Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations
Now for the Long Term
Prepared by Michael Marien
James Martin (1933-2013) was the respected author or co-author of more than a hundred books, including The Computerized Society (Prentice-Hall, 1970), The Wired Society (Prentice-Hall, 1977), and The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future (Riverhead/Penguin, 2006). In 2005, he founded the James Martin 21st Century School at the University of Oxford, re-named in 2010 as the Oxford Martin School, which currently supports over 30 research teams and over 300 scholars across the University, addressing “some of the biggest questions that concern our future.”
The Oxford Martin Commission, chaired by Pascal Lamy (former WTO Director-General), has 18 other members: Michelle Bachelet (former President of Chile), Lionel Barber (Editor, The Financial Times), Roland Berger, Ian Goldin (Director, Oxford Martin School), Arianna Huffington (Huffington Post), Mo Ibrahim (Mo Ibrahim Foundation), Luiz Felipe Lampreia (Brazil), Liu He (China), Kishore Mahbubani (Dean, National U of Singapore), Trevor Manual (South Africa), Julia Marton-Lefevre (Director-General, IUCN), Nandan Nilekana (former CEO, Infosys), Chris Patten (Chancellor, U of Oxford), Peter Piot, Martin Rees (former President, The Royal Society), Amartya Sen (Harvard U), Nicholas Stern (President, The British Academy), and Jean-Claude Trichet (former President, European Central Bank).
The Commission focuses on “the increasing short-termism of modern politics and our collective inability to break the gridlock which undermines attempts to address the biggest challenges that will shape our future.” (p.6) The case for action is built in three parts: Possible Futures, identifying key “megatrend” drivers of change and how to address five categories of resultant challenges; Responsible Futures, on historical drivers of transformative change, previous examples of where impediments to action have been overcome, and lessons from where progress has been stalled; Practical Futures, on five principles for action that advance the interests of future generations and “how we can build a sustainable, inclusive, and resilient future for all.” The Report is backed up by a whopping 551 references, including recent reports from WTO, OECD, IEA, IPCC, IUCN, ILO, NIC, WHO, World Bank, Transparency International, and McKinsey Global Institute. According to the Oxford Martin School website, the “Future Generations” report has been downloaded >500,000 times in >130 countries as of 26 November 2013!
Our world has experienced a sustained period of positive change such that “Now is the best time in history to be alive.” However, while the future is full of opportunity from the advances of recent decades, it is also highly uncertain and characterized by growing systemic risks, in many cases the consequences of our success. Given the scale of the challenges—such as plundering of our planet’s natural capital, growing inequality, and potentially devastating results of accidental or deliberate use of new technologies—we need more attention to the future and a more far-sighted attitude. “In an increasingly integrated and hyper-connected world, our individual future depends more than ever on our collective future and our capacity to work together to deepen our understanding of the critical challenges. We need to ensure that we have the skills, tools, institutions and social fabric necessary to navigate safely through the hazardous fog of the future.” (p.9; emphasis added)
Governing requires a dual vision: a commitment to address current needs, and to build the foundations for vibrant generations in the decades ahead. This responsibility relates to future generations and “a broader societal ideal of trusteeship that requires us to leave the world better than we find it.” (p.9) Given advances in knowledge, we are more aware than ever of the implications of our actions on future generations. “And we could arguably be amongst the last generations able to do anything to stop the long-term devastation of our planet. Soon it may be too late… Changing course towards the longer term requires society to devote sustained attention to the transformational changes which will characterize our lifetimes.” (p.10)
PART A: POSSIBLE FUTURES
Megatrends are grouped under seven highly interactive headings, all underpinned by globalization:
1) Demographics: continued world population growth, aging nations;
2) Mobility: migration and urbanization, rise of the middle class in the next 40 years along with more consumption, more empowerment through education;
3) Society: a steady decline in poverty rates but rising inequality, generational and gender divides (one-third of the world labor force is poor or unemployed);
4) Geopolitics: rise of developing countries, more networks that transcend state boundaries, a global marketplace with world merchandise trade at $18.2 trillion in 2011, nearly four times as many states as in 1945, growing influence of international law, decline of violence although potentially devastating tensions still simmer, growing concern about cyber or biological warfare;
5) Sustainability: an emerging “perfect storm” associated with water/food/energy and climate change as a risk enhancer, 2 of every 3 countries to be water-stressed by 2025, extreme weather events expected to increase with great regional variation;
6) Health: the growing threat of NCDs (non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and cancer), new and re-emerging infectious diseases as up to 2 billion people will live in slums by 2030, increasing levels of dementia and mental illness;
7) Technology: the information revolution creating a faster and smarter world, the Internet as key driver of global connectivity but exacerbating inequality, our carbon-based energy and transport system as evidence of “technological lock-in,” the pace of technology change as “an accelerating race into the unknown,” technology as double-edged sword.
