Editorial: Hope holds sway for 2015

By the time people catch up to cases of “fragile science” decades of damage could have been done. But the wisdom of crowds holds true.

Depending on your general levels of optimism or just how relaxed or otherwise Christmas was, the outlook for a new year can bring a sense of hope.

Those involved in venture investing tend to veer on the optimistic side of things. After all, change brings the opportunity for new ideas and startups to do things differently and, hopefully, better.

Grinding out efficiencies of costs and marginal product tweaks is the stuff large corporations do well.

But there are a number of global, uncontrolled experiments currently underway that may lead to bad outcomes.

Peer-reviewed publication the BMJ (formerly British Medical Journal) used this type of language in an article last month on “mass murder” caused by “bold policies” in food that “have been based on fragile science, and the long term results may be terrible”.

The author added: “Overenthusiastic scientists, poor science, massive conflicts of interest, and politically driven policy makers can make deeply damaging mistakes.

“Over 40 years I have come to recognise what I might have known from the beginning that science is a human activity with the error, self deception, grandiosity, bias, self interest, cruelty, fraud, and theft that is inherent in all human activities (together with some saintliness).”

Those arguing for the opportunities from analysing big data sets with unprecedented computer power and methodologies are forewarned that the same inherent human behaviours will find their way into these areas, too.

Much attention last year went on the risks and opportunities being created through artificial intelligence, as well as additive manufacturing, the sharing economy and in life sciences.

Predictions, such as news provider Fortune’s crystal ball of 29 things to watch this year, show a cornucopia of large and small changes already underway.

We really are living in an unprecedented age of experimentation. But entrepreneurs often have a bias – often encouraged by investors and society – towards asking for forgiveness to any mistakes rather than permission to do something. So where does this leave government when the consequences of action or inaction are hard to know and the incremental changes or iterations being tried by a swathe of startups in different regions impossible to monitor?

Al Gore, the US’s 45th vice-president, in a question-and-answer discussion after his keynote speech at our Symposium in 2013 gave a nuanced answer to my question of how to manage permission versus forgiveness: It depends.

The approach the European Union (EU) is aiming for is greater transparency in a bid to allow greater accountability of those making decisions affecting people.

Cecilia Malmström, EU Trade Commissioner, in a speech before Christmas said the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP) would be completed in the spring but go beyond traditional areas of negotiating tariffs into the “new” area of regulation. Regulatory areas of wide divergence will be left but areas of similarity will look for economic savings to be opened up, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

She said: “Our work on regulatory coherence is all about the kinds of fixed-cost barriers that affect SMEs the most. That is why we will have a dedicated SME chapter in this deal.”

The risks are plain. By the time people catch up to cases of “fragile science” decades of damage could have been done. But the wisdom of crowds holds true. When there is enough openness and opportunity to test the assumptions behind the proclamations and then willingness to listen to these answers good decisions can be made.

At the start of this new year, therefore, hope indeed holds sway.

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