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An introduction to the scenarios for 2030.

An introduction to the scenarios for 2030.


These scenarios have been developed as general purpose "thinking tools", which users can focus on whatever happens to concern them. We offer assistance in such focusing, either from this web site - see "Methods" on the main menu - on or a contract basis. In the order of two thousand people have been involved in their creation, and they have been exposed to critique on every continent. Over half a million visitors have looked at the papers which we have published during the run up to the publication of the scenarios themselves. We have received a great deal of feedback - some unpleasantly abusive, which no doubt proves that it is more satisfying to give than to receive - but most of it constructive and helpful.

The background to the scenarios

The background to the scenarios

We have decided to publish two scenarios. These are discussed in the closing section of this document, and in much more detail here. Here, however, we intend to give and overview of the forces that give rise to these two scenarios for 2030.

At its most abstract, we believe that the future lies in the interaction of two sets of forces. One of these is set to deliver immense economic growth, vast expanses of understanding and hugely expanded human potential. The other presents an equal opportunity for over-complication, confusion, rejection and aggressive denial of presisely that potential.

Our enquiry sees the potential for exponential growth everywhere we look, in communications and in learning, in capabilities and in aspirations. At the beginning of the last century, perhaps a few tens of thousands of people were fitted by training and circumstances to be entrepreneurs, to shape the future, to realise their potential. Factually, the number is now measures in tens of millions and will be hundreds of millions or indeed beyond the billion mark by 2030. We have repeatedly noted that there will be more graduates alive in 2030 than there were people alive in 1900. They will be connected by the astounding communications of the period. Around three billion people will fit the description "middle class consumer", served by truly global markets. Science will be tapping the fundamental structures that make the universe, defining how we think and emote, addressing biology and disease with an ease which may fit Clarke's remark that "any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic to any but its initiates".

Unhappily, a large number of forces oppose the full development of this potential. We have identified a number of systematic forces, and a number of episodic ones. An important lesson to be taken from what follows is that whilst the "positive" forces are largely objective and tangible, the negative factors are often intangible, a matter of interpretation, the consequences of an approach which is taken to areas of difficulty. We will emphasise this whever it is appropriate to do so.

The systematic forces come, for the most part, from blocks and interests which feel themselves disadvantaged by change. Plainly, if the positive forces were to run unimpeded, then we would see immense change and many established sources of advantage would be subject to absolute, relative or perceived erosion. Economic weight must shift towards the youthful, efficient and low cost economies of - in particular - the East, and therefore away from the demographically and perhaps psychologically old West. The impact of this is a question less of concrete advantages lost or gained so much as an issue of popular interpretation. China can, for example, be seen as a "threat, stealing our jobs" or as a source of high quality and inexpensive goods and services which let 'us' get on with more interesting things.

How elderly continental Europe responds to this is likely to be different from the response of, for example, the US or other parts of the English-speaking world. However, each national political arena will have forces which pull towards negative and positive interpretations of the new economic landscape, and to open and mercantile prescriptions towards this. Economies with influential groups engaged in low skill, commodity activities that economic change will impact are less likely to take a positive view than those which earn most of their income from complex, high-skill activities in which they are able to maintain absolute advantage.

Less discretion is available for the poor nations, which will find the new economies athwart their natural evolutionary pathway. (Here, we use 'China' as a short hand for high skill, low wage area-derive competition. However, please recall that China itself is extremely heterogeneous, and that there are going to be many clones of the successful parts of China.) This said, however, Chinese exports are today forcing painful changes in employment practices in Latin American and other middle income nations' light manufacturing, or driving these and related sectors out of business. Some nations will adapt to this, but many will not; and it will be necessary for these to wait until Chinese wages have risen sufficiently for them to be able to pick up the resulting outsourcing from Chinese industries.

