Futureproof: Aric Dromi on futurism and 'professional troublemaking'

Futureproof: Aric Dromi on futurism and 'professional troublemaking'

Aric Dromi is a futurist, but prefers the term “professional troublemaker”. Keynote speaker at this year’s AIB Future Sparks student festival, he spoke with Donal O’Keeffe.

Aric Dromi laughs when told that the only futurist his interviewer can think of is Tony Stark, Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man character from the Marvel movies. “Tony Stark is more a great pragmatist, I think, than a futurist,” Dromi suggests, in his gentle Mitteleuropean accent.

“We tend to misuse the word ‘futurist’, like the word ‘innovation’, that’s why I decided on ‘professional troublemaker’, because that way I can cover so many more uncomfortable angles of reality. Rather than talk solely about the future, most of my speeches are actually about the journey to the past, and I am much more fascinated learning about history than anything else.”

Dromi is giving the keynote speech at the AIB Future Sparks festival, a careers fair described as “a student festival”. He says by observing past and current events, he tries to tell stories about potential futures that could happen, and then he tries to design concepts for futures that should happen. Sometimes, he does this using today’s tools, but sometimes he tries to imagine the tools needed to be invented to create those futures.

When asked what made him a futurist, the 45-year-old looks to his childhood. “I’m dyslexic and dysgraphic, and I never felt part of the traditional education system.”

At a time before children were tested for such conditions, he was thought “lazy” by teachers. “Because I lacked the individual attention I needed, I spent a lot of time memorising the shapes of words, and some of the books I encountered were Jules Verne, and that was my first touch-point with how the future could look.

“Because I didn’t fit into the normal educational frameworks, I did a lot of studying alone, and I jumped between courses. I didn’t finish university, but now I find myself looking for new ways of enriching my mind, and that’s because the system couldn’t handle my individual needs.”

Dromi believes humanity’s best hope for the future lies in education, but says we need to fundamentally re-evaluate our concept of education. He feels we often think of education as a painful process. “Education is not something that happens only at school, it happens at home.Education’s job is to make sure we are catering for the fundamentals of imagination, curiosity, creativity, and invention. If we don’t do that, then we are really lost.

“How do we encourage students to ask holistic questions, not technology-driven, not policy-driven, but holistic human questions, questions that tickle their curiosity and creativity and innovation on a scale we’ve never experienced before?”

Dromi feels that as our present rapidly becomes the future, we are in too many ways still living in a world designed for the past. “A lot of our legislative systems, they’re dated all the way back to the Roman Empire,” he says. “That cannot scale into reality, where it’s very clear that you cannot use code in the same way you use bricks, and the gap in education exists mainly with our policymakers more than anywhere else.”

To illustrate this, Dromi says the “distance between two horses’ asses” dictates the distance between the boosters which carry astronauts to space to explore the final frontier. “Today when you build a road, it is still designed on the distance between two horses’ asses and you design your entire city around that road.”

Dromi recounts discussions he had with government officials — he won’t say which country — who were amazed that while it took the telephone 75 years to reach 50m users, it only took the game Angry Birds 35 days to reach 50m users. Explaining that it took decades of manual labour to create the infrastructure for a telephone network, Dromi pointed out while governments have had 75 years to understand the telephone’s economic impact, he questioned whether they have the tools to understand the economic impact of Angry Birds.

“I asked, what is the economic impact of a game like Fortnite spreading like wildfire in 2018, till half the kids on the planet spend their summer playing it. Their question to me was ‘What is Fortnite?’ I think that’s our challenge today. Our policies and infrastructure are so outdated they are creating a gap between potential and reality.”

Dromi warns we have not thought through the impacts of technology on our own species. “The average age at which we put children in front of screens is three months. I’m not fighting that, but we need to control the narrative, so the interaction is there for the kids’ curiosity and the development of creativity, and to boost their imagination. Our brains are capable of coping with a change of tool in order to complete a task, but for the first time we are facing not just a change of tools, but a change of the ultimate tool, our human brains.”

We are outsourcing cognitive functions to technology, he says, noting that the area of our brains responsible for orientation has significantly shrunk since GPS became a commercial application. “Machines replacing humans, what does it mean to be human in a reality like that? How do we reignite the two genes that have almost faded away, the genes of exploration and of creativity? How do we reignite the ability for collaboration between humans, and not outsource that to technology?

“I think the challenge is to put humanity first. We need to stop developing smart things and start developing humans that are smarter.”

To Dromi, education is a life mission, and the key to our survival. “Learning has brought us so far, and even if it is painful, only by the grace of God will we have the knowledge to face the changes that are coming. Education should never end.”

The future Dromi sees is neither dystopian nor utopian, but rather several potential futures where we still can take control of the narrative. Again, he returns to the theme of education. “It’s often said kids have more computational power in iPhones than Nasa had when it put men on the moon,” he says.

“But that doesn’t matter unless those kids have interest. If you don’t encourage curiosity, creativity and invention, it doesn’t matter what device you put in their hands.

“If they’re not interested in the knowledge from books, they won’t be interested in the knowledge from iPhones, either.”

AIB Future Sparks festival, RDS, Dublin, March 26.

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