What's next after What Next? We must continue discussion about NZ's future
OPINION: What's next after What Next?
TV One's What Next?, which explored what society might look like in 2037, concluded on Thursday last week, having aired across five consecutive nights.
It was a welcome experiment by TVNZ: public interest programming in prime time, John Campbell back on our screens, and - most significantly - a serious look at the future beyond the short-term focus of most factual and current affairs media.
We desperately need informed public debate about potential pathways into the future. Steady-as- she-goes, what the show called "Plan A" is no plan at all. We need bold thought experiments and new ideas about our approach to the economy, the environment and disruptive new technologies.
What Next? has been a positive but limited first step.
The show covered a wide range of interesting topics: automation, self-driving cars, insects and synthetic meat as alternative protein sources, extended lifespans, the future of consumerism, and many more besides. Sadly, these came so thick and fast that there was rarely time to explore them in any depth.
What Next? usefully showcased some of the ideas that should be on the agenda for debating the future but in a rather chaotic way that frequently lacked a wider context. It is of limited value to discuss autonomous vehicles, for example, without linking this to transport policy, energy infrastructure and economics: who will be in a position to enjoy this hi-tech future?
A second issue with What Next? is that it focused heavily on the choices facing individual consumers, communities and especially businesses, but very lightly on questions of government policy.
Sorry, #WhatNextNZ , your show has improved massively since the first episode, but the "Plan" A vs "Plan" B thing is still meaningless— Luke Goode (@LukeGoode) June 14, 2017
The show should be applauded for presenting the future in terms of choices, rather than using its expert panel of futurists to predict our inevitable fate. But while there is an important role to be played by individuals, enterprises and civil society groups in creating a desirable future, we also need to think carefully as citizens about the kinds of governments we elect.
What Next? focused heavily on social entrepreneurship, philanthropy, local resource sharing schemes, individual lifestyle choices and other voluntary initiatives (such as the excellent Free Store project in Wellington that redistributes good food from eateries that would otherwise be wasted).
But these will only take us so far. Policy platforms around infrastructure, transport, housing, taxation, wealth distribution, retirement policy, environmental regulation and so forth are vital components that will shape our future.
These remained mostly off the table in what was perhaps an understandable but misguided attempt to keep the show apolitical: like it or not, the future is political.
Even inequality and poverty were framed largely as problems of attitude rather than policy. The welcome discussion of a Universal Basic Income was a notable exception to this relative neglect of policy.
Finally, we come to the question of public engagement. What Next? made use of live comment feeds, running polls and after-show online discussion as part of a well-intentioned effort to make us feel involved.
But poorly framed questions, scattergun topics and a disconnect between studio discussion and audience feedback made it seem more like interactivity for its own sake than a platform for serious public debate.
In order to engage the public in serious debate about the future, it's also important to excite, inspire and motivate.
Sadly, What Next? fell short on this front.
There is no need to sensationalise or to deviate from the facts as we know them.
But, to a substantial degree, thinking about the future will always be an exercise in imagination and speculation. What's needed are visions that can move us: visions of the future that are inspiring enough to fight for them, and visions that are repellent enough that they motivate us to avoid them.
What Next? devoted an episode to the environment, for example, but barely articulated the seriousness of the consequences we face if we don't find new ways to manage our economy, nor the urgency of the challenge.
And while the futuristic vignettes were an interesting device, they would have benefited from more drama: for example, they could have depicted some very different futures side-by- side, depending on the choices we make in the present.
Perhaps it's unreasonable to expect a single TV show to be oriented towards practical policy on the one hand and be dramatic or exciting on the other.
Despite the best efforts of the hosts (especially Nigel Latta's enthusiasm, assisted, it transpires, by a genetic disposition towards optimism and sprinting), it managed to be both a little dry and light on practical and policy implications. For example, seeing politicians from the main parties grilled in one episode about the future implications of their policies would have been both beneficial and a welcome variation in what became a rather repetitive format.
Despite these limitations, TVNZ should be applauded for the worthy ideals behind What Next? We need more conversations about the future. And we need better ones. Let's see What Next? as first steps and keep talking about the future.
Luke Goode is Associate Professor in Media and Communication at the University of Auckland. The University was a sponsor of What Next? However, Luke was not involved in this initiative. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect those of the University of Auckland.