Key Claim: If you’re a student and you have an academic project to do, you should consider doing a project related to Future Design, a movement that tries to include future generations in today's decision-making.
Here's a quick introduction to Future Design, a movement founded by people who don't self-identify as EA but that seem promising.
Epistemic Status: Quite confident on the key claim given that I've worked with the founder of this movement and done a project applying its principles. A few secondary claims, especially about the research done by the movement, are much weaker. I'm not an expert on this literature at all, I just skimmed through a few papers from the movement.
Acknowledgment: Huge thanks to Amber Ace, who has edited heavily this post (almost rewritten).
What is Future Design?
Founded in 2012 by the economist Tatsuyoshi Saijo, Future Design is an action-oriented research movement that tries to solve the following problem: how do we account for future generations' interests when we make decisions today?
Its main idea is that we should include representatives for future generations on decision-making committees. The idea is that :
- Some people are assigned the role of ‘representative for future generations’. These people advocate for future generations when committees are making decisions that will affect them.
- If there is someone whose role is to care about the long-term effects of a decision, this increases the chances that everyone is aware of these effects
- If any demographic group is not represented in decision-making, that group’s interests are often neglected. We should expect this to be the same for future generations: present people will neglect their interests if they don’t have representation.
Does this work?
There is some evidence that when groups include representatives for future generations, they are more likely to make decisions that consider future people’s interests.
In a founding experiment (p. 6 and following in the linked document), researchers assigned participants to several groups, who represented different generations (G1, G2, G3 etc). There were treatment and control groups. In the treatment group, there was one representative for future generations. Each group had to choose between Option A and Option B. If they chose Option B, the group would gain $27 to share between them, and the group after them - the ‘next generation’ - would face the same choice. If they chose Option A, the group would gain $36 to share, but the group after them would have a choice between an Option A of $27 and an Option B of $18.
The process then repeated, with later ‘generations’ getting progressively less money if previous ‘generations’ chose Option A.
The treatment groups - which contained representatives for future generations - were more likely to choose Option B. The effect size seems pretty significant.
The Future Design movement also ran some experiments in real local councils in Japan - for example, in one experiment, they asked residents of Yahaba to ‘ “travel to 2060 in a time machine’ and draw up policies from there’ (p. 13). The representatives for future generations in this experiment reported in interviews that they ‘experienced no conflict between the current generation and imaginary future person parts of themselves…In addition, the very act of thinking as an imaginary future person was a joy; in their everyday life, they found themselves thinking like an imaginary future person automatically’ (p. 14).
Why might EAs be interested in Future Design?
- It promotes long-term thinking within institutions
Future Design might interest EAs because it promotes longtermism within institutions. It might contribute to better institutional decision-making. Advocating for representatives for future generations is tractable, and evidence suggests that this does make decision-making less short-termist.
I think this kind of proposal is now within the Overton window: many people are concerned about climate change, and the idea that we should care about future generations often comes up in environmentalist debates.
2. It's scalable
The broad idea of having someone to represent future generations' interests is very scalable. There are decision-making committees all around the world, and if some important institutions start to use this idea successfully, there’s a chance that it could spread and end up having a significant impact on the world.
3. The movement is likely to grow, so we can shape it
I think that this movement is likely to grow anyway. EAs could have a positive impact by trying to get Future Design followers interested in global catastrophic risks (assuming that this work isn’t done by people who could have a greater impact doing direct work elsewhere).
Disadvantages of Future Design
Currently, the Future Design movement is very focused on environmental issues. Many of its applications have been related to climate change. People in the movement tend to feel positive about the natural world, and thus lean towards conservationism. If the movement isn’t diversified, there’s a risk that when people think of care for future generations, they only think of environmental issues. This could make agenda-setting more difficult for the EA version of longtermism (that includes concerns about AI, biosecurity, etc.), because EAs could lose their first-mover advantage.
