The scientist Niels Bohr said that “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”
Despite Niels’ warning, the approach of a new decade invites us to ask what the world will look like in 2030. The world we inhabit is changing at a rate unmatched at any time in our shared past. If prediction wasn’t a pseudoscience before, the increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous nature of our world certainly makes it so now. To accurately predict which path out of the seemingly infinite number of future possibilities humanity will walk down would be a miraculous feat.
However, one concept does exist that could help us; namely mega-trends (MTs). Electricity, the automobile, or better yet, the internet serves as perfect examples of these profoundly powerful and transformative forces, whose influence permeates into all layers of society. Examining some of the MTs set to define the 2020s, and simultaneously redefine what we mean by everyday life in the process, provides the best hope of predicting the most unpredictable decade to date.
The perennial MT, technological change, serves as an ideal starting point for our current task. For the first time in history, technology will be working alongside us and directly on our behalf as opposed to being solely passive instruments. The fourth industrial revolution, along with the “internet of things” and “big data”, will be in full swing, bringing with it exponential advances in artificial intelligence (AI), augmented and virtual reality and blockchain. The technological advances, especially those in nanotechnology and 3-D printing, will revolutionise healthcare and as such we shall be many steps closer to finally winning the war against cancer, AIDS and Ebola to name just a few. An increased number of people will be ousted from work by robots, given nearly two-thirds of all occupations will be automated by 2030 and whole industries will be nothing more than mere memories such as trucking. Hyperloop, among other future transport innovations, will transport more people a greater distance in times previously unimaginable. New questions will surface, such as how we should deal with the ethical implications of programming autonomous vehicles. Who knows we might also finally have the hoverboards as promised by Back to the Future and Musk might be one step closer to his dream of a Mars colony?
Moving on, we turn to two linked MTs, namely demographic shifts and urbanisation, to provide further insights into the future. The Earth will be home to around one billion more of us, bringing the population to roughly eight and a half billion and increasing the stress humanity places on our planet. Developing countries will see the greatest increase, with their populations growing six times faster than their more developed peers. The massively enlarged elderly demographic will place increased demands on healthcare services worldwide, whilst the middle-class globally will swell to five billion people; however, inequality will be greater than ever in recorded history. Asia, Latin America and Africa will see net emigration, with the recipients of the influx being developed areas for example Europe. Further polarisation of politics, across the globe, will be engendered as a result and populism, alongside rhetoric, will be at worryingly high levels. As a result, transnational organisations will be pushed to breaking point. Mega-cities will emerge, and generally urban areas will be the primary habitation of 60% of our species leading to further issues relating to urban sprawling.
Finally, but by no means least, we turn to what can be dubbed the “meta-mega-trend”, climate change. Irreversible change will have occurred, bringing with it a host of associated ills, as global warming approaches the 1.5-degree Celsius increase in temperatures from our present day which marks the point of no return. Extreme weather, such as forest fires and tornadoes, will increasingly wreak havoc in more places on the Earth’s surface and to a greater degree. Crop failure will occur with increasing frequency. Species such as the black rhinoceros and the eastern lowland gorilla have joined the likes of the dodo and the T-Rex.The children of tomorrow will only be able to read about them in textbooks, instead of ever being able to experience them in the flesh. More areas will be classed as
“water-stressed”, resulting in “water wars” being increasingly fought. Whole ecosystems and natural wonders will be relegated to the past, as such the Great Barrier Reef will be nothing more than a lost treasure. Energy shortages will cast darkness over communities more often than before and also did I forget to mention that the Arctic will be ice free? Environmental activism will be at an all-time high and environmental issues will be a major part of any power-contesting party’s manifesto. The business world will be a strong driver for change, with an increasing number possessing b-corp status, and green finance will be at an all-time high as the whole of humanity seeks to undo the mistakes of their past selves and generations. It should be noted that this MT will partially drive the others, e.g. mass migration.
There are many more MTs that could be discussed, such as shifting economic power to China and India. However, whilst MTs give a strong indication about the future state of our world, they aren’t the crystal balls many hold them to be. The interconnectivity of the world today means that none of the MTs exist in isolation, they collide and overlap constantly generating new possibilities for the future.
In total there are approximately 3,650 days between January 1st, 2020 and December 31st, 2029. The butterfly effect reminds us that the smallest thing, on any one of these days, could set the world on a whole new trajectory. If any of you watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” this Christmas, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. To my mind therefore, our future is determined by the interplay between our actions and MTs. Understanding this interactive dimension of our fate means we can help steer the world towards a certain future. In a world which often seems chaotic, internalising this notion, and taking each day as an opportunity for change, could be an important reclamation of power and control for many.
Predicting the future, and then helping to actualise it, represents the best chance at predicting an unpredictable decade, therefore. This applies also to the increasingly unpredictable decades that follow the 2020s also. With that being said, I hope to see you in a better and brighter tomorrow … hopefully full of black rhinos and eastern lowland gorillas.