The The HUMAN Project is a platform dedicated to addressing macro-issues facing mankind. It is founded by Anna Stillwell and Erika Ilves, two Dubai-based strategists who are motivated by the ambition to create a narrative that cuts across various initiatives impacting the “global agenda.” As Anna points out in our interview below, there are stark differences between the priorities of various global institutions like the UN, Clinton Global Initiative, The Gates Foundation, and other global-minded philanthropic/humanitarian foundations. The platform is currently delivered in the form of an app, and they are set to expand into other formats (e.g. printed book, android app).
Throughout the interview, we dive into trends that seem to be out of our control. In order to find agency amidst complicated scenarios, the app gives a flexible narrative arch shaped by user’s absorption and contribution of knowledge. While participatory features are not entirely built out, the app provides a provisional idea of how a program can help us solve impending and/or hypothetical problems. The HUMAN Project Book can be purchased on iTunes.
Tell us about the overarching objectives of your project and how your app/book is a step towards that end goal?
Erika: The overarching objective of our project is to set the ongoing human project on track toward infinity. We want to be part of an evolutionary adventure without an end. So we are rooting for the infinity scenario. Our project raises the big questions. We look into existential challenges and evolutionary opportunities to suggest ultimate goals we should pursue as a species. Then we pull it all together into an agenda and propose a way to get organized. And that’s basically what we have done in The HUMAN Project book and app.
Anna: Our first step is small: a free, crowd funded, multi-media iBook (app and Kindle are coming) licensed under the Creative Commons. In it, we lay out our conception of the issues we’re up against—from changing climate and how we develop technology to comets and asteroids and cosmic radiation—and some ideas for what we could do about them. It’s a straw man to get us thinking—to spread the idea that we need a big picture, ideas for how we might organize that big picture, and the content that could go in it. To keep the conversation coherent, we’ll need a curator of the big picture. Think of an online, evolving HUMAN dashboard of these challenges with killer data visualization. On the back end people should be able to submit additions, corrections and updates, but much like Linux, there would be a gatekeeper (or a team of them) that could decide which information goes in the evolving picture and why. Our long-term goal is to re-imagine the “global agenda” space for the age of the empowered individual. There are millions of people who self identify as global citizens and concerned members of the human race with no shared (informal) agenda and no place(s) to go to share good ideas. Bring in the scientists (include the citizen scientists and the DIYers) – cosmologists, biologists, geologists, technologists—get them together with the “global agenda” thinkers, the existential risk clan, and get everybody talking about the future of our species.
How did The HUMAN Project come about?
Anna: We were doing advisory work: vision and strategy for Fortune 500 companies and a sovereign wealth fund. One pattern that we saw play out over and over was people within organizations who didn’t have a view beyond their own industry. The difficulty was that we couldn’t really find a coherent big picture. There was the “global agenda” space (e.g., the UN, WEF, OECD, World Bank, The Gates Foundation, Clinton Global Initiative). Those minds were predominately focused on peace, justice, sustainability, and economic and social development. Then there were scientists—cosmologists, biologists, geologists—who were talking about the threats that stem from our cosmos (like comets and asteroids), evolving life streams (pandemics), and our evolving planet (earthquakes and super volcanoes). Many of their concerns didn’t seem to be making their way into the “global agenda discourse.” Then there was the existential risk clan. These thinkers were talking about everything from the risks we face from our efforts to create strong artificial intelligence (for example, it could turn on us) and design new life forms (what if we released a lethal life form?) to some overlap with issues being hurled at us from our cosmos. So there were different work streams, but they weren’t united by an open-ended purpose, or gathered in a coherent framework. After a year of research we decided that at the dawn of the 21st century we should have a coherent big picture that experts and non-experts alike could understand and that our first step would be to construct one and hopefully attract more minds to the case to help make it better and find new ways to organize to accomplish shared goals.
What’s been the most interesting response you’ve gotten to your work?
Anna: A number of people have been surprised by some of the issues that make our list like our aging sun, cosmic radiation and entropy. They say that these issues are so far in the future, that we should not worry about them or that future generations will be better equipped to deal with them. Our purpose is securing the survival and ascent of our species, so it’s important to understand what we are up against, regardless of time.
