SciBlogs

Archive December 2011

12 Trends post-Christmas (Part 1) Robert Hickson Dec 21

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Here’s (part 1 of) my seasonal selection of some trends to keep an eye on, not just in the New Year but over the longer term. In 2012 I’ll spend more time on exploring implications of such trends rather than the easier job of just describing them.

A stagnating economy

Whether the Euro and/or the European Union shatter or shrink is only part of current economic uncertainty. China won’t be the same economic prop that it was in 2008. Its growth is slowing as the easy growth opportunities disappear. There are concerns of inflation and a housing bubble in China.

The OECD has warned that the unpredictable ‘animal spirits’ of the market threaten the stability of many governments (finally, the shamanistic nature of economics is acknowledged?). Brian Easton has noted that many of the economists of his acquaintance expect a long global stagnation and aren’t sure how long it will last.

Most of the global discussion at the moment is about austerity. The stimulus packages put in place in 2008 are largely gone, so how will economies grow? Some liberal economists (Stiglitz, Krugman, and Roubini) point to the need for additional stimuli, but politicians don’t appear enthusiastic.

Longer term, the growing middle classes of Asia are likely to re-stimulate economic growth. But why should we sit and wait for that to happen?

2 degrees of warming

International opinion widely concurs that insufficient action has been taken so far to contain greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would prevent an assumed ‘safe’ global temperature rise of 2o Celsius. The International Energy Agency’s 2011 Outlook notes that ‘the door is closing’ on the chance of keeping C02 emission levels below 450 ppm to meet this target.

The New Zealand Climate Change Centre has a helpful briefing on the challenge of limiting warming to 2 degrees. The impacts of such a temperature rise (or even a lesser one) are uncertain, but analyses are getting better at attributing extreme weather events to changing climate. However, more evidence won’t necessarily change the minds of those who don’t accept humans can change the climate.

3-D printing

The ability to print three dimensional objects is developing rapidly. It is no longer the realm of garage-based hobbyists, but is being applied to aircraft parts (as well as the whole plane), electronics, and medicine (bone and soft tissues).

It is too early to claim that it is the next industrial revolution, but it is opening up new design and manufacturing opportunities, both for established and new companies. And the larger issue it highlights is a growing interest in Do It Yourself technology development (be it biology or engineering) that may lead to new well springs of innovation, similar to what has occurred in the software sector, and what kick-started the first industrial revolution.

Four-ty four times more data

Avind Krishna from IBM predicts that in 2020 there will be 35 zettabytes of data (let’s just say that’s an awful lot), compared with 800,000 petabytes in 2009. (Of course all computer companies would say there will be more data, but we can see this in our daily lives too).

To help make that more imaginable – a smart phone user now may download about 15MB of data a day. In 2020 that may be 1 GB. The interesting issue is what we will be able to do with that information.

However, our ability to absorb and understand the information may limit this trajectory.

Update: — I’ve found that Avind Krishna’s prediction actually comes from IDC’s Digital Universe report

5 million folk

… in New Zealand by about 2025. Of these, around 1 million will be over 65. How many will (still) be working, and able to live well and healthily?

By 2031 around 2 million people may live in the Auckland region. That will still be small by international standards, but it’s a big chunk of our population in one place. What will that mean economically, socially, and culturally for New Zealand?

6 emerged economies

The World Bank projects that by 2025 half of global economic growth may come from Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Russia. A multi-polar world.

As the McKinsey Global Institute point out, much of the future economic growth will reside in ‘middle-weight’ cities (ie those smaller than megacities), many of which are or will be in Asia. New Zealand would do well to cultivate closer relationships with ASEAN countries.

Another six in my next posting.

The Future of Healthcare Robert Hickson Dec 16

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I’m still preparing my end of year trend posting, so for now I’ll just point you in the direction of a short article on the future of healthcare that I wrote for  Pharmac’s (the New Zealand government’s pharmaceutical purchasing agency) Annual Review (PDF, 1.5 MB).

The Pharmaceutical industry is in an interesting period of change. About US$100 Billion “patent dividend” is anticipated over the next few years as some major blockbuster drugs come off patent, so pharmaceutical companies are looking to where they could generate new income. Some companies are big on mergers and acquisitions, others are trying out more open innovation models. Some Big Pharma companies are moving into generic medicines, others are heading upstream to become more involved in diagnostics, and some may transform into healthcare management companies. Smaller pharmaceutical firms and biotechnology companies are producing more of the pharmaceuticals now.

