A new type of society: what innovation means to me

Prof Aled Jones

We asked Professor Aled Jones, Director of the Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) at ARU, what innovation means to him.

What is the most innovative aspect of the GSI’s work?
We look at new ways to run society and how people behave, with a focus on social change and policy. Traditionally, innovation is about developing new technologies or services, which we don’t do. Rather, we look at the impact of technological innovations on us all, with the aim of finding routes to making our society work better, and to be more sustainable and more equal.

We are also trying to understand big changes currently happening in society, and are very change-focused in our thinking. We look at the impact of food price spikes, at the causes of the Arab Spring, at how to transition to a low carbon society, at how corporations take profits out of the system versus people getting a wage, and the impact of inequality.

What worries you about society today?
There are real dangers that technological revolution will put riches into the hands of owners of key technologies, with the workforce being put out of work by robots. We need to break our economic model and distribute profits more widely. Yes, we have heard the voice of the disenfranchised in the UK and US loud and clear this year. People not only need work, but meaningful and satisfying work. They need to feel like they have a place in society. Most people don’t like repetitive work – soon robots can do these tasks. They like to make things, so we should not throw technology at everything. And perhaps we could create paid work for roles such as childcare that are often currently unpaid or under-paid.

Is innovation necessarily a good thing?
Not always. Just because something is new does not make it good. Some innovations are ‘un-green’ in that they build in obsolescence, making old technologies redundant and leading to a throwaway society. Also the way Government captures innovation at the moment could be improved: it’s not linked to the macro version of the future – it's piecemeal and too dominated by profit. The Government should have a bolder vision and be asking ‘Does society need that technology? Does it fit into our ecosystem?’.

The GSI is at the cutting edge of this kind of thinking, overlapping with bodies such as Forum for the Future, Chatham House and research groups at Surrey and Oxford universities. It’s the kind of thinking that philosopher scientists did 400 years ago. Over the last 100 we have been going down rabbit holes and lacked an overall vision.

Should innovation be at the heart of higher education?
Not at the heart of academic research. We still need the freedom for unapplied, blue-sky thinking, unconstrained from the pressure to be real world. I think it’s knowledge for knowledge’s sake is what ultimately changes society – you don’t get breakthroughs without it. I see innovation as sitting half way between universities and the other sectors: the corporate, voluntary and public sectors. Having said that, I think that innovation should be at the heart of teaching as we always need to be improving our methods there. Our Education for Sustainability project is innovating by equipping students with skills for a responsible future where people and the planet can prosper. In 2014 we became one of the first universities to embed that all students, regardless of which course they are on, will gain the skills and knowledge for sustainability.

Is there enough good innovation?
No, we need more well-founded innovation. We need to get away from consumerism and companies’ drive to sell new stuff – appealing to the baser side of our nature.

What would better innovation in the UK look like?
The UK is a great country that could lead innovation in all kinds of fields. We have not, for example, had a good history in intervening in other countries – we could learn lessons from these experiences and be a global leader in international affairs. Or we could be global leads in a low carbon transition. I’d like to see us look to 2050 and really invest resources and people to focus on planning a new kind of world, instead of our bitty approach.  

The GSI specialises in the behavioural aspects of sustainability. What do you think are the key psychologies for a sustainably successful world?
Generosity and supporting each other. I think we are good at that. Look at the response to recent terrorist attacks – people will put themselves in harm’s way for others. This, and the fact that people do so much volunteering, tells me we want our communities to survive.

The caveat is that this is fragile. It is too easy for a single terrorist or pantomime President to make us lose our sense of community, or to feel our lives are at risk. We are also vulnerable to fearing we we may miss out on the next big product. We then start to compete with each other, especially on social media. It’s not easy to stop this competitive part of our natures.

But you can play on competition in a good way, and it’s amazing how quickly things can change for the good with the right circumstances. When Trump recently pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement all the countries are suddenly defending it – India, for example, wants to aim even higher. All it takes is an enemy in the form of Trump to unify us in positive action that years of negotiation failed to do. We used to say it will take the same effort as the Apollo mission to tackle climate change. Wouldn’t it be great if his withdrawal can help solve this so fast?!

How did you develop your desire to innovate?
I grew up as a boy who was good at maths, in a rather small world in North Wales. My mum was a maths teacher; I studied physics to be different. I went on to spend almost 20 years at the University of Cambridge, doing a PhD in Astrophysics. Academia can sometimes be a frustrating place to work. I got frustrated with the university’s emphasis on producing people who would either work in the city or do deep science. I hated the inequalities of the social class divide and in the background, have always had a sense that the world can be better.

Learn more about the GSI

Visit the GSI's web pages to learn more about the institute and its research.