Erika: “I wish I read your book back in college. I would have become a scientist or an educator, not an economist.” Although it’s certainly nice to know that our ideas could have hypothetically changed somebody’s life path and contribution to the ongoing human project, I can’t help but think that maybe we’ve failed to convey a fundamental point. Our ideas are a clarion call to our generation—to all of us alive at the start of the 21st century. It does not matter if you are an 18 year old pondering what major to take up in college, a 40 year old grappling with a mid-life crisis, or a 65 year old wondering what to do post-retirement. There is always something, big or small, you can do to advance the ongoing human project. There is no age limit on your contribution. All it takes is a bit of time investment to wrap your mind around where we are at as a species, what needs doing and where you would be best equipped to contribute. The HUMAN Project book is one possible place to start.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being based in Dubai?
Erika: Dubai is quite possibly the most ambitious city on this planet. It’s all about pushing the limits—in architecture, in engineering, in culture. Every time I stand at the base of Burj Khalifa and look up at the 830 meters of exquisitely shaped glass and steel reaching toward the stars, the idea that we can set The HUMAN project on course to infinity does not seem all that crazy. In fact, it seems doable. So I’m sure our thinking has not gone unaffected by the ambitious urban spaces we find ourselves in. Culturally, it has been a surprise, too. We certainly did not expect to get so many backers and make so many new friends in Dubai as a result of our Kickstarter campaign. The city is quickly becoming a fixture on the world’s conferencing circuit. And if you need to be some place else, all of the world’s major cities are just one flight away. The disadvantage is that scientifically, technologically and philosophically speaking, Dubai is not really on the map yet. So you are much less likely to bump into a cosmologist, a synthetic biologist or a philosopher in line at a coffee shop. That is, unless they are on vacation. But nowadays that’s what Twitter is for.
Anna: We received a lot of unexpected support from the Dubai community. When things didn’t work out with our original creative team, we turned to our community of backers in Dubai and something really great happened. One of our backers connected us with Filmworks Dubai (they did Mission Impossible IV and Syriana) for the video work. They came in as a CSR initiative. Our backers became the actors in 3 of our videos and the models in all of the still photography. It’s so great to have them involved at this level and to see their faces and hear their voices when we open the iBook (and soon the app), plus it got them more fired up about the project and we had more time to hang out with them and work on shared goals. Reiner Erlings, a Dubai-based composer, came in to do the music at a radically reduced rate. We all became friends in the process. It’s impossible to imagine this project without all the great people we’ve met in Dubai. The world is more interconnected than ever before. There are, however, other places in the world where these kinds of topics get more mind time: San Francisco, New York, London. Not being on the ground and making live connections has been a disadvantage. At the same time, we had the opportunity to take a big step back, get some thinking space, research this space for four years, and figure out what made sense to us first before engaging.
Any final thoughts?
Erika: The big practical idea in our book is to turn the metaphor of the ongoing human project into an actual project. In broad strokes, we’d like The HUMAN Project to have a head, a heart and some arms and legs. HUMAN Discourse (the head) would be a digital platform and live events where we think critically and dream unapologetically about the future of our species. That’s where we’d keep iterating our agenda. We could start with a dedicated or co-branded global conference. HUMAN Culture (the heart) would be our culture lab where we create content that inspires people to dream dreams that span generations. Our book and app is a start. Our next step could be a web documentary series picking up where Jacob Bronowski left off in his wonderful BBC series “The Ascent of Man”. HUMAN Ventures (the arms and legs) would be an incubator for new ways to get traction on specific challenges on the HUMAN agenda. A good symbolic first move could be to figure out how we could rename the International Space Station to HUMAN Space Station. Next, we could crowd-fund Planetary Defense from asteroids and comets… We have a loooong to do list. So we have plenty of ideas. But in the end what we do next depends on the connections we make. So if you can spot our red flare, if you resonate with some of our ideas—please do reach out to us. After all, that’s how we ascend as a species, through connection!
Thanks Anna and Erika!
Purchase the eBook on iTunes for free here.