By Robert Hickson 26/06/2016 1


In my previous post I noted that the last 90 years saw a tremendous amount of change. Are the next 90 going to be as, or more, turbulent? Or as “golden”?

Given that no one in 1926 could predict what the world in 2016 would be like, what’s the point now of looking ahead?

One reason is that the future isn’t a time machine that suddenly materializes. Some of the trends and developments that we see today are likely to be as, or more, important several decades out. The trick is often knowing which ones they will be, and their consequences.

Thinking about the future can help us consider potential effects of the trends, what type of world we think the next generations would want to live in, and what we may need to do now to help shape that. Good foresight is stimulation more than prognostication.

Focusing on general trends, not specific events or technologies can be instructive, as Josephine Bacon foresaw.

Shaping the future

The futurist Gerd Leonhard has suggested that the future will be shaped by:

  • Digitization
  • Mobilization
  • Automation
  • Disintermediation (directly connecting producers or providers and customers)
  • Augmentation

But that’s too narrow and technocentric.

Other important shaping factors (or “drivers” in futurologese) include continued demographic changes (population growth, urbanization and changing age structures), belief and values systems, policy and regulatory decisions, the economic development of non-western nations, the rise of “non-state actors” (corporations rather than freedom fighters and terrorists), resource limitations, and changing climate.

The world population is projected to continue to grow, although at a slowing rate.

ourworldindata_world-population-growth-1750-2100

 

But there’ll still likely be rapid growth in Africa, as this animated chart shows. Big cities will get even bigger. The atmosphere is changing. And there may be more conflicts, due in part to impacts of climate change.

From expansion to, what?

Looking back over the last 90 years (and before that) human societies have been in an expansionist phase; socially, economically, scientifically and technologically. Will we keep expanding as we have been, are we now at an inflection point;  heading ever more rapidly toward a technologically-enabled utopia, or falling into societal and environmental collapse?

At this point in time I’m of the view that the coming decades seem likely to be more about slowing toward a stabilization phase, as we face a range of limits and complex challenges.

Hard times are likely, particularly in the next 20-30 years, if some predictions of converging “mega-trends” come true, and we respond poorly.

New tools, old bottles?

On the other hand, there is a lot to be hopeful about. We’ll be making greater use of renewable energy sources, and we’ll have much more effective and efficient means of storing that energy. There will be access to extraordinary computational and analytical power, the implications of which we can’t yet know. Our abilities to shape and manage physical and biological environments in more precise ways will also grow. What will we do with this literal and figurative power?

How and where we live and work, how we produce food and other goods, and what we view as cohesive, productive communities will differ to varying degrees from today. Farming, energy, manufacturing, health, urban and environmental systems (maybe social encounters too) will be much more finely managed, improving sustainability and resilience.

It won’t all be sexy techy stuff. Reducing waste, creating and maintaining more resilient infrastructure, improving water policies, along with learning how to better manage ourselves will be critical too.

Some are suggesting that we look back at how 18th Century Tokyo (known as Edo) responded to change to help us in the future. Others think that the fifteenth Century European Renaissance is more relevant now.

Whatever your historical reference point, the future is going to be shaped more by how well we (as nations and communities) address complex challenges, not simply what technologies we adopt, or reject.

The foibles of human nature and uncertainties will still be with us. Will we have improved our willingness and ability to make decisions about complex and uncertain issues? While we will have the tools to better examine complexity, will our behaviours have changed to make good use of them? In 90 years we will be better at anticipating, but will we be as good at acting on those insights?

Characterising the future

In the last post I noted that the preceding decades could be characterised by:

  • Decolonisation
  • Population explosion
  • Globalisation
  • Diversification (of societies and economies)
  • Mechanisation
  • Degradation (of the environment)

Here’s a few of the things that I think may characterise the next 90:

  • Devolution & Despotism
  • Collaboration
  • Integration

I’ve made the assumption that no existential risks have come to pass, and that humans will still be dominant. In the past we have adapted the environment to our needs. In the future though, we’ll have to do more adapting ourselves.

Devolution & Despotism

In a complex world one size doesn’t fit all, and governance systems that have been developed during the last Century don’t appear to be ideally suited for what lies ahead. I’m not talking wholesale flight from democracy. There will no doubt be a retreat from democratic institutions in some places, brought on by deteriorating environments, competition for resources, and failing economies.

But we are also likely to see greater devolution or sharing of powers by central governments with other groups, continuing a trend of slowly declining central political power. This in many cases will be less by choice than by demand from a populace frustrated with the performance of the state.

It won’t just be devolution to local governments, but to consortia of different community and private sector groups with shared interests in the region. More power to the people, but they’ll have to work to get it, value it, and keep it.

Governments have, of course, already dabbled in various types of devolution, largely unsuccessfully or unconvincingly. The difference for the future will be the greater scale, commitment and rigor with which it will be done. It will be less about reducing costs, and more about empowering local communities to better meet their own needs. Yeah, we have heard that before, but I think it will be truer in the future, because it will be demanded.

It won’t all go well. Success may often depend on central government remaining an active participant. They will play more of a resourcing, coordinating and facilitating role to ensure equity and help adapt good approaches to other regions.

There will still be other governance models – dictatorial, oligarchic, technocratic, etc – but I expect that well governed decentralised systems will be the more socially and economically successful.

The other aspect of devolution will be devolving more decisions to artificially intelligent systems. There may be a strong temptation to take a technocratic approach, using complex data sets, analytics, modelling, and digital (or quantum) platforms to do the work, and micro-manage many aspects of life.

But that won’t end well. Who would vote for a digital despot? Rationally computed “solutions” don’t seem well placed for messy social problems that must take account of conflicting belief and value systems. We’ll be using technologies to help us explore and understand different options, but humans will need to define what the real issues are and decide the best responses.

We will, though, be comfortable with devolving other decisions to software, devices and machines where there are less contentious issues or values at stake. Maybe one of the most powerful positions in future government systems will be the “Algorithmic Ombudsentity” to ensure transparency of and fairness in critical predictive and decision making algorithms.

Collaboration

It won’t just be in politics where change occurs. Complex problems require a broad set of perspectives and skills to both understand and to ‘solve’ or better mitigate them. We’re already seeing businesses and organisations start to move from competition to various forms of collaboration to improve product development or supply chain management, or to deliver aid projects.

We’ll get more of such mutualism, particularly as challenges get harder and bigger. Competition and capitalism won’t go away, but their forms will change.

We can also expect more sophisticated regional cooperation between countries, and super- and mega-cities to address specific larger scale economic, social and environmental issues rather than just trade and defence matters.

By 2106 we would have passed through anti-automation uprisings (if they occurred at all) and settled  into collaborative rather than competitive relationships with artificially “intelligent” machines and systems too. The novel will have become familiar, and we’ll benefit from sharing some forms of control.

Integration

If societies have prospered nine decades on, it means that we’ll have become better at thinking and operating in terms of systems, rather than components. Four factors will contribute to this.

Old disjointed ways of development and management will have demonstrably, and perhaps dramatically, failed. Continued refinement of science, engineering and technologies will allow more precision and control of physical, chemical and biological processes. Computational and scientific developments will enable us to better model, understand, and manage, the consequences of changes we make to our environments. And,the social sciences will also have matured and become more naturally integrated into major policy and technological developments.

What about the flying cars?

The future won’t be nirvana by any means, nor a smooth path from now. Our perspectives on what we define as “progress” will most certainly have changed. Call me old fashioned, but it’s how well we get on with each other and the world we live in, and our sense of purpose, rather than gadgets that will matter more. Some things don’t change.

 

Featured image: Pixabay CC olafpictures


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