Stephen’s Basilica, recounted his space explorations to a young crowd in the square. He told us how individual human decisions have effected enormous outcomes and changed the course of history. “Brain Bar is about the interplay of human decision making and the future,” he said.

I can’t put it any better than that. We shall see where our European path leads in the 12 months to come.

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