At and& festival, we are building an interdisciplinary space where bright minds merge, in the quest for answers to the big problems of our time. Because all good answers start with good questions, we’ve come up with 21 questions for the 21st century.
This week’s question: ‘We innovate for the better. But what is better?’ With confirmed headliners: Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Mohamed Ridouani, Luc Van den hove, Luc Sels, Margrethe Vestager, Mariana Mazzucato and one of the world-leading teen innovators -name yet to be revealed- will join the opening night.
Who wants to change the world? We have this human instinct to 'better' the world through innovation; leading to exciting -or should we say terrifying- scientific experiments. But it’s 2021 and climate change is only speeding up, Covid is still here and fake news continues to disrupt society.
What does it mean to innovate ‘for the better’? Is it better for everyone? Do we innovate for more wealth or more wellbeing? What innovations will generate actual sustainability, justice, and an inclusive society?
Luckily, according to the Economist, a dawn of technological optimism is breaking, while we enter a new era of innovation. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of certain innovations, like video conferencing, digital payments, telemedicine and industrial automation into daily life. The success of the COVID-19 vaccines shows how science continues to empower medicine. Humans are increasingly able to bend biology to their will, whether that is to treat disease, edit genes or to grow meat in a lab. And Artificial intelligence is, at last, displaying impressive progress in a range of contexts.
At the opening night of and& festival, some world-renowned influential speakers rsvp’d to step outside their respective fields of expertise and start an interdisciplinary debate about what it means to innovate for the better.
Synthetic biology is the field of the British artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg. She investigates the disrupted relationship between nature and the man-made. In her work, Ginsberg brings the smell of extinct flowers back to life with genetic engineering, so that humans may again experience something we have destroyed. Her work holds a call to action to rethink our behaviours, globally.
The economist Mariana Mazzucato -named the new Thomas Piketty- is on a mission to save the economy. She is one of the most agile thinkers in post-Brexit, post-Covid times.
In her recent book Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism she writes that the state has to be more active. In the current crisis, a wealthy elite has accumulated more and more while continuously damaging the planet. Business is disoriented by low investment, short-term management and corporate greed. These failures were enabled by the retreat of the state from guiding and directing the economy from the Thatcher era to today.
Mission Economy is styled as a “how-to” guide for policymakers who want to unleash the full potential of the state to solve some of the great challenges of the 21st century. ‘I often use the iPhone as an example of how governments shape markets,’ Mazzucato says. ‘What makes the iPhone ‘smart’ and not stupid is what you can do with it. And yes, everything you can do with an iPhone was government-funded by Uncle Sam, through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NASA, the Navy, and even the CIA.
If we can’t create an atmosphere where trust can be created, well, then we all lose out in the long run.
- Margrethe Vestager
Another powerful leader on the and& line-up is Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age and Competition. She is known for holding the world's biggest tech companies to account, including actions against Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and others. ‘Trust in technology is failing,” she warns. “If we can’t create an atmosphere where trust can be created, well, then we all lose out in the long run.’ Vestager is currently working on a European ethical governance for tech companies.
They are welcomed in Leuven (Belgium), the EU Capital of Innovation, by Mayor Mohamed Ridouani, together with Luc Sels - the rector of KU Leuven, Europe’s most innovative university; and Luc Van den hove, the President of tech spin-off IMEC and now worldwide acclaimed R&D hub for nano- and digital technologies. The city of Leuven is in pole position regarding topics such as health, high-tech, ecosystems and an active government.
How do these experts look beyond the big issues of our times, interdisciplinary? What does innovating for the better mean for their lives and work?
“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination,” said Albert Einstein. Can we imagine a better world, through innovation?
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