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Note to the core team: Scenarios for 2040

Note to the core team: Scenarios for 2040

This note sets out a draft methodology that we shall follow. Here is a response to this.

From Oliver Sparrow

Thank you for agreeing to be a part of the team that will shape these scenarios. I envisage the process a running as follows:

This is an extremely flexible process, and the deadlines are elastic. I ask you to contribute your thoughts when you are able, but you are accepting no defined commitment and you are welcome to adjust your involvement to match your enthusiasm.

Previous scenarios.

This scenario series began in 1996, and has published biennially since then. (More about this here.)

The last two scenarios were Carrying the Torch and The Age of Anxiety. The latter was, until 18 months ago, the 'official future': unbridled commercial expansion, social retrenchment around identity, an a consequent failure to provide the institutions that are needed for an integrating world. The outcome was a series of mounting crises around raw materials, environmental degradation and the lack of security. Nations responded with a maze of bilateral deals. The period was characterised by mounting volatility and shocks.

Carrying the Torch emerged from the roots of a sharp and early intensification of some aspect of the Anxiety case. That is, climate change presented itself as unequivocally real, there was a banking crisis (sic), the Gulf was subject to political disruption and oil or gas supplies were cut. Such an event served as a marker that business as usual was not possible, and nations, companies, the thoughtful flailed around for a different paradigm. What emerged from benchmarking many examples from many places was a style that prized evidence above rhetoric, and which looked for a social technology to get people in the mass to behave in what evidence showed to their best interests. Increasingly, firms are judged against a strong, clear model of good governance: these is only one way to get good performance, only one way to innovate, only one way to perform this or that technical task. Much the same is true of the state, in education, in monetary management, in law and so forth: nations and companies can differentiate themselves, but do so against a strict logic that is policed by a myriad of well-informed scrutineers.

Plainly, not all societies can operate in this mode. Some reject the models of excellence, some simply cannot attain the complexity and transparency that is necessary for these systems to operate. The world becomes increasingly two-speed, with the soi disant excellent carrying the torch, and striding forward at a pace which the others cannot follow, leaving 4-5 billion people to catch up as best they may. Those leading the pack are normative, interventionist, prone to always knowing better and being able to prove it. Parents have control over their children only when the prove to the state that they are fulfilling their parenting norms; and so on: all very 'Huxley'.

The torch is held less by nations than by sub-national regions and by minorities of organisations and people who tend to cluster in these (expensive) places. Middle America, for example, is largely torchless, resentful and reactionary in its views; whilst the coasts motor on without it. Similar things can be said of the Chinese coast, the Indian armpits and the remoter regions of Europe.

What might we choose to explore?

Joop de Vries suggested to me that we were "between chapters". One model that has dominated the West since the early 1980s has run its course, but we do not yet know what will supplement it. Plainly, the component parts of the next chapter has to be of great interest to us.

The predetermined elements make the future very different from the past. Even if we were able to continue with the previous chapter unchanged, these would make 2040 as different from today as we are from the early Twentieth century. Here are a few of them, a list to which I am sure that you can add more.

These factors propel us into a world in which, at the very least, many toes will be trodden upon. Values, activities, social institutions that were hitherto not connected will link up and so place constraints on each other. Complexity will increase, and with this the need to manage in ways that avoid complete paralysis; or worse.

It seems to me, therefore, that a deeply important element of the 'new chapter' is connected with people: their values, their management, their tendency to associate, where they will feel loyalty and solidarity and where they will not. It is not clear to me why, in this time frame, it will remain implicit that mutual support should primarily revolve around chunks of geography.

At the minimum, we will see the realisation of some networked version of subsidiarity, with really quite small areas of geography maintaining complex patterns of obligation with larger aggregates that enclose it geographically or trade with it. To survive in the intense and fast moving competition of the predetermined world, quite small chunks of geography will have to differentiate themselves in order to play to their strengths: Mayfair is not the City of London, however heterogeneous both may be. Devon is not Middlesex, Southern England is not the Isle de France. Each will have to find what it is god at, and what it can do for the entities which it contains – and the entities with which it is contained by, and trades with.

