Econ-SciFi: the dream ticket

Disclaimer: this is just me daydreaming! I have spoken to neither member of the dream ticket, and do not intend to until the organization and finance are solid. Think of it as a manifestation of admiration for two smart, energetic, important thinkers.

After thinking it through, I hereby propose a dream ticket for the main Econ-SciFi event.

Proponent [drum roll]: Cory Doctorow. The economy sketched in his Walkaway is our strongest candidate to the Econ-SciFi seminar’s ideal of “a completely different economic system that is both desirable and, in principle, achievable”. Plus, since we are reading his book, we will be better equipped to enjoy the seminar.

Photo: Jonathan Worth

Discussant [drum roll]: Mariana Mazzucato. Her The entrepreneurial state debunked the myth of private business’s role in innovation, showing that practically all relevant innovation that power, for example, the iPhone were invented in public labs, bankrolled by taxpayers and were invented as waypoints to innovation missions. Examples of mission are “put a manned mission on the Moon’s surface” and “split the atom to discover the universe’s fundamental structure”. This is deeply changing the way policy makers think about innovation. Her latest book is called The Value of Everything: I have not read it yet, but the blurbs shoot straight for the heart:

The book uses case studies – from Silicon Valley to the financial sector to big pharma – to show how the foggy notions of value create confusion between rents and profits, a difference that distorts the measurements of growth and GDP.

Photo (C) Mariana Mazzucato

So, I would love to see a double bill lecture with Doctorow as proponent and Mazzucato as a discussant. Something like this:

  • Doctorow: The economy of Walkaway : solving the coordination problem with non-market instruments (45 mins - 1 hour)
  • Mazzucato: Value creation in Walkaway and the global economy (45 mins - 1 hour).
  • Coffee break (15 minutes)
  • Q&A (30-60 mins)

What do you think, @alex_levene @anique.yael @mariacoenen and everyone, really?


I think that the two together is a good fit. Definitely going to have the depth of investigation that we’re looking for.

I like the idea of letting them have their own sections to explore something in greater depth, followed by a more open Q&A style set up. Perhaps, there’s something about having each side looking at the 1 core principal or element of the other’s work and responding through their own.
In which case, i would keep the Mazzucato topic as above, but add something about the idea of Value into the Doctorow topic. That way it’s clear that the objective is towards some kind of joined up clarity. It also helps to ensure that both of them are aware of the work of the other (if they aren’t already)

Presumably for the Q&A period we would need some form of procedural stewardship to ensure that questions get answered, timings adhered to, etc. A role for the production team? Or would it be interesting to have a moderator? Or does that then feel like we’re putting opposing views together?


No idea. I am used to academic formats, in which people self-manage. What do you think?

I guess is more a logistics question to iron out once we have buy in from participants. They may have their own views on preferred formats for Q&A

I think this a fine choice for the double bill lecture @alberto, and suggest we consider Mazzucato’s book The Value of Everything as our next title for the reading group.

Additionally, as mentioned, I’d like to see some participatory programming / workshops alongside the lecture, which I’ll look into deeper with @alex_levene and others interested to collaboratively develop some programmatic formats. I think there is an opportunity to conduct these with a particular focus on local collectives engaging in social, solidarity and alter-economies. Examples include: Bral in Brussels and associations involved in the P2P Foundation’s Commons Transition Plan for the City of Ghent

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I really like the local angle, @anique.yael. There are probably quite a few closet utopians out there, and many can be found in local govt.

hi @anique.yael, i think these ideas are good ways to help cement the event within the area.
I was talking to Alberto yesterday about the dream idea of an event like this, inspired by the LUSH Summit:
You can get an idea of the scale and design level of the vent by watching this video ( - i went sound off and jumped around just to remind myself.

Obviously this is on a much larger scale than we can achieve, and backed by a huge amount of corporate capital, but i don’t see why we shouldn’t aim big in terms of the design capabilities of an event like this. We have some sexy ideas and principals to play with, and i think they should be baked in from the start of any design.

