Richie Bartlett

That’s it, we’re doomed…

The next 30 years of innovation risk being wasted unless society does a better job of educating people about the potential - and downsides - of technology.

At its confidence and renown as a hotpot grows, the London start-up scene is getting more comfortable about asking – and occasionally answering – some big questions about the future of tech.

This time around, as part of an event organised by Virgin Business, groups of start-ups and more established businesses were asked come up with some of the ways technology would change various sectors of the economy, from retail to healthcare, over the next 30 years.

To give the conversation a new spin they did this in an hour, in pods on the London Eye, the 135m tall ferris wheel just by the Thames.

This high-flown wisdom was then distilled down into some big ideas and presented back to a larger group; rather inevitably this lead, alas, to the standard stream of consciousness you often hear at such events (intelligent fridge, cloud, smart fabric, nanotechnology, social enterprise, hyper-connection, personalisation, co-creation, big data, disruption).

None of this in itself was especially profound, or surprising, of course. In tech it’s hard enough to predict 30 days ahead, nevermind 30 years, especially when you are cruising through the sky in the London Eye.

But rather than this self-congratulatory froth of techno optimism, it was the barriers to this digital utopia that turned out to be the most interesting element of the event.

Many of the speakers agreed that tech can be pressed into service to tackle problems as varied as obesity and fixing the food supply chain to the future of health – but also that education is at least as important. It’s something we almost always overlook in the race to find the next big thing in tech.

Without smart consumers you can’t have smart retail. Without smart citizens you can’t have smart cities (or smart fridges). Without smart patients you can’t have smart healthcare.

We’re not talking about how to raise the next generation of coders; that’s a big but separate problem. This is about giving the next generation a better understanding of the implications and abilities of the technology we use (creating a few smart politicians along the way wouldn’t hurt either).

That might mean, at one level, helping them to parse the obscure terms and services of Facebook, or understand the implications of living in a filter bubble. At another, it’s giving young people a better understanding of the data around them; it’s all very well having an app that monitors calories or carbs but less use if you don’t know why those things need monitoring.

There’s been much talk about the use of big data to help businesses make better decisions, much less about helping the general public to understand and act on their own little data. Perhaps that’s the biggest breakthough we should be hoping for over the next 30 years – not smarter devices, but smarter citizens.