Technology guru sets up 21st Century School

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The Independent Online

Information guru James Martin this week donated a £60m endowment to Oxford University to set up a school dedicated to solving the problems of the 21st century.

First the good news: the man who predicted the advent of the internet and cellular phones way back in the 1970s says he is certain we will all be working less in 20 years' time.

Now the bad: it may be too cold and wet for us to enjoy the increased leisure because of climate change caused by global warming.

These are two of the predictions by the British-born information guru James Martin, who this week donated a £60m endowment to Oxford University to set up a school dedicated to solving the problems of the 21st century.

They are also two of the first issues that the school - to be named the James Martin 21st Century School - will tackle. It already has a £7.2m government contract to tackle climate change.

He warned that if ice from Greenland interfered with the Gulf Stream, it would be disastrous for Britain and the rest of Europe. "We don't know how much disruption it would cause. It could happen in 10 years - it could happen in 50.

"If happens in 10 years' time, we're in trouble. In 50 years, there is a lot we could do to stop it - but if it happens suddenly you would get a catastrophic temperature drop."

On the question of leisure time, he is more ebullient. "You are going to lose more and more jobs to automation," he said. "You are going to lose jobs to India and China; that is a real groundswell that you cannot stop. In the past 20 years, we have seen the advance of technology go hand in hand with the demand for more skills. People are working far more intensely than they were in the 1970s. That cannot continue.

"People will be living in a world where they work less than they do now. We will have to develop interest in things like music, culture, opera, theatre and sport."

Dr Martin is hoping the new school will take the lead in educating the public on the importance of climate change and other issues facing the 21st century.

The idea stemmed from a meeting he had with Dr John Hood, the new vice-chancellor at Oxford, in Bermuda - where he has a home - three years ago before he took up his post. It was one Dr Hood acted upon immediately upon arrival in Oxford.

Dr Martin is at pains to deny that he is a multimillionaire philanthropist - and smiles politely, as if slightly embarrassed, when the colossal sum he has donated to Oxford University is mentioned. "The 21st century is amassed with a lot of problems and they need people looking at them and at how to solve them," he said.

He has not donated to any institution other than Oxford, where he studied physics at Keble College from 1952 to 1956.

Surprisingly, for someone who has built up a reputation as an information technology guru, he is at pains that his school will come up with human, rather than technological, solutions to problems.

"I've spent far more of my life in America than in Britain," he said, "but with American universities it would become more about looking at a technological solution. We need to look at more than that. I had the feeling that this country would be better at that - particularly at Oxford and Cambridge."

He wants his researchers to look at the human effects of issues like climate change, issues to do with the development of work practices and the extreme inequalities of wealth between some countries. He also wants them to educate the public about these problems.

Prior to the donation for the school, he also financed a new Institute of Science and Civilisation at Oxford University - whose research work will now be incorporated into the school.

"I'm very interested in civilisation - what should be civilised behaviour in the 21st century and how should our children behave?"

Visiting Oxford this week for the school's launch, Dr Martin was struck by the differences between the approach of students today to their studies and those of his day. "In my day, we were encouraged go into lectures in subjects that we weren't studying," he said.

"The idea was to broaden our horizons. They don't do that now. Students all over the world will spend all of their time on just one subject, desperately trying to get good grades in that subject."

He felt the approach of the 1950s was "preferable"and hopes his school will encourage the passing on of knowledge and wisdom in the solving of today's most pressing problems.

Dr Martin started his life as a rocket scientist before he emigrated to the US and earned his fortune writing books, such as the Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Wired Society: A Challenge for Tomorrow which forecast the arrival of the internet. He also acted as a consultant on issues related to computing and information technology. He founded his own company, James Martin & Co. (now known as Headstrong).

He would argue that the establishment of his new school is not "rocket science"- but a necessary step to ensure proper debate on solving the problems of the world.

Path of the guru

* In 1977, James Martin predicted cellular phones, the Web and the internet before anyone had heard of them.

* In the 1980s, he helped develop RAD (rapid application development), software that lets usable systems be built in as few as 60 days by using a flowchart instead of code.

* He became an adviser to the US government on scientific software.

* In 2002, he predicted growth of "personal media machines" for programming TV and internet viewing.

* In 2004, he predicted nanotechnology, gene-based medicine and low-cost, miniature WMD.

* His company has 30 offices around the world.