These megatrends present extraordinary opportunities, but also generate acute risks and challenges. Five areas where action is imperative:
1) Society: boosting youth employment, empowering women, reducing inequality;
2) Resources: tackling climate change, improved climate modeling, generating green growth and resource security, valuing biodiversity and ecosystem services, reducing excessive consumption, a global carbon price, a “Manhattan Project” for new energy;
3) Health: risk prevention for NCDs such as obesity is highly cost-effective but no single action is sufficient, providing better access to cheaper drugs, new and reinvigorated avenues of cooperation to stem the burden of disease, incentives to encourage new innovations, measurable targets for reducing NCDs;
4) Geopolitics: more international cooperation due to rise of unconventional security threats, the US-China relationship should not be seen as a threat (they should work together to set a safer and more sustainable course); “More global conversations, less anachronistic policies, and an agreed global ethic are essential for a one-world theory to emerge triumphant” (p.31, emphasis added), long-overdue reform of 20th century global governance institutions, modernizing trade by cutting customs red tape, completing the Doha package to renew global trade, continued development of rules for cybercrime and cyberwar;
5) Governance: improving transparency in extractive industries, targeting corruption as an impediment to good governance, more transparency on tax evasion and tax havens, “systemic reform of the current capitalist growth model,” upgrading agreement on a common legal and rights language, improving baseline governance indicators, making information available in as many formats and institutions as possible, realigning business incentives towards a longer horizon.
PART B: RESPONSIBLE FUTURES
“The scale of today’s challenges means countries and organizations must enhance, and prioritize, their capacity to think and act with a longer-term perspective…in Part B, we aim to shed light on why gridlock prevails where action is imperative…to understand the factors that are undermining political will to act, despite the urgency and extent of the problems.” (p.37) Key lessons are distilled from historical examples where impediments to action have been successfully overcome. Elements that contribute to success:
While celebrating these successes, it is also vital to reflect on lessons from many failures:
In sum, what makes change so hard? Five shaping factors must be taken into account:
PART C: PRACTICAL FUTURES: PRINCIPLES AND RECOMMENDTIONS
“Fresh thinking is urgently required in order to address critical global challenges and prevent future crises…we aim to contribute meaningfully to the necessary strategic and institutional renewal.” (p.57) Five key principles are used to organize the recommendations, which can guide action and institutional change:
Concludes that, “As a Commission, we will continue to engage with governments, businesses, NGOs, and civil society in order to take our recommendations forward… By so doing, we hope that together we can contribute to the construction of a sustainable world for current and future generations. We invite you to engage with us on these issues.” (p.65)
This is a very sophisticated and important report—a model of multi-disciplinary integration--that covers a lot of ground, with “future generations” just one of several important themes. Unfortunately, the three parts should have had better labels. Part A on “Possible Futures” is more appropriately seen as “Megatrends and Needed Actions.” The excellent Part B on “Responsible Futures” would be better described as “Previous Successes and Barriers to Change.” Part C entitled “Practical Futures” should have stressed the sub-title re-formed as “Principles and Proposals for a Sustainable World.”
The stark contrast with Global Trends 2030 from America’s National Intelligence Council is illuminating (see GFB Book of the Month, Feb 2013; also a unique Special Issue of the World Future Society’s World Future Review, 5:4, Winter 2013, entitled “The NIC’s Global Trends 2030 Report: A Collective Critique,” featuring 13 varied responses by experienced general futurists).
Whereas Oxford Martin and GT-2030 both start out with a set of “megatrends” that are largely similar, the reports diverge sharply after that: the former is strongly prescriptive, while the latter is strictly descriptive. The GT-2030 report does include a discussion of problem areas trendily mislabeled as “game-changers,” an overly brief discussion of wild cards (trendily labeled as “Black Swans”) and four “Alternative Worlds” scenarios with little or no relation to the Oxford Martin proposals for a better and more sustainable world (the NIC makes no mention of “sustainability,” and egregiously downgrades the risks of climate change). The important lesson here is that scenarios are not necessarily helpful, and can too easily be an amusing but fanciful distraction from articulating what is really needed and how to get there. As a government agency concerned with security, NIC is in no position to make strongly prescriptive comments. But the Oxford Martin proposals could be embodied in a future NIC scenario, if NIC is up for it and truly serious about security and well-being.
It is heartening that the Commission seeks to “take our recommendations forward” and the Oxford Martin School has the extensive financial and intellectual resources to do so. Perhaps this effort, in contrast to many smaller and poorly-funded efforts in recent decades to promote foresight and futures-thinking, can spark greater interest in broad and long-term perspectives for the public good, at a time when they are needed more than ever. If an update to the Commission report is to be made, however, greater attention should be paid to the print and electronic media (which favors sensation, entertainment, “nowness,” and political personalities over policy) and to higher education (still characterized by too much specialized trivia and fragmentation). Together, these two sectors may prove to be the most important barrier to a “common global vision” and enhancing “our capacity to work together.”
For the historical record, an earlier effort (not among the 551 footnotes of the Oxford Martin Commission) should be noted: Why Future Generations Now? (1994, 159p in English and Japanese), from the Institute for the Integrated Study of Future Generations, with theoretical and moral arguments by Sakae Shimizu (Chairman, Kyoto Forum), Katsuhiko Yazaki (Chairman, Future Generations Alliance Foundation), Kim Tae-Chang (President, IISFG), Wendell Bell (Yale University), Emmanuel Agius (University of Malta; editor, Future Generations Journal), Allen Tough (OISE, University of Toronto), and Rick Slaughter (Futures Study Centre, Melbourne).
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