Once again, if a narrative develops amongst these interests which blames China, and which sets them about erecting barriers to protect domestic industries, then this fashion will make the recovery process necessarily a very slow one. Slow progress may well, perhaps paradoxically, reinforce the strength of this narrative. If an alternative narrative sees this as a challenge to be met in a constructive and realistic manner - which may include brief spells of protection, but not use this as a lasting tool - then quite another outcome will be defined by this.

There is a third group of nations - and of people within a much wider distribution of nations - which are finding it hard to accept social change. Whilst such change is most frequently the result of access to education, to information and to general opportunities to break away from a rigid traditional mould, it is often blamed on the outside world. Its influence - and that of its agents: popular culture, the mass media, the internet, open debate, nonconformist people or intractable women and children - must be lessened, controlled, opposed. An orthodoxy about who we are and what we believe must be established to reuce these uncertainties and oppose these agents.

The orthodoxy - often a modern invention, clad in traditional robes - is set up and patrolled by often quite small groups, vaguely supported by the majority who feel less and less in control of their lives. Once such a narrative is installed, however, there is nothing to oppose its expansion except equally vague social pressure for choice. The agents of the orthodoxy have careers to protect, a sense of mission and access to power; whilst the advocates of liberalism announce themselves as a target. A drift into solepsism turns into a route march.

These dynamics will not go away, for the pressures for change will increase sharply - due to the force with which we began -and if this group feel challenged by what has happened to their society so far, then they will be outraged by what is about to happen to it. There will be a battle for the national narrative, much as we see rival interpretations of "globalisation" or response to competition at play at the moment.

One additional factor is that of demographics. The elderly are measurably more traditionalist and disinclined to adapt to new ways than the young, and those nations with a strong demographic problem - continental Europe and Russia, as well as China - may well see an articulate cadre of traditionalists enter the political arena in order to demand measures that will support their interests and attempt to control the pace of change. This may have a profound affect on the regulation and development of some of the more challenging new industries, not least those involved with biology and cognition. Where this is occurring, the need to communicate ideas in which that make them acceptable and useful may be of greatly increased national and commercial importance.

There is an additional source of influence which is not directly opposed to change, but which complicates negotiations between those who support the potential for growth and those who, for one reason or another, oppose it. Four billion people in this world of 8-9 billion will continue to live in poverty. Many of them will, however, be crammed into malfunctioning and very large cities, in which issues such as health, crime and employment remain acute. In some cases, they will inhabit poor nations, and in others, the fringes of societies which have wealthy areas and sectors. It is worth recalling that over 60% of the poorest people on Earth live in China and India, both advanced as paradigms of fast economic growth. These people will have access to information and communications as never before, and the growth of national and trans-national movements demanding a share of the cake will certainly increase, as will aggressive and populist trans-national political movements and direct action. Populism has always revolved around self-definition between "them" and "us", and this has tended to run along nationalistic, class or ethnic lines. We have yet to see the global poor define themselves as "us", but were this to occur, its impact on national politics and international institutions would be profound.

These four blocks - the old rich, the blocked middle income nations, the rejectionists and the excluded - are all, each in their different ways - capable of blunting the thrust that is created by all of the forces for growth with which we began. There are, however, four other considerations that are also of deep concern. Some of them are systematic, acting as brakes on the exponential forces. Others are more episodic, able and perhaps likely to throw matters off course, or to increase the friction that comes from other sources. These are:

We see, therefore, that one deep and sustained force is opposed by a large number of ways in which its affects can be blunted. A striking lesson to be drawn is, however, that the strength of many of of these depend upon how people interpret events: on the 'narrative' which they tell themselves.

