Even as the world’s woes mount up in these bleakest of times, there is a narrative emerging in which various new types of technology will ride to the rescue. This narrative has a name – the ‘roaring twenties’ – and the story goes that a decade that has brought us little but despair thus far is set to accelerate with a whoosh of innovation to leave our troubles behind.
As narratives go, this belief that the sunny uplands are within reach would be easier to accept if the current ground were not so stagnant and stony. From state-sponsored cyber-attacks and social media extremism to slow growth in company productivity and stresses in healthcare delivery, technology can be more often part of the problem than the solution. Even the high-tech lustre of switching the world’s biggest companies to remote working is wearing thin the longer the hibernation at home goes on, although most older workers aren’t complaining.
Nevertheless, serious commentators have voiced optimism about the future and called on governments intent on greater regulation to give tech a chance. According to The Economist, there are three main reasons to look on the bright side: first, the discovery of new technologies; second, investment in them; and, third, their adoption by workers and consumers alike.
It is true that a flurry of recent discoveries in such areas as medicine, artificial intelligence and urban mobility has reinstalled a belief in progress. The global success in developing vaccines during the pandemic has done much to raise scientific spirits. Self-driving cars are on the road and the price of renewable energy is coming down.
Booming investment in technology is another reason for cheer in innovation circles. America’s non-residential private sector spent more on computers, software and R&D in the second and third quarters of 2020 than on buildings and industrial equipment, reversing a decade-long trend. Investors are piling into tech stocks. In January 2021, Tesla founder Elon Musk overtook Jeff Bezos of Amazon to become the world’s richest man.
Nobody can dispute either the rapid rate of adoption of new technologies from online shopping to video conferencing and telemedicine. Entire business sectors are being reshaped in the digital era, even if hard times on the high street, in managerial employment and in the office property market might dampen the economic mood. The acid test, of course, is whether these innovation trends will make our ageing societies richer and actually lift living standards. Sceptics ask, can the ‘roaring twenties’ really roar?
Researchers in the inclusive design field are constantly scanning the horizon for technologies that will improve healthcare and support older and disable people to go about their lives more easily. Warmer, safer, better insulated homes, autonomous vehicles that solve the ‘last mile’ problem of public transport and digitally connected care all fit that bill – and they depend on technological prowess. Data collected in the built environment on human movement and behaviour has the capacity to inform better design decision-making. And yet we pause at the gates of progress, not quite ready to believe.
To demonstrate my point, take a look at what the Design Museum in London has just chosen as its 2020 Design of the Year. From all the world’s innovations, the museum’s top prize has gone to a temporary interactive installation called the ‘Teeter-Totter Wall’ on the US-Mexico border – this enables children from different countries separated by the Trump barrier to play together on three bright pink see-saws, while their parents and grandparents watch on.
Designed by architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello with Colectivo Chopeke, the see-saw project is a heart-warming symbol of hope as well as of intergenerational interaction. In its low-tech simplicity, it is about as far away from the world of high-tech discovery, investment and adoption as it is possible to be. And yet it speaks to us in a way that is direct and authentic, making a political statement about the desire for human connection in an understated way.
Perhaps that’s the challenge for the ‘roaring twenties’ – to make new technologies human in scale and relevant to our lives. Then, we might believe.
About the Author
Jeremy Myerson is Helen Hamlyn Professor of Design at the Royal College of Art and an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing.
Opinions of the blogger is their own and not endorsed by the Institute
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