“I'm a thinker,” confesses Jonathan Ledgard, with obvious concern for how this self-applied descriptor may come across in certain circles. “You’re not really allowed to say that, but pretty much what I’ve spent my whole life doing is going to the front line—whether a refugee camp or Neil Gershenfeld’s Lab at MIT—and then coming back and thinking about it.”
He may well be a thinker, but Ledgard is equally a doer. Novelist, former foreign war correspondent, inventor, and technologist, he also happens to be a former director of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. And his particular brand of imaginative thinking has resulted in concrete action with life-saving potential for both humans and non-humans alike. We scratched the surface on some of that work in a recent conversation.
Fab Foundation: Your professional experience runs deep and wide. Can you explain how you first became involved with the Fab Foundation and where your work intersects?
Ledgard: In my previous life, when I worked for The Economist, I was Africa correspondent of the paper for a decade. That was a formative time, the early 2000s. The mobile phone had just arrived in Africa, and you also began to see a democratization in computing there.
Then, Neil published his seminal essay in Foreign Affairs, exploring true democratized fabrication in communities. Naturally, I was very interested in that. I was then, and I remain, a great believer in a decentralized fabrication—even if it’s a dream that has yet to be fully realized.
Later, I became a director at EPFL, which is a “crunchy” tech school, very hardcore on mathematics and computing. At that point, I had some projects with MIT, and that's when I first met Neil. This was the beginning of many conversations about fabrication, exploring how we can develop fab supply chains in poorer countries. What I primarily care about is emerging economies.
One of my projects involved developing this idea around “droneports” to push drone delivery of medicines and blood in remote areas of emerging economies. And drones, of course—here we're talking about the winged drones—need a lot of fabrication. They have to get repaired and augmented. That's the sort of thing a Fab Lab can do. We can do wings and body structures affordably, accurately, and robustly. So, it makes sense that a droneport would also be a Fab Lab. I worked on this with the Fab Lab here in Nairobi. I believe it was their director, Kamau Gachigi, who first connected me with Neil.
Lately, these conversations have moved towards thinking more about the preservation of life itself. Neil is one of the founders of Interspecies Internet, and I have coincidentally developed Interspecies Money. This has considerable play into the Fab futures, in that it will decentralize data and money in a regenerative way at multi-billion dollar scale.
Can you provide more detail on that project?
Essentially, what we're arguing for is that rare embodied life forms should be allowed to live on into the next century—that's the starting point. In my lifetime, we've lost half of all the animals on planet Earth. Unfortunately, we're not going to see much progress on climate change. That’s not to say that we’ll fall off the cliff completely, but we'll definitely see a 2°C increase; that's locked in. And, at the same time, we’re seeing nation states like Sudan, for example, just collapse.
In this combustible environment, we will need new ways of incentivizing the cohabitation between poorer communities and other species; with Interspecies Money, we want to push digital identity and financial value across the species divide so that non-humans—animals, trees, eventually even insect and microbial colonies—can represent themselves in our digital platforms. In other words, we aim to create a digital twin and attach some financial value to it in a secure and stable way.
I do believe that most humans are biophiliacs and want to live on a planet which is biodiverse, which has biocomplexity and a diversity of intelligences and ways of being. We share our planet with 8.7 million other species, and we only know about a million of those species. So, over a period of time, this project could be something that evolves and unfurls to planetary scale—much like we talk about the evolution of the Fab Lab movement—and we start to actually understand the needs of other species in a much more detailed and empathetic way. And then, we start to acknowledge those needs within artificial intelligence systems.
Where it intersects with the Fab Lab movement and gets exciting is in the decentralized content. Local agents can gather data, perform tasks, and help to bring communities together. There are a lot of basic principles of community conservation which are already well known: How do you win trust in the community? How does the community participate in the project? How do they take ownership of it? These ideas have been established since the ‘70s. The main problem we’ve faced is, there's no money.
Appropriately, you’ll be speaking at FAB23 about opportunities for innovation in emerging economies. What are you hoping to accomplish in Bhutan?
I’d love to win some hearts and minds—understand if there are species in Bhutan that could benefit from our approach. We’ve been talking to one of our lead biologists who is working on a project in Bhutan with the Himalayan griffon vulture. These beautiful birds are endangered and might be a good recipient of Interspecies Money. They would receive a digital twin, and then we would be able to pay local communities to become observers and be rewarded for protecting their breeding sites.
There's also been a lot of work done in Nepal regarding droneports. I’d like to look into possibilities for drones in Bhutan. In terms of geography and primary healthcare needs, it’s a perfect match.
It's critical for all of us to help build networks which distribute value more fairly. Really, everything we're talking about, in one way or another, is about spreading equity intelligently. I think the Fab Lab movement, also, can feed back into the wide world the lessons that it’s learned.
In terms of the Gartner Cycle—where you first have the hype, and then people lose hope, and then there’s some steadying—we're in the doldrums at the moment. Technology is not delivering. We’re solving for the wrong problems, and so on. But I remain bullish, I have to say; we have the capacity to regenerate what we have destroyed.
Keep an eye on our Schedule page to find out when Jonathan Ledgard will be presenting at FAB23 Bhutan!