I would welcome your views on such a 'people focus' and thoughts on what the elements of such a focus might be. Equally, it may be that we need to polish up the predetermined elements before we take this step.

Here is a comment on this text:

Scenarios for 2040: Initial thoughts from Joop de Vries, Sociovision.

At this early stage of the scenario development process, producing “initial thoughts” is a tentative process. However, a beginning has to be made somehow, and these are a few viewpoints I would wish to contribute.

1: Terms of Reference: the “scenarios for 2040” are long term and focus on structural and worldwide change. In addition, we need to establish the prime ‘wavelength’ of the scenarios, or, in other words, which force is (or : which forces are) taken to be the main driving force. The main impetus can, for example, come from the institutions (describing the emerging geopolitical world order), technological/ economic change (to illustrate development and a growing ‘standard of living’), or social/ cultural interactions (to describe the future of ‘the brotherhood of man’ in general terms). In reality, all these dimensions will play a role, but it seems useful to have a working hypothesis regarding the predominant ‘wavelength’.

2: There are “pre-determined” factors, such as new inventions that are “in the pipeline” or a large number of demographic trends (excluding migration flows). However, how the world will respond to “pre-determined elements” is in most cases anything but pre-determined. An ageing society is usually assumed to be slow, unhealthy, apathetic, risk-averse, unimaginative, non-creative, etc. but whether it actually is, might be scenario-dependent. We have experienced an ageing process for many years, and an overall assessment of the impact of ageing on society is not easy to give. The same applies to technology : the new possibilities are fascinating and seemingly without limits, but to what extent the new inventions will be adopted, is scenario-dependent. For similar reasons, I find the TINA-approach often rather depressing and unimaginative, because it stops where the action starts, i.e. where we have to decide how society will re-act and anticipate.

3: Based on the above, I agree that “people” will play a central role in the coming decades, as you suggest in your note of 24 January. From a scenario development point of view, this is not necessarily good news: it means that assessments are needed of what people will do in hypothetical situations and how they will respond to a changing world (among other things, changing as a result of pre-determined factors). If people remain organised strictly according to lines on the map of the world, the problem becomes geopolitical, and is reduced to the question how nation-states will in future deal with one another. But, as you write, this geography-based approach may be too simplistic and in decline, and a new model is required.

4: Ideally, the scenarios should not be ‘variations on a theme’, in the sense that they are different outcomes of a single game, or based on a single model. In the past this often happened, e.g. “New Belle Epoque” (the world follows the recipe, and will be rewarded) and “World of Internal Contradictions” (does not follow the recipe, and see what happens). Instead, one should aim for scenarios based on different models that each have a ‘happy ending’ as far as the people supporting them are concerned. This implies that, instead of WIC, a “new world order” or “new chapter” scenario would have been developed - even though its probability would, in business circles, have been rated very low. By having several scenarios with a happy ending (not from our point of view, perhaps, but as seen by their supporters), the set of scenarios highlights the current diversity of perspectives and convictions, and the dilemmas for which we see ourselves placed at the moment.

5: Against this background, it seems to me that “Carrying the Torch” and “The Age of Anxiety” can in 2009 serve as a starting point, even though they may tell considerably different stories by the time all suggested ‘updates’ have been added. The CT-scenario is positive because it builds on new insights, on drawing the right lessons, good will and tangible actions – even though most of the world will be unable to join in. The core of the AA-scenario might turn out to be the clash between necessary global management and a population that is unable and/or unwilling to give such policies a chance, and instead only allows defensive, bilateral, limited actions to protect its interests. The ‘branching point’ between such scenarios comes very much down to the behaviour of ‘the people’ and their leaders. Will leading countries focus on global development and give global institutions a chance, seeing the bigger picture of which they themselves are a part? Or will vested interests prevail, unwilling to accept a new generation of leaders and ensuring a future of ‘muddling through’? In this context, the Americans who did not vote for Obama, are the ones to watch.

The above points summarise my first reaction to your questions. The list can be expanded and extended at any time, dependent on the direction which the process will take.

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