Shaping up for a new Enlightenment

THE science fiction author William Gibson once quipped: "The future is already here ... it's just not evenly distributed yet." I've heard that phrase trip from many esteemed mouths in the past few years in Scotland - politicians, businesspeople, gurus large and small.

What Gibson meant was that western societies have enough good ideas and technologies floating around to solve most of our problems. His question was: do enough people - beyond the usual elites and creative classes - have enough of them in their hands to make a difference?

It seems to me that Scotland after devolution is a place where the question of how we "distribute the future" has become something of an obsession. This isn't just happening among the usual suspects - starveling writers, academics on the make, even idealistic pop stars.

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Take Sir Tom Hunter's "New Enlightenment" bash last month in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum, where the multi-millionaire outlined his five priorities to ward against a "mediocre Scotland". Look around the room, and you saw the new Scottish establishment in full regalia, nodding approvingly at visions of genetic engineering through stem cells, or doubling the budget of Scottish universities, or fitting every other house with a wind turbine on the roof.

While all Hunter's ideas might not quite fit together, you couldn't deny the ambition or sneer at the intention. It felt like the leadership classes of a small country beginning to genuinely raise their game - and seeking to do so through a commitment to the future which, though debatable in its specific directions, at least had its face to the horizon.

Of course, politics is relevant to the future of Scotland. What's changed in recent years, though, is the sense that constitutional or party-political change is almost meaningless, if it isn't driven by a dynamism in the society - whether economic, cultural, technological or even psychological - that compels the big structures to shift.

It's difficult to put figures to this dynamism - but it's easy to put faces and scenes to it. Last week, I found myself participating in a BBC conference at Savoy House in London: no more metropolitan an environment is conceivable. Yet within minutes, I was in a passionate discussion with Colin Burns, the former London head of the US design consultancy Ideo and now a consultant living in Pitlochry.

Inevitably, as he's moved home, he wants to know how to put his design ideas and insights at the service of a new Scotland. "But how do we do that?" "Well, why don't we just set something up?" And, indeed, we will. In my experience, this is the new Scottish enterprise, with a resolutely small "e". And it's maybe closer to the punk ethos than shiny steel corporate headquarters by the banks of the Clyde (though if they want to help, that's fine too). Do it yourself, fail, and then fail better.

Another moment came from simply enjoying a few sessions at the new Glasgow literary festival Aye Write! - a mere fledgling in the face of the mighty Edinburgh Book Festival. But the experience was just as cosmopolitan. Seeing Will Hutton being interrogated about the myth of Chinese power was a spectacle of expertise that would have left everyone in that room more enlightened and informed as citizens.

The exit chatter - among a crowd spanning several generations - was buzzing, disputatious, seeking more information. None of this new to an Edinburgh readership, of course. But the proliferation of books and ideas festivals across Scotland is a sign of a local surge for "new enlightenment", for information about our future, that can only be healthy.

There is a small but vigorous "futures" industry in Scotland - a bunch of institutes and think-tanks (mostly formed in either the run-up to, or the aftermath of, the parliament) who do patient, often excellent, work on the major trends shaping Scottish society, and make suggestions about how best to ride the rapids. I don't think their work is taken seriously enough.

I believe - and this is mostly anecdotal, but it feels no less real for that - we're seeing in Scotland the kind "reverse brain-drain" that began to revitalise Ireland in the mid to late Eighties. But these brains are coming back into a different world from 20 years ago - a world where the unlimited nature of our technologies meets the limits imposed by environment and religion.

The challenge, in Hunter's terms, is not just to be, say, a "world leader in stem cell research", but also a world leader in how we think through the consequences of this extraordinary innovation (Ian Wilmut's changing role - from pioneering cloner of Dolly, to public ethicist about the genetic revolution - is an example). We shouldn't shy away from the complexity of these issues, but embrace them - and that embrace will attract (and is already attracting) the best minds to this country.

The future is already here in Scotland - we just have to distribute it better.

• Pat Kane is a writer and musician.