The arguments against this are:
- Future Design does include some initiatives that are not related to the environment - for example, they care about economic issues, such as how much countries should borrow today, given that future generations will bear some of the national debt.
- The EA movement has already partially started longtermist agenda-setting in the US and UK.
Currently, it seems to me that the people at the core of the movement don’t have great epistemics. They tend to be overconfident about bold claims or to downplay the difficulty of building a robust movement by combining knowledge from various disciplines.
It's pretty hard to figure out what future generations' interests are, and your opinion on this will depend on your views about what the future is likely to look like. Given this, representatives for future generations could cause harm if those representatives had bad epistemics or a highly intuitive reasoning style. For instance, they might ignore concerns about AI or nanotechnology in favor of more well-known or salient problems, such as climate change or resource scarcity.
However, the successes of well-run citizen assemblies suggest that one can improve the way that people think about a problem by providing relevant expertise. Therefore, this problem could be partly solved by offering courses to the representatives for future generations before they begin their advocacy.
What (Student!) EAs could do
EAs could have a positive impact by encouraging members of the Future Design movement to care about biosecurity and AI safety. If Future Design is discussed or even adopted by some important institutions - and I think there is some chance that this will happen - it would be better if the movement focused on things other than just environmental sustainability.
Moreover, its framework is very flexible and thus it wouldn't too hard to reach out to Saijo and do a project about longtermist-related areas.
I therefore think that it’s worth spending some non-substitutable resources on Future Design. So, if you’re a student and you have an academic project to do, I think you should definitely consider doing a project related to Future Design.
Since Future Design is an academic movement, it gives legitimacy to a bunch of projects that it would be otherwise difficult to pursue at school or university. I can also put you in touch with the movement’s creator, and I’m pretty sure that he’d be happy to talk with you about your project. It could be especially valuable to do a project related to biosecurity or AI safety, if you have the opportunity.
People other than students might also find it worthwhile to get involved with Future Design. This might be the case if you like grassroots movements, or if you care a lot about both climate change and making governance less short-sighted.
Types of Projects
Here are some types of projects that students can do:
Do experiments on how information shapes people’s decisions
You could use experimental methods to see whether certain types of information affect people’s decision-making. For example, you might give people some information about the damage done by pandemics, and how likely pandemics are to occur, and see whether it affects their views on how much they’d want their government to spend on pandemic prevention. You could have a test group that receives the information and a control group that doesn’t.
Make a movie (or do another outreach project)
You could do an outreach project. When I was in college, we made a 10-minute film about future generations. The aim of the film was to inspire empathy for future generations. Our film’s structure was the following: in the first 4 minutes, we went back to the 1960s. We asked our grandparents how they thought about the environment and about us - i.e., the generations that would be alive in 2020 - at the time.
The idea was to highlight the fact that people who were young in the past could have prevented some of today’s problems, if they had thought differently about current generations. The film then spent two minutes talking about the problems of today. In the last three minutes of the film, actors played people living in 2050, explaining how their life would have been better if the people of 2020 had done more. Through our narration, we encouraged viewers to ask themselves: “what if we are in the same situation as our grandparents? What if we could prevent huge problems for future generations if we accounted for them in our decision making today?.”
Our film was about environmentalism, but you could make a similar film about pandemics, for example. You could follow the same structure: show the past, where some people said that we should worry about dangerous pandemics, but no-one really cared; the present, when covid is widespread but we’re still not investing enough in future pandemic prevention; and the future, imagining that there’s a terrible pandemic - far worse than covid - and the people regret deeply that we didn’t do more to prevent it in the 2020s.
Collaborate with an organization on decision-making
Persuade an actual decision-making committee to assign a representative for future generations for at least one actual decision, and potentially for many. You could try to do this in a local council or within a company.
If you want to do a project in the space of Future Design, please reach out (firstname.lastname@example.org)!
If you would be interested in working with Amber to help you write up your ideas, fill out this form.
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