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For comment: predetermined factors

For comment: predetermined factors

There are features of the world that are relatively pre-determined: that is, they are extremely likely, although they may also be very different from the world we now inhabit. The charts that are shown here are a first 'cut' at the predetermined elements for the world to 2040. They are arranged in four clusters, relating to demographics, scarce rent sources - the means of extracting sustainable high levels of profit - science and technology, and contentious political issues.

The charts are read left to right, with the time scale given along the top and bottom. The blue shapes are appropriately labeled. You will see that they vary in width, with the thickness intended to reflect their weight in any given period. Thus "first world aging" begins to be significant today, grows to 2020-25 and thereafter contracts. These are not intended to be read literally - that all problems everywhere will be gone by then - but rather a means of jogging thought and placing those thoughts in a rough, relative time frame.

The term 'scarce rent source' refers to an idea dating back to the Eighteenth century, when the economist Ricardo asked himself whether he could explain why rents varied from place to place. Generalised, the idea is that activities generate defensible supernormal profits when they exploit something that is closed to others: a port, a mine, a patent, a pool of clever people.

At issue, therefore, are the 'rents' that will matter to commerce in the period to 2040. Feel free to comment or suggest your own ideas.

Science, engineering and technology have been amongst the most potent drivers of commercial and social change in the past century. The figure that is shown below attempts to identify the vital changes that will affect society, commerce and power. Some of these may need amplification:

AI means artificial intelligence, and one that passes the Turing test is declared indistinguishable from a human. Knowledge domain AIs are able to pass this test only in a specific area - medicine, architecture - but are fully competent within these. Such would become accessible to individuals on demand, but also on a "push" basis: 'It seems to me', says what used to be your cellphone, 'that you need legal help. Here is how to think about your problem.' Plainly, the implications for productivity are huge, but so too are the implications for the doctors, architects and lawyers who are displaced by this.

Human embryogenesis is how a singel cell turns into a human being, and rooting this in an understanding of the genome allows us to see every step by which the DNA code brings this about. It is a complete wiring diagram for assembling a human being, offering engineering-equivalent potential to intervene.

Elective physiology and personality means that either parents can choose on behalf of children - or perhaps adults can intervene in their own bodies - in order to select characteristics such as emotionality, cognitive abilities, disease resistance or athleticism - not to mention cosmetic variations - that the wish to display.

Sociopolitical issues are always to some extent scenario dependent. Societies contain all manner of opinion, and which of those acquires a dominant voice depends on the narrative, the story that the society tells itself about who it is and what it values. That said, these trends are intended to anticipate such a narrative.

This last chart is different from the previous ones, in that it treats the economic crisis as a branching point that triggers a series of stereotyped - if not exactly predetermined - outcomes. In the upper branch the crisis is resolved quickly, in the lower branch it is not. In fact, of course, both branches will be explored by each society, with some enjoying more of one than the other. The resulting dialogue plays out as shown.

This final chart should not be taken too seriously. It intends to stimulate thought, and to show how the immense potential that the future embodies interacts with some of the more intractable issues and attitudes. Will the world consist of a hyper-capable elite and a groups who cannot keep up? Or will it advance in a more even handed, 'democratic' manner?

Comment from Joop de Vries

Your list of theses is a comprehensive summary of possible and plausible developments in the next thirty years. Therefore, the ‘core issues’ of global scenarios are likely to be among the many issues mentioned. Technology and geopolitics are, as I see it, the two main themes, followed by ‘people-dimensions’.


e.g. medical applications of bio-technology, abuse of biotechnology, genetic science clarifying drivers of human behaviour, intelligent activity, a possible manufacturing cartel, personal transporters, nano-machinery, fusion power, solar power from space, too much green technology, too little technology for the world’s billions.

Geopolitics and political / military power

e.g. lasting national diversity, Union Latino, transnational government, “one rule for all” –world, hypercompetitive elites, ‘nano’ undermining Asia’s manufacturing base, war lords abusing biotechnology, armies ‘acting early’ to fight illegitimates, monopoly power based on manufacturing/ fusion power/ solar power collection, nuclear exchanges in the Middle East, a dirty bomb in Rome.


When individual people are expected to be rational and busy promoting their own interests, the ‘people’-dimensions remain implicit. At the collective level, the main distinction is between evil and benevolent entities, and scenarios dominated by either of them. Evil empires abuse the resources at their disposal (be it military, technology, or various kinds of natural and human resources), and benevolent empires fight what they see as illegitimate movements, making good use of networks and systems.

A number of people-dimensions on the list are explicit, in the sense that people are the “driving forces” that send societies in new directions. This might happen when individuals are turned into knowledge centres, when new cultural centres will be the core of new ideas for the mid-21st century, when people’s priorities shift towards leisure and simplicity, or when a revival of religion induces political movements to take an active interest in normative views and moral issues.

This latter category of issues touches on questions like ‘what is it all about’ and ‘why are we doing this’ -- individually and collectively. In the long term, this opens the door for profound changes in the way we live. Such futures may not be spectacular but they can be dramatic. They are connected with what Thomas Friedman wrote in the International Herald Tribune a few days ago: “What if 2008 was the year when we hit the wall – when Mother Nature and the market both said : 'No more' ”. In the long term, what will an affluent society consider necessary, desirable, or legitimate ? This could be quite different from what we think and feel today. And what we think today may still change considerably as a result of developments that already started years ago, but which we so far refused, or were unable, to see. We talk about Presidents changing countries, superpowers controlling the world, institutions dominating people’s lives, whereas it is questionable whether these models are the best possible descriptions of future (or even current) reality.

If we are looking for ‘branching points’ between scenarios, these questions might be taken as a starting point : each of the answers that can be given to these questions, could be tested as the possible nucleus of a specific scenario. In that case, there will always be at least one scenario where the rules of (geo)politics will hardly change, i.e. where the future depends on who will win the game. But there will also be at least one scenario where the rules of the game themselves change and the players have to play in an unfamiliar context.

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