Back to the future

This item first appeared in 2007

Cambridge & Great Eastern Regional Group Event review: Foresight

In the mid-1990s, the UK's Office of Science and Technology published a series of recommendations about the future of British science and technology. The idea was to identify and implement a focus for activities that would keep the country competitive, not only in its science but also in its wealth creation. Expert panels from fifteen business sectors produced recommendations and identified futuristic scenarios for life in 2015.

Peter Lillford was the chairman of the Food and Drink Sector panel. But having invested so much effort in this initiative, he wondered why nobody in government was tracking its success and learning from its mistakes. So he undertook his own review and on 17 May 2007 he addressed an audience in the Pfizer Lecture Theatre of the department of chemistry at Cambridge University, UK.

During the lecture, he recalled highlights of what some of the expert panels said might, or should, happen. Some now appear to be cringe-making sci-fi fantasy, but some were close to the truth. At that time, there was great confidence in the fossil fuel industry, nobody was sure whether climate change was real, and there were few genetically modified plants.

Explaining the ‘sectoral drivers’ used in the original analysis, he examined agriculture and the environment, the industrial sectors of energy, chemicals, and food and drink, and the service sectors of retailing and financial services. Even then, signs of the continuing shift of the UK from manufacturing industry to a tertiary sector economy were already evident.

The key question posed at the end of the lecture, and which continued in the discussion afterwards, was how can lessons be learned from this review? Can this study be used to help clarify current science and technology priorities, in order to meet future global economic and environmental challenges? It definitely seems a good place to start.

John Wilkins
Cambridge and Great Eastern Regional Group

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