The more episodic issues are of course important, but their true impact may be in the reinforcement that they give to one or more such narratives. As an example, Hurricane Katrina was an exceptionally strong storm which hit a city which had been, perversely, build below sea level. Floods had come before and no doubt floods will come again. It could have been interpreted as a natural disaster, from which lessons could be drawn, both about preparedness and governance. Instead, it became an exercise in self-flagellation for some sections of the US population and opportunity to proclaim victimhood by many of those affected by it. There is justice in each of these positions, but the one that came to be seen as the central narrative defines the lessons which are learned, and teaches people to think in certain ways. If we have a global pandemic, will this be something done to hapless victims by villains as disparate as the US government and pharmaceutical companies, or will it be a call to improve our animal husbandry, our insight into disease and our public health? More to the point, what kind of action will it spur: policy which is adaptive to events or concerned to allocate blaming and compensate harm?

Towards the global scenarios

Towards the global scenarios

Scenarios are often discussed in terms of the "space" that they inhabit. That is to say, any complex system varies along one or more dimensions: goods can be ranked by price and separately by their keeping quality for example. Any one good is a point on both of these axes, and this point occupies a place in the "space" created by these two axes. Other point sthat lie nearby are similar, and so areas in the space acquire explanatory power - "all that stuff over there, that's valuable deep freeze goods." If one chooses one's dimensions carefully, the different parts of the space acquire extremely illuminating properties.

Our scenarios arise from the interaction between the thrust towards economic and social growth, knowledge, and human potential and the many forces which generate friction, oppose this or throw it off course. Many of these concerns will be acted out in the international arena. For this reason, we have chosen one of our dimensions to reflect the state of collaboration (and maturity) of this. At one endof the dimension, it pays a major nation to make commitments to its peers in order to gain advantages that compensate for the freedoms which it loses. At the other end, the international arena is such that no nation would believe that an investment of effort and commitment would gain it any such advantage. It will prefer to make short-live bilateral deals which hold so long as it suits both parties.

Equally, much of capacity to influence events will lie in the balance between society and the state. An expert state is, almost by definition, a prescriptive state. It knows better than its citizens what is good for it; and on occasion, it forgets the boundaries of its factual experise and embarks on general Motherly prescriptiveness. A state which admits its limits, by contrast, and which sets itself the task of merely oiling the institutional and infrastructural wheels, so lets society and commerce define its future. It is not at all prescriptive; indeed, it waits for the prescriptions of the other players. This is the second dimension which we have chose on which to display the new scenarios. The figure shows these dimensions, and the space is labeled (in blue) to offer a description of the international environment.

Elsewhere, we have tracked the movement of the major blocks and nations on these dimension, under two crude archetype scenarios. Below, we reproduce the start positions of these agents.

What is, however, interesting about these figures is the spread of the resulting clusters under two very general takes on the world of 2030, described as the 'collaborative' and 'antagonistic' worlds. (These and the detailed workings can be accessed here.) The figure shows the end-points for these agents under these two cases. The blue oval encloses the end points that are reached in a broadly collaborative world. The red outline does the same for a less attractive outcome.

Nations and other agents that make up the blue oval are, essentially, scattered along a continuum. Nations at one end of this continuum embrace a defined way forward, whilst those at the other end of it more or less passively resist it. In the red area, by contrast, there are four very distinct blocks, none of which have the moral or operational advantage to say that they are dominant. These are, of course:

In the blue oval, there is one dominant narrative, telling a story of success and cohesion - with derogations, naturally, and with many hating but being unable to refute the narrative - whilst the red space has at least four and potentially many more rival narratives in play. It was supposed that the collapse of Soviet communism, and the modulation of Chinese socialism, signalled the "end of history", that there would be a single dominant ethos in the world. That is, one could argue about fine tuning, and debate the right levers to pull, but there was no debate to be had about the model of society, economic activity and politics that enabled all of this. The future was to look like capitalism entwined by consumerism and modulated by two party democracy. In the red oval, however, this is far from true; rival models are in play.

The world of the blue oval is called "Carrying the Torch". The world - or perhaps worlds - that are encapsulated in the red area are together called "The Age of Anxiety, a title stolen shamelessly from the historian Eric Hobsbawm. You can read about these scenarios in detail here.

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