RF/GBN
Scenarios for the Future of Technology
Prepared by Michael Marien, Director, Global Foresight Books
 
November 2010

 

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scenarios-for-the-future-of-technology

Scenarios for the Future of Technology and International Development.  The Rockefeller Foundation (NYC) and Global Business Network (San Francisco).  NY: Rockefeller Foundation, May 2010/53p/free pfd. 

 

 

 

As explained in a preface by long-time scenario planner Peter Schwartz, cofounder and chair of GBN, “technology is rapidly becoming more and more integral to the pace and progress of development.” This exercise by RF and GBN staff and others explores four very different yet possible scenarios to promote “a deeper understanding of the complex forces and dynamics that will accelerate or inhibit the use of technology to spur growth, opportunity, and resilience, especially in the developing world.” The scenarios enable us to think creatively and rigorously about the many ways these forces may interact, while forcing us to challenge our assumptions about what we believe or hope the future will be.
 
Two Main Uncertainties, Four Scenarios
 
The starting point for any set of scenarios is to understand reasonably certain driving forces, e.g.: the emerging multi-polar global system, continued global population growth, and the search for more energy from renewable resources. The scenarios, however, are formed around “critical uncertainties.” An Appendix lists 15 such uncertainties involving technology, society, environment, politics, and economic performance. Participants chose two of them from this list: 1) Global Political and Economic Alignment (ranging from high global economic integration and more cooperation to more protectionism, fragmentation, and weak government regimes), and 2) Adaptive Capacity (the capacity at different levels of society to cope with change and to adapt effectively; high levels are typically achieved through presence of novelty and diversity, the strