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The Elkington Report

Gen Alpha: Change the water, not the fish

The 'digital habitat' for the generation fated to be 'screenagers' is crucial to any hopes for sustainability.

Some of us toiling in the sustainability industry say we do so for future generations — and hope that they will look back and celebrate our selfless efforts. But how often do we think in any detail about those whose interests we aim to serve?

My recent travels have rammed home this question, surfacing an idea worthy of Mao Zedong: If you’re trying to change the world, don’t try to change the fish — change the water, the lakes, seas and oceans in which they swim.

Let’s start with the fish, our next generation of humans. Keen to gain an edge in tomorrow’s markets, analysts have dubbed them "Gen Alpha." As The New York Times explained in 2015:

For professional trend forecasters, a generation (as in Generation X or Y) is less a collection of individuals than a commodity: to be processed into a manufactured unit, marketed and sold to clients. To get there first and define the next next generation is like staking a claim in a gold rush.

Generational researcher Mark McCrindle noted: "There are more than 2.5 million Gen Alphas born globally every week. When they have all been born (2025), they will number almost 2 billion. They start school next year and will be the most formally educated generation ever, the most technology supplied generation ever and globally the wealthiest generation ever."

Global experiment

Expand the spotlight to the family environment Gen Alphas will grow up in and there are clear patterns, in the developed world: "There is the age of parents (older), the cultural mix (more diverse), socioeconomics (slightly wealthier), family size (smaller), life expectancy (longer)." Then comes the really big unknown, technology:

Generation Alpha is part of an unintentional global experiment where screens are placed in front of them from the youngest age as pacifiers, entertainers and educational aids. They began being born in 2010, the year the iPad was introduced, Instagram was created and "app" was the word of the year, so they have been raised as "screenagers" to a greater extent than the fixed screens of the past could facilitate. For this reason we also call them Generation Glass.

Next, zoom out to examine the wider habitat in which Gen Alpha is evolving. Here we are conducting even more profound experiments, concentrating the human population into increasingly smart cities — albeit in the context of some really dumb policies in terms of issues such as immigration and climate change. Barring major reversals such as pandemics, however, Gen Alpha will be increasingly urban. So it’s time to probe the digital waters in which the next generation will swim.

Barring major reversals such as pandemics, Gen Alpha will be increasingly urban. So it’s time to probe the digital waters in which the next generation will swim.
In Barcelona to speak at November’s Ship2B Impact Forum, I visited Francesca Bria. She has led the development of Barcelona’s Digital City Plan, as chief technology and digital innovation officer. She advocates both increasing digitalization and increasing democracy — an outcome she sees as seriously endangered if our data continue to be controlled by the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google.

While most people focus the "push" (supply) side of technology, she stresses the "pull" (demand) side, arguing for digital innovation to ensure greater collective intelligence in citizen decision-making. As she told Bruce Sterling in a Wired interview, "I think we are going towards hybrid models where citizens will have a type of self-governance and be directly involved in things like allocating budget, taking decisions and managing projects."

The same mindset inspires our project with Innovate UK, Britain’s innovation agency. Since 2007, it has committed more than $2.12 billion to innovation, matched by a similar amount in partner and business funding. In the process it has helped 8,000 organizations with projects estimated to have added more than $18.84 billion to the U.K. economy, creating nearly 70,000 jobs.

We are exploring how the opportunities flagged by the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals can be viewed as a "purchase order from the future (PDF)" for both businesses and cities. Specifically, we are investigating how cities can nurture innovative small and medium-sized enterprises working on solutions to critical urban challenges.

Shortly before I visited Barcelona, Volans and Innovate UK ran a workshop in Nottingham focusing on emerging solutions to air quality problems. The companies presenting ranged from giant automaker Nissan, turning a new leaf with its electric vehicles, through to Blaze, an early-stage firm working on radically improving the wellbeing of cyclists.

Digitalization is pivotal to most solutions on offer, including a scheme designed to switch hybrid vehicles automatically to electric propulsion during peak pollution events. And it will be central to later events on the aging challenge posed by Gen Alpha’s grandparents and great-grandparents, slated for Newcastle, and on the future of the built environment, to be held in London in the spring.

For many tourists visiting Nottingham, the draw is Robin Hood and his Merry Men. For our delegates, however, a key attraction was Robyn Scott of Apolitical, the online platform for policy innovation. As they put it: "Whether we like or dislike government, love it or despair of it, most of us can agree that government plays a pivotal role in solving wicked problems — from the refugee crisis and the strain of urbanization to climate change, cybersecurity and adapting to a world where an algorithm somewhere is chasing your job."

Apolitical explained: "Around the world, the hundreds and thousands of men and women working in government are tackling similar problems. Often, the solutions they find can be shared. But with public servants working under tight time pressure and often in silos, good ideas often remain confined to a country or a sector. This leads to duplication of effort, wasted taxpayer money and poorer services for citizens."

To misquote Churchill, first we shape our technologies, then they shape us. If Gen Alpha is to prosper and be merry without crashing the biosphere, massive investment is needed to ensure that citizens, cities and corporations align in pursuit of sustainability. The evidence suggests that adapting our digital habitat will be at least as important as schooling billions of Gen Alpha small fry.

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