Turbulent Transitions

By Robert Hickson 17/10/2011

If you are keeping up with your futures’ reading then you’ll know about the plethora of trends and drivers that are shaping, or could shape, our future — continuing globalization, population growth or stagnation (depending where you live), multilateralism, paying down debt, urbanisation, aging western populations, obesity, rising economic inequalities, energy crises, climate change, technological convergences, economic growth across Asia, open innovation, and the rising costs of health care, to name a few.

Thomas Friedman provides a précis of two books that highlight potential threats and opportunities from the combination of some of these trends. To hear more about one of these books, listen to Paul Gilding talk about the ‘Great disruption’ on Radio New Zealand National.

Four particularly significant transitions occurring at the moment revolve broadly around energy, economics, employment, and geopolitics (they are inter-related to varying degrees).


 Energy Transition

In a previous post I touched on the transition from fossil fuels to a lower carbon economy.  See also this critique of the techno-optimism of some in the oil industry. Some countries and large corporations are already planning how to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels for economic rather than environmental reasons.  


Economic Transition

Following the global financial crisis (the 2008 one) there was much speculation about whether that model of capitalism was at an end. Despite on-going protests it hasn’t expired yet.  But significant economic upheaval is looking more likely and may lead to a new economic paradigm. Various prescriptions of what a new capitalist system could or should look like have been prepared by Leadbeater, Haque,  and others.


Employment & Education Transition

As the Economist noted recently in a special report on the Future of jobs, globalisation and technology are changing the shape of the labour market and the types of work. There is an emerging divide between well paid interesting jobs and commoditised low skilled jobs. Lynda Gratton has written about the need for serial mastery — where most workers having to acquire new skills every few years.

This will require a new approach to education and training. Ken Robinson and Charles Leadbeater  have pointed out that the current educational system in the west was designed in the industrial era to largely create workers for factories.

 “The tragedy is that meeting the many social, economic, spiritual and environmental challenges we now face depends absolutely on the very capacities of insight, creativity and innovation that these systems are systematically suppressing in yet another generation of young people.”  Ken Robinson

India is experimenting with industries having a more active and driving role in educating its future work force. This may be picked up elsewhere, but are firms currently any better at identifying what skills and knowledge they will need in the future than traditional education and training organizations?


Geopolitical Transition

If China, India and other Asian nations continue to develop (not necessarily smoothly) then greater geopolitical tensions seem likely, particularly in the South China Sea and more widely in the Pacific.  These changes will have trade and security consequences. The implications of the rise of the emerging economies doesn’t just rest with what they do. How existing economic powers respond will also be crucial . Colin James has also pointed out that for New Zealand we need to think carefully how we manage the management of us by China.  

The main message from these transitions is that there are high levels of uncertainties within and between them and it isn’t possible to predict what will happen. There aren’t clear scenarios around which to plan. So what choices does New Zealand have? Are we able to identify where we are able to shape strategic responses, what we need to do to adapt to the chances, and what we can do that will be important for our prosperity and well being regardless of what happens?

I’ll look at these questions in the next post.

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