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The What If questions

The What If questions

The year 2025 is 13 years away, which does not seem remarkable far into the future. 1999 is clear in most of our memories. China was still a question mark; the financial system seemed bomb proof and the Euro a fledgling chick; 9/11 still in the future.

It is, of course, impossible to measure social change absolutely, but for the sake of argument, let us assume that it runs at a constant rate of about 3%, implying about 50% change in this period. The absolute amount of change to 2025 would them be the same as the amount experienced by the present, since 1986.

Around 700 million net new workers will enter the labour market by 2025. The world economy will probably grow by a half. A lot of commodities will get scarce. Science is another area where "knowledge" is impossible to quantify, but by most accepted measures useful knowledge will grow by a factor of three to four. Communicated data will grow by many orders of magnitude. Stored data by far more,and the track record left by individuals and organisations will be that much richer, more cross-referenced and more accessible.

Please see here for notes on process.

1: Economics, structural

There are probably two over-arching uncertainties about the financial system for 2025. First, will the world have largely stabilised its financial system against bubbles accidents or panics? Second, and consequent on many of the other What Ifs posed here, will this be a world of open trade or a closed system of protectionism, bilateral supply deals, hidden intellectual property and other symptoms of weak institutions and low trust?

Given that the second of these depends on social and political issues as much as economics, let us ask ourselves about the first.

WHAT IF a network of central banks is in place, an institution that jointly manages the monetary state of the advanced countries, and which sets tight fiscal limits on politicians. The mechanisms that it employs are chiefly those of transparency, rigorous statistics, market and media scrutiny; but it can also mandate specific controls on, for example, property inflation and other common sources of bubbles. The aim is mutual confidence and bubble proofing.

Banks: More, much smaller banks are tightly overseen by shareholders who know that they will lose if the bank fails. Banks are required to limit themselves to tools that have passed tests for accounting transparency and safety, much as a pharmaceutical has to go through a regulatory process.

WHAT IF something like this does not happen? What has to happen for it to occur? Who needs to belong for it to be a meaningful institution?

2: Political tone/ organising principles

Recent research shows that economic and social success, as measured by content and other quality of life indicators, comes from small size, social cohesion, specialisation and an emphasis on human capital.

WHAT IF it becomes clear that this trend is a general one, with polities breaking down into manageable sized chunks? That is, within Europe, former aggregates breaking up into independent entities, or semi-dependent ones. In the US, power moves from the Federal level to the states, and from states down to county and city levels.

In parallel with this, WHAT IF trust networks become a real and acknowledged force? That is, in a world of teeming advocacy groups and loud voices, WHAT IF power openly listens only to those networks that have proven themselves reasonable, sensible and stable? Achieving membership of those groups requires invitation, extended on trust and provisional on compliance with these norms of behaviour and usefulness.

3: New horizons

Technology has the potential to disrupt and to enable. WHAT IF a large number of professional skills are rendered obsolete by what are, in effect "apps"? Those apps are evoked by equipment that has descended from the cell phone, but which is now situationally aware: it knows about its owner, their personal situation, needs and dependents, can assess the current situation in which they find themselves and offer pertinent advice. Consider a political speech that is subject to critique on content and style in real terms. Consider feedback on one's social performance at a party: he or she is interested in this, here is an interesting ice breaker; "you got that wrong because..."

Such devices are easily extended to childhood and adult learning, or to the management of mental illness or dementia. They augment the intelligence of people in everyday life, defuse social situations and lubricate the flow of life. They report crime and suspicious behaviour.

WHAT IF this occurs on a global scale? And this does indeed seem a good place to table Neal Stephenson's excellent 1995 book: The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer.

4: Geopolitics

Japan, China and South Korea are working to generate a free trade area. China, Russia and a wide range of previously non-aligned states are seeking their own version of a "G" group, to discuss issues without the dominating voices of the old industrial powers. Energy producers, typically without much direct power that is not brought by their possession of natural resources, are building bridges with new powers.

There are a number of ways all of this could go. International institutions develop as important players come together to settle sources of friction. These are clubs for the compliant, and make no pretention to universality. Within the club, however, trust is well established and further regional associations are essentially useless. In such a situation, nation states work to improve their internal capabilities, but find little advantage in further alliance. Indeed, subsets of such nations may well specialise and find that the former parent is irksome and unnecessary.

The other model is, however, that problems arise far more rapidly than collective solutions can be found, and that national politics trumps long-term statesmanship. This is certainly the dominant form amongst the emergent economies, who are fervent competitors and rivals for natural resources, capital and external technology. Exclusive bodies, unstable and temporary bi- and multi-lateral deals dominate the scene.