Do you see us being able to trail the collaborative programmatic formats in November if it requires us to find local collectives? Is that enough time to make the contacts to be able to bring them in to that event?

I think that this team has the capacity to not only dream big but yes also make it possible. Aside from yours and others extensive experiences, I’ve co-curated and produced unprecedented ideas festivals with audiences into the tens of thousands, so I absolutely agree we have the opportunity for the event to align with the radical nature of its ideas. Also second your point on baking it into the design early on, and of course garnering resources will be necessary (that being said I have also put on a 56hr durational international conference with over 100 presentations for CA$6000, so big can still be possible with modest resources).

In short, yes. I think we can test out the more experimental and participatory formats in November with whomever is in the room, but think it would be valuable to keep the focus of those formats on citizen-driven social economies in local contexts. IE. Getting the bureaucrats to be thinking about econ SF in a pragmatic/ real-world, participatory local context. Of course it would be useful - but not absolutely necessary - to have a few local community leaders in the room if we can, and I think we could work with Millie to gather those within the timeline available.

Cool. I’ll see you in a little bit and will try to distil some of the conversation i’ve just had with Millie about how the event is created and the intentions behind their event. It does feel like the R&D open sandbox space is perfectly in keeping with what the whole event is for. Perfect for us to experiment in.
That should lead us to a few more concrete ideas and a pathway for reaching out to groups and partners.

Useful conversation today with Michelle from Climate KIC.
Seems that we may have the right draw in to bring Mariana into the discussion.
Michele has asked if we can put together a few simple talking points that Guilo and Kirsten from Climate KIC may be able to use to pique her interest in the project and the opportunity.

That could be as simple as the following:

Her book is going to be our September EconSciFi reading group book (is this still correct?)
We’re drawn to her ideas around mission led innovation
We see obvious overlaps between her path of travel and the works of fiction that we’re drawing other inspiration from
We’re trialling a new format of discussion and engagement between arts and science, literature and social sciences.
I feel @alberto has a strong handle on the perfect reasons that would explain why we’re so drawn to her work. Could you elaborate further?

From a logistics point of view i’ve agreed that we’ll synthesise the discussions we’ve had on here around the topic and the participants into a simple bullet points email that can be shared with Gulio and Kirsten who will be doing the discussions with Mariana. Alberto you may wish to feed in directly to these conversations as you already have personal relationships with these people.
I will also be signposting to this post on the platform to show the wider idea and discussion that we are having.

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Ok. If you want the bullet points on why we like Mazzucato in this context:

  • We turn to SF to paint vivid, believable pictures of completely different economic systems.
  • The notion of “completely different” hinges on theories of value that are, themselves, different from the actually prevailing one. For example, in Walkaway, The Dispossessed and the Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy authors explore gift economies, sometimes meshing with market economies; in Distraction and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom it’s reputation economies. In neither case does willingness to pay indicate value: these fictional economies are non-marginalist. In The Value of Everything, Mazzucato correctly zeroes in on value theory as a fundamental building block not only of economic theory, but also, through theory, of economic institutions like the Standards for National Accounting, and questions it, questioning the whole edifice.
  • Mazzucato has a unique quality: an almost jolly firmness as she slaughters golden calves with gusto. Neoclassical value theory? Unfounded. GDP? Unfounded and corrupted by lobbying. Patents? a roadblock to innovation. Finance? Extractive, clip its wings. Innovation? Forget market orientation, make it mission oriented. Big Pharma? Inefficient and unethical. VCs? Nowhere to be seen when there is real risk to take on. Government? The real risk-taker, we want more of it and more confident. Apple? Makes cute trinkets, but appropriated publicly funded research for everything really interesting in its products. That makes her the most visionary of today’s heavyweight economists. If anyone can tackle SF, she can.
  • She is also starting to sink her teeth in institution design. As a member of the Scottish government’s council of economic advisers, she has been highly influential in First Minister’s Nicola Sturgeon National Investment Bank. I expect (and hope) her to play an ever growing role in what comes next (EU, I’m looking at you). When thinking at this level of ambition, the thought experiments of SF writers and assorted utopians might help, especially as real life – Edgeryders included – has some tiny seeds of actual economic reality that functions according to other paradigms.
  • Blends well with Doctorow: she an innovation economist, he the editor of Boing Boing. Even if they started from opposite corners of value theory (they don’t), the common background of having studied the tech sector and VC ecosystem will be a platform for both stand on and meet.
  • Last but not least: I like her personally (we never met, I refer to her public persona). She is kind of a SF character herself – think a mix of Captain Janeway on Star Trek and, uh, Gandalf? Clear speaker, right combination of empathy and sternness. She is just perfect!
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This is really helpful @alberto, thank you. Always good to have things outlined clearly.
I guess the final question that is worth asking is what do we think both of these speakers will get out of participating in this?