Meanwhile regulators and pharmaceutical purchasers around the world are demanding more information on the comparative effectiveness of new medicines. Better outcomes, not just more pills is what they are looking for.  Generating that information adds more time and money to developing new treatments. Some patient lobby groups though are wanting access to drugs quicker, even if critical clinical data is lacking.

“Electronic medicine” is being viewed as a means to help reduce (or at least better contain) healthcare costs, through better management and smarter use of patient medical records (NZ doctors are already good users of electronic records). The amount of information about patients is set to skyrocket, so there is going to be a lot more information to manage, and mine for better treatment options. IBM, though, has noted that doctors now often have more information than they know what to do with [PDF, 0.9 MB].

Lots of applications for smart phones and tablet computers are appearing. These are intended to help folks better manage their own health. However, the  health apps field has been called the “wild west” because many of the apps have not demonstrated clinical validity or sought FDA approval.

The future will be interesting. Patients will be  expecting more personalised care, while major healthcare providers will be ever more involved in number crunching and analytics to determine the treatment options that best meet their performance requirements.

The Schizophrenic Futurist Robert Hickson Dec 08

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We are approaching that time of year where journals, magazines and pundits look back on the biggest stories and issues of the past year, as well as some looking forward (see New Scientist and Nature) to what may be in store for the coming year. In my next post I’ll also indulge in some forward prognostication, but before that it is useful to consider what role, if any, prediction has in the futures field.

It is easy to point out predictions that got it badly wrong, but harder to find examples of what was on, or close to, the money, particularly when considering complex issues with high levels of uncertainty. When I started this Blog I noted that I’m interested in foresight (looking at trends and potential implications) rather than prediction. But foresight too often doesn’t get it right or provide actionable intelligence. So what’s the point of looking to the future?

A great report by Richard Danzig — Driving in the Dark — examines foresight and prediction in relation to US national security. He notes that the likelihood of failure is usually not admitted, or if admitted is not adequately taken account of, when predicting future military and security threats. This applies to other fields as well.

Danzig suggests that humans are predisposed to make predictions, but that our ability to make good predictions usually falls short. No surprises there. But rather than throw prediction and foresight out he suggests that they still have value, so long as the likelihood of getting it wrong is acknowledged. The benefits of foresight are not necessarily about getting things right but about helping break out of thinking that the future will be similar to the present, and for developing policies and strategies to help cope with change.

Hence the title of this post — futurists need to both predict as well as to plan and prepare for failure of their predictions.

Lack of certainty though, isn’t what government departments, politicians or many businesses want to hear, particularly when things get turbulent and less predictable. Tough. But it is part of the futurist’s roles to make the organisation more comfortable in dealing with uncertainty.

Policymakers will always drive in the dark. However, they must stop pretending that they can see the road. A much better course is to adopt techniques to compensate for unpredictable conditions and, in so doing, better prepare us for perils that we will not have foreseen.

Danzig offers five propositions to prepare for predictive failure (his focus is on military and security issues, but they also apply more generally):

Make some decisions quicker, and put off others until things look more certain. When things are unpredictable, dragging out decisions isn’t always helpful. Having a shorter time between decision and execution helps reduce your predictive time frame, and so can reduce uncertainty. However, procrastination and then knee jerk reaction also isn’t usually a good tactic.

Create more agile processes so that they are better able to quickly respond to changing needs. This can apply not only to designing and building tanks and software systems but to, say, a science funding system.

Prioritize equipment that is most adaptable. The New Zealand Defence Force has done that to some extent with its new offshore vessels. But what about other critical infrastructure? What transport infrastructure are going to be the most adaptable to changing technological, societal and environmental conditions?

Build more for the short term. That is, don’t invest in the most expensive and long lasting options if you think that you’ll need to change or adapt them in the short to medium term. The rebuild of Christchurch, as well as new subdivisions in other major centres, need to think more about this as a way of managing uncertainties associated with the forces of nature (and population growth or decline).

Nurture diversity; create competition. This does happen even in the armed forces — both between and within the different services. The trick is to ensure that you have fruitful competition that can operate across the different groups rather than fostering redundancy, rivalry and inefficiency. Schemes like Whanau ora could work in this way. Charter schools may not be the best means to improve the education of disadvantaged children, but some new ways of lifting school performance need to be considered.

Danzig concludes:

Policymakers will always drive in the dark. However, they must stop pretending that they can see the road. A much better course is to adopt techniques to compensate for unpredictable conditions and, in so doing, better prepare us for perils that we will not have foreseen.

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