Both of these models will coexist, at least to some degree. WHAT IF the world breaks into a modest sized core group, a club of the collaborative, and a cluster of aggressive, splintered associations of the sort outlined? Is this, in fact, almost the inevitable future? Are there viable alternatives on offer, and what hope do they raise for the grand systems issues with which we will have to deal?

5: Emerging economies

There is a general consensus that the engine of growth will be the emerging economies. China will be an economy of equal magnitude to the US, India a regional power and whole continents - such as Latin America - will be emerging as collective powers. The strategy of the Western powers is vaguely attuned to working in such a world: intensely competitive, multi-lateral, still needing Western technology and integration capabilities but quickly catching up.

WHAT IF the catch-up phase in economic growth is the easy part, and that stabilising as a complex, self-balancing economic ecology is much more difficult to achieve? In other words, WHAT IF the fast moving emerging economies show dramatically slower growth by 2025, chiefly as a result of internal friction, labour movements and institutional instability? Would this look like a Business as Usual world, or would it be radically different?

6: Economic performance of Western economies

The breaking of major bubbles seems to change much more than economics. The South Sea bubble marked the shift in British politics from the graft and corruption under Walpole to a semblance of parliamentary democracy. So called "goal contagion" gives life a meaning, and once this is gone, a new meaning has to be found. Emergence from the current crisis will be long and painful - there is huge debt to purge, many economies have been living on debt rather than productivity and the conventional tools of revival are not working. It is, therefore, likely that historically-slow economic growth will continue through much of the scenario period. Might goals become less focused on economic performance and more directed to social and environmental improvements? Or, conversely, will people become much more motivated to individual betterment in difficult times, and the rat race becomes that much faster? The answer is that it probably depends where you sit in the population in respect of age, income and skill. Politics will tend to line up in ranks between the younger, more able, more economically active cadres and the army of elderly claimants, those with communal and environmental ambitions.

WHAT IF the West does, indeed, become less ambitious for economic excellence and more inclined to cut cakes than bake them? Arguably, we already have Japan as a model of this.

7: The politics of anger

Growth increases the disparity between those that are relatively successful and those which are not. Intense competition, technology and the importance of trust all amplify this, both at the level of the individual and the nation state.

Poor nations that can harness their low labour costs get richer, but the poor in them often do not, or do not do so for a considerable period, during which the conditions of life become worse. many emergent economies offer their citizens unpleasant lives of drudgery, and conditions are ripe for mass unionisation.

In the wealthy world, however, inequalities are growing, often to historically exceptional levels. Support systems that nations have used to buy social cohesion are being overwhelmed. (Please see the extended note on a post-welfare world.) The expected life trajectory of people born as middle and working class Europeans is markedly different from each other, whether it be their education, their health, their earnings or the stability of their family life. The situation in the US is even more pronounced, and this is taken to extremes in the emerging economies.

WHAT IF a credible and specifically international movement emerges from this disparity? This is plainly not going to be a reinvention of the Communist Internationale, but more a coalition of generally aligned goals. Such a movement could well absorb individual countries, and might trigger violent movements in others. In the specific case of China, the emergence of militant unionisation is extremely credible, perhaps abetted by mass information systems. The impact on the industrial nations would be to strengthen their own labour movements, as low skill work is repatriated.

WHAT IF there is a reversion to class warfare and mass militancy in 2025?

8: Energy geopolitics

Most commentators and analysts see world energy demand in 2025 as both substantially higher than it is now, and still supplied by conventional primary energy sources: hydrocarbons and nuclear. Renewables remain costly, intermittent and for other reasons unattractive. The sources of conventional energy become ever-more focused on a few geographical regions.

WHAT IF there are no clear alternatives for the world's energy supplies than this?

9: Big Systems issues

Please note that (4: Geopolitics) is relevant here, but asks a separate question.

We will be approaching a global population of 8.5 billion in 2025. Feeding them will place great stresses on land use and water supplies. The world will have an economy perhaps a half as big again as today, with only slightly lower unit input requirements: demand for metals, energy and the means to dispose of wastes will be greater than today. The consequences of these trends are expected to appear as gradually increasing prices, economic volatility and environmental degradation.

WHAT IF this is not at all gradual? WHAT IF we face several perhaps unrelated, perhaps systemic systems collapses? How does the world react, and does this lead to solidarity, or to bilateral deals, block formation and autarky? Does it pay to collaborate or to grab what you can?



We are hoping for your comments. As these arrive, they will be built into free standing papers that related to the nine issues that are raised. We will then try to bring all of this together into if not a summary, then a review of the issues that have been raised.

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