This is a small sticking point in the discussions i’m having with @mariacoenen as well. We’re having a number of conversations about what we aims, results and impacts of the event are.
I’m wary of setting specific goals or results that we intend to hit with this, but i think Maria feels that she needs to know what the core goals of the event will be in order to best sell it to partners and venues in Brussels.
This is probably a discussion that needs to be had at a wider scale with all those involved and engaged in the topic. So i have brought it online here to the platform. |(ping @anique.yael, @noemi, @natalia_skoczylas)

That’s easy: each other, and the intellectual fun that we all are out for.

Doctorow is clearly interested in having his work discussed from an economic point of view, so much that he will read with interest what I, an absolute nobody, have to say on the matter. The Econ-SF seminar should bring to bear considerably more intellectual firepower, and hopefully start to build connections between utopian SF and existing, or at least actually possible, economic institutions that might evolve into infrastructure for those economies. Remember, this is the narrative mechanism of SF anyway: I know that Anathem is much cleverer than your average SF novel, but that contains a proposal for the design of a learning institution that does not build Everything Killers. It’s done by cleverly combining elements of modern universities (the Unarian maths), medieval universities and monastic orders. You can imagine SF being written doing similar work on development banks, or the complex schemes Ostrom found in the research leading to Governing the commons.

As for Mazzucato, or any economist… she gets to do what economics should be all about; blue sky speculation about how to pursue the common good, with new intellectual stimuli in the form of sets of assumptions that SF writers make for them. “Yes, but imagine we don’t focus on incentivizing people to overcome each other, and try instead to create abundance so there is no need for rationing… how would it work then?”.

The value of everything states clearly that societies need to decide what constitutes value. Except societies are not entities, they are emergent properties of the interactions across social agents. Economic institutions formed around specific groups of people with specific values and interests. Medieval banking families served the needs of merchants supplying high nobles with luxury goods found in distant lands, and, soon after, of kings in need of finance for their armies. The Washington consensus between the IMF, the World Bank and the US Treasury in the 1980s and 1990s represented the interest of international creditors, mostly Western banks holding bonds issued in developing countries. The infamous troika EC-IMF-BCE during the recent financial crisis represented the agenda of northern European countries. Can we imagine economic institutions that co-evolve with open source hackers and anarchists?

This should not be a hard sell. It’s not for everyone, granted, but if someone does not get it, we’ll move on to someone else.

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Much thanks Alberto for the intro to Mazzucato!

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Ah, @thom_stewart – it is a privilege. And you definitely belong in the reading group, if you are interested!

Hope to contribute, such a fun read!

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A quick shout from Berlin - Doctorow will have a 2-hour talk at a cultural venue in Berlin on the 5th of November. I am planning to go. Do you think it makes sense for me to, you know, come and chat with him after and tell him about our event?,1541455200

Secondly, there will also be a meeting with Cixin Liu, another sci-fi writer, on the 17th of November.


Thanks @natalia_skoczylas. Doctorow is aware of our initiative, and has agreed to at least consider our offer when it comes in. It is of course a good idea to walk up to him and tell him how great an idea this is :slight_smile:.

I have read the first Cixin Liu novel. Cool, but again not particularly interested in economics.

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