A tale of two centuries

Imagine you were asked in 1919 what the narrative might be for the rest of the 20th century in terms of major developments. You might well have said that cars and planes were going to revolutionise transport and change where and how we lived.  You could have anticipated the radio transforming the way we got our news and were entertained. 

Pushing the envelope, you might have added that pictures would accompany sound one day and captured the idea of television. Unless you had extraordinary powers of foresight, you would not have played a scenario of the rise of computers, the internet and cell phones in the second half of the century.

On the political front, you might have made the canny observation that the First World War was unfinished business and there could well be a second one. You could have noted the decline of Britain’s power as a result of the war and therefore the possible end of its empire and colonies. An additional twist would have been that America assumed premier position in the global economy. If you were a friend of Albert Einstein, you might have mooted the invention of nuclear weapons as a game-changer in future conflicts.

So, here we are in 2019 and you are asked the same question about the remainder of this century. What would you say as a foxy futurist? I will give you my recommended list. 

Demographics

The first megatrend changing the world as we speak concerns the elephant in the room which is the number of people living on this planet. This has just surpassed 7.5 billion and is currently estimated to reach 11.2 billion in 2100. In no previous century has the magnitude of the world population been an issue, but now it is surely the biggest one of all. The “rich old millions” in developed countries are beginning to erect barricades to stop the mass migration of the “poor young billions” into their countries.

Witness Donald Trump with his wall, the UK with Brexit, and Europe with increasingly right-wing leadership intent on stepping up border security. Australia has special islands acting as detention centres. In the meantime, China and Japan have never welcomed immigrants. We used to call this possibility the “Gilded Cage” scenario, but now it is becoming reality with huge economic and humanitarian consequences. By contrast, the odds on a “Friendly Planet” scenario where nations reach out to each other are dwindling.

Remember that the second half of the last century was built on globalisation which assumes the free movement of people and goods between nations. Sadly, we are retrogressing to a loose collection of selfish nation states, which like our ancient ancestors seek to protect the wellbeing of inhabitants within their own caves at all costs. 

Nevertheless, a Gilded Cage scenario of withdrawal behind your own borders has some unwelcome elements for the rich old millions. The ageing of the population is already slowing down economic growth and that will continue unabated. International supply chains will be severely disrupted and global companies may be less willing to locate any future plants outside of their home base. 

Moreover, consumers may no longer have such easy access to imported products and services. Even talented people will find it harder to migrate to other countries of their choice. Tourism may eventually suffer too if the spirit of isolation persists. At the extreme, quarrels over trade will intensify to the point that protectionism which ushered in the Great Depression of the 1930s could well trigger another decline in the world economy. In summary, the cage will become less gilded as the century progresses.

Inequality

Adding to the uncertainty of our children and grandchildren’s future is the second megatrend: the rising inequality between nations and within nations. Oxfam recently released one statistic that says it all: 26 individuals in the world own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population. Despite the uplifting of millions of people who have gone from abject poverty to making ends meet, capitalism as it is currently practised rewards the rich, big and successful a whole lot more than the middle class and the poor. Corruption has been a factor too. Hence, we have seen the rise of anti-establishment politicians and movements dedicated to creating a fairer world. 

The question of whether they will win or not by the end of this century is difficult to answer, because they are up against the might of powerful people whose only interest is to preserve the status quo. Meanwhile, inequality will remain the most socially divisive issue of our times and will only be aggravated by the Gilded Cage scenario.

Environment

But it is the third megatrend that is most alarming as to how the rest of this century plays out. We are observing the sixth extinction of species in the animal and plant kingdom, as well as global climate change. The Earth has never been under such strain of coping with so many people around the world aspiring to live the materialistic version of the “American Dream”. The drawback is that the dream goes with a massive carbon footprint.

 Record temperatures and extreme weather events have persuaded many millennials to voice their concern that we will not even see out this century, unless we transform our lifestyles. Yet the growing frequency of fires, floods and droughts simply does not register in the minds of politicians. One day, they may be perceived in the same light as their predecessors who were blind to the evils of slavery. 

At the moment, there is no sign that the drive for economic improvement is being balanced against environmental sustainability and certainly no indication of the world genuinely acting as a team to sort out this problem. It will be the ultimate irony if the end of us is the only way that the other species on this planet will survive into the next century.

Technology

The fourth megatrend can undoubtedly be positive as well as negative and that is the inevitable advance in technology. Smartphones and social media are leading the way so far in this century. Perhaps cars will be electric and self-driving in the next twenty years; solar panels and other renewable energy sources will become the norm; biotechnology and genetic engineering will create new medicines and plants; and the reasonable price of space travel will make it a hobby for ordinary people to enjoy. 

On the other hand, automation, robots and artificial intelligence will continue to diminish the number of conventional jobs, meaning that young people have to create profitable opportunities for themselves rather than just get a job. To prepare kids for this more challenging world, education will need to change too to encourage an adventurous mind which occasionally breaks the mould.

Of one thing you can be sure. Some invention, which in some way offers a better way of satisfying our basic needs, will come out of the blue and create a new industrial wave that none of us can imagine now.

Other possibilities

As for potential shocks in the 21stCentury, we could have a pandemic like the Spanish Flu which occurred in the early part of the last one. We could have another world war, but the principle of mutually assured destruction through the use of nuclear weapons makes it unlikely. Yet, there are signs of a return to the Cold War and arms race that dominated the relationship between America and Russia for many years in the last century. Perhaps this century will prove that we are a naturally aggressive species with spasmodic attempts at peace and goodwill. 

Terrorism due to religious differences remains a universal threat, while the possibility of terrorist groups acquiring weapons of mass destruction is the biggest menace of all for Western cities. Equally, cyberterrorism could be lethal in destroying the banking system as well as other software vital to daily living. 

The probability of another financial crash, because of too much debt being in too many hands, has to be weighed up all the time. Finally, China could in the medium term overtake America to become the largest economy in the world, though the Chinese will remain relatively poor in terms of per-capita income.  At the same time, China may well emerge as the next military superpower with its strategy to create a string of pearls in the Indian Ocean.

 All in all, after two centuries of being firmly in Western hands, the global torch of being ahead in the game may well move to the East before 2100.

Conclusion

I am sorry that I cannot be more precise with my prognostications. However, Pierre Wack, my mentor in scenario planning and the finest futurist of his day, once remarked to me that it is much better to be vaguely right rather than precisely wrong! 

I hope, at least, I have given you some straws in the wind as to how this century may be completely different to the one that preceded it. Overall, I feel that the young generation today face a tougher future than the generation born after the Second World War in the last century. That view will certainly be denied by those who believe that life only gets better from each generation to the next. 

We will see, and the best of luck to all the young people reading this article. The future is in your hands. May the fox be with you as you face the challenges life brings. Remember progress can never be taken for granted. We need a revolution in thinking, followed by appropriate action, to avert the looming disaster posed by the Gilded Cage scenario; and to improve the chances of a Friendly Planet where we coexist with one another and with other species. What will your personal role be in creating a better future? Every one of us has to put up our hands to make it happen.

Published in part on News24, 30 January 2019

[This article was written to support Growing Foxes the online school strategic intelligence programme designed by mindofafox. It is being piloted in a number of leading schools in the UK and South Africa. Click on the logo to find out more].

Cover image: American Red Cross volunteers preparing surgical dressings for H1N1 flu patients in 1918 (credit: Oakland Public Library) and (right) residents of Yangon, Myanmar wearing face masks during the 2017 H1N1 flu outbreak (credit: Theint Mon Soe aka J/Frontier)