The next thirty years are likely to deliver more fundamental change than did the whole of the past century. We need to think how to deal with all of this.
Many large organisations use scenario planning as a first step. If you can envisage several alternative, plausible and consistent futures, your next steps are likely to be robust.
The Challenge Network (who?) has released three challenging scenarios for 2040. The scenarios were generated by a core team of around 20 people, with several thousand public contributors. The results have been tested in workshops on four continents.
We hear a great deal about climate change. This is an example of what we call a "systems issue". That is, it requires a systematic approach that involves many nations and interests. Systems have to be built that probably restrict the choices open to them. The problem will not be "magic-ed" away by gentle accommodations. Solutions require deep adjustments to the economies, social choices and liberties; all of which is extremely politically sensitive.
Solving these requires collaboration in a world that may not reward trust and openness. Failure to collaborate will bring down the consequences of not having done enough. However, failure is likely to generate precisely the political atmosphere which creates populist politics and the pursuit of short term national advantage.
Solutions must also involve the poor countries. We shall have 9 bn people alive in 2040, many living in sprawling conurbations without adequate facilities. High resource costs and pressures on the environment will make the cost of energy and food relatively high. Poor collaboration will create an unstable economic environment. These huge populations will, therefore, be at risk.
Equally, if their needs are not met, they may become a major problem for the world as a whole. Close connections mean that the consequences of the misuse of dangerous technologies, poor public health or pollution will affect everyone. Malign activities – from international violence to uncontrollable, networked crime – may base themselves in such populations. Intellectual property, for example, will be critical to economic success in 2040, and its theft will be catastrophic.
Titanic amounts need to be invested to – for example - bring the energy infrastructure of the poor world up to best practice. The scale demands external funding, way beyond any aid budget. However, no organisation will invest in long term projects in nations which appear to have no stable future.
The world may address systems issues, or it may delay this. The most painful impacts of the systems issues may arrive quite soon, or they may be delayed. We imagine one case in which they arrive early, to an unprepared world. We call this scenario "Neglect and Fracture" (N&F).
An event precipitates rapid and sometimes forced accommodations to new conditions – let us say, a pandemic. Grudging acceptance turns to populist outrage when new issues continue to emerge and the imposition of intrusive, international command and control continues. The world environment becomes extremely aggressive and collaboration is difficult. Consequently, unstable resource supplies, price spikes and further crises become virtually inevitable. Major nations and clubs of nations attempt to secure resources for their own use. Transparency is reduced and the world blunders from one crisis to the next. The scenario described below, (Yesterday's Future) emerges late, weakly and against a very difficult background.
By contrast, consider a situation in which the world begins to prepare itself in good time, and in which the issues may arrive slowly and in a broadly predictable way.
That said, the four billion new middle class consumers want a better life, and the only viable political path is one that gives this to them. They cannot expect replicate the development path of the old rich world, however, and know that they must move into a different regime. We have called this "Consumer-lite", an intensively regulated, state-patrolled regime in which efficiency is everything. Public provision is assumed to trump private facilities in issues such as transport. Life is better, but is also extremely constrained. The idea of progress becomes less associated with doing new things, and more with doing "more with less".
This world we call "Yesterday's Future" (YF). It coexists with the conditions of N&F in other parts of the world, but succeeds in quelling the worst affects of these. It is, however, an end game. As resources dwindle and prices rise, as yet more people join the global middle class, so the restrictions and prescriptions grow in strength.
A small population break out of this trap in a third scenario, "Waking Up" (WU). This is the most difficult scenario to describe because the conditions for it do not yet exist. They require easily-foreseeable technological advances, tied into a distillation of how technology-using work forces are beginning to operate. The WU style is confined to a few major cities and a limited number of commercial and state enterprises in 2040. Perhaps 2-300 million people live in this way. The remainder are in either YF or N&F.
Two forces come together in WU. First, anyone living in a WU enclave, or working in its industries, is surrounded by omnipresent, contextually-aware guidance, insight and security. People work and live embedded in semi-aware systems. A child, for example, has a permanent 'friend' which presents exploration and fun, education and coaching at all times. If they annoy a friend, it explains what they did wrong and suggests better approaches. If they are bored, it suggests actions - and perhaps ways to earn money quickly so as to pay for an adventure. At all times, the child is surrounded by a cocoon of security and safety, and so can undertake wild adventures that expand its horizons.
Expand this framework into the adult working environment. Here, we have to introduce the second theme, which is that of the trust network. Analysis of current high performance teams shows that they are innately elite, in that excellent contributors – those who prove themselves to be intellectual and socially able – are drawn into an inner circle. This group have a common vision of what they are trying to achieve, and are able to operate creatively and spontaneously to achieve extraordinary things.
Such teams are rare, and seldom last for long. The project moves into a sphere where they are no longer competent, or else personal clashes begin to dominate. Now we bring in the contextually aware system that we have just discussed. This "knows" about the stages a project has to go through. It brings together just how is needed for as long as they are needed, manages social interactions and passes the project along in precisely the form needed for its next stage. Such structures will feel as though they form spontaneously, and any one person will probably belong in several groups. All will be working at the peak of enthusiasm and creative excitement.
Consider an entire economy operating in this way. Place it against the probable background of skill, knowledge and technology that will characterise 2040. There will probably be four billion graduate-equivalents in the work force, augmented and developed in the way just described. Science will have revealed deep things about the universe and our biology. We estimate that useful scientific knowledge will be around 60 times greater than it is today, driving an increase in efficiency – of total factor productivity – of about 70 times current rates. (See here for more on this.)
WU develops from a few urban centres. It is so commercially advantageous that all economies strive to take on the style. However, whilst the technology is transferable, the social networks and intangible infrastructure are not. To be able to play, societies have themselves to change. The world begins to Wake Up.
You can go to the full scenarios here.
The Challenge Network is a loose affiliation of experienced figures. It engages in projects that are usually highly complex and which have a strong future orientation to them. It has been publishing scenarios since 1995, initially at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House, and subsequently in an open, web-based format. The menu on the left offers more information.
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