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COMMENT: DOES SPORT HAVE A 'MATERIALITY BIAS' PROBLEM?

In our latest comment piece, equitysport Executive Director, Tim Harper, reflects on some of Geoffrey Mulgan's suggestions around collective consciousness, imagination and materiality-bias through the lens of sport and sports development.


Geoffrey Mulgan, a Professor of Collective Intelligence, Public Policy and Social Innovation at University College London suggests that if you ask people to picture the world in 2062 they will "find it easy to picture ecological apocalypse or climate catastrophe" or a "technological future - a world dominated by robots or drones", but most of us struggle to get beyond "the fuzziest blur in describing what society might be like, our social future as opposed to our technological future."


Seeing as I lead a human-first organisation focused on the future of sport, I ran a similar thought experiment on myself, and a few peers - what does sport look like in 2062?


It's pretty easy to picture a quite depressing future; traditional sport has slipped, largely, into cultural irrelevance, perhaps replaced, at least in so far as its entertainment value, by high-tech "e-sports" performed in some netherworld meta-stadium to banks of screens and cameras. And, similar to Mulgan's musings over society at large, the more optimistic outlook for sport, more often than not, gravitates towards technological or infrastructural development - a future of cathedral-like stadiums and hi-tech facilities for all laying the foundations for equitable access and equal opportunity.


Photo: The future of sport?


It's much harder to pin down exactly what the future of sport looks like, or feels like from a social or cultural perspective. What does society consider the role or utility of sport to be in 2062? How has society managed to reconcile sport's social, political and cultural tensions and differences? Where has the pursuit of equality, diversity and inclusion got to?


In a recent episode of the RSA Podcast: Bridges to the Future, Matthew Taylor (NHS Confederation) and Geoffrey Mulgan suggested we face a crisis of imagination, that 'materiality bias' is having a serious and damaging impact on the way we think about our collective future.


In sport, futurism tends to celebrate its most obnoxious tendencies - more things, bigger things, shinier things. It's all material. Rarely social. Rarely human. White elephant projects are nothing new, they have dogged sports development around the world for decades, if not centuries. We, collectively, have repeatedly fallen into the trap of the simplistic thinking that infrastructure / technology = opportunity, or worse, infrastructure / technology = change.


Mulgan (same guy) argued in a speech to the Academy of Social Sciences earlier this year that "its obvious in retrospect that changes in [collective] consciousness - how we think about gender, race, ecology etc. - have more profound effects than technological change", and that couldn't be more true of sport. Who would have thought that the debates (and excitement) around technology (see shoe technology, hawkeye or goal line technology) and pharmacology (see doping and the scientification of elite performance) would quickly give way in the latter 2010's to the ideological confrontations of gender identity and geopolitics that it now finds itself grappling, with evermore polarised vigour.


Sport will continue to evolve its technology and develop its physical infrastructure, and it will continue to consider and plan for the impact of such advances - I hope that development will see expedited progress outside of traditional sites of access and opportunity. However, my over-riding hope is that we can start to better explore the world of possibility beyond the material, and recognise that sport, as an important sociocultural institution, can evolve, shape and influence the ways we will think and feel about sport, and its wider utility to society.


With so much elite sport happening in the summer of 2022, we're enjoying some really great conversations around the future of sport, particularly the future of women's sport and sport in the Global South - but how quickly are those conversations retreating to comfort of the facilities, stadiums and the material conditions in which sport is enjoyed?


As important as those conversations are, we are rarely giving ourselves the time and space to stop, throw off the bias of material-focused, hardware-based solutions and explore the future ways of thinking and feeling. How will future generations think about sport, how will they feel about sport? How can we start to prefigure the inevitable shifts in collective consciousness and effectively shape them to reflect the very best of ourselves and of sport?


As Mulgan urged the Academy of Social Sciences, "we need to populate our fuzzy pictures of the future with complex, rich, plausible ideas and pictures of the possible", and I contend that sport is the low-stakes, high influence ecosystem to lead the way!

 

equitysport is a values-led registered charity (1189559) that exists to advance equality, promote diversity and extend equal opportunity in and through global sport. We seek an inclusive and equitable sporting ecosystem that lives true to the values of sport.


For interviews or further comment from equitysport, please contact the team via hello@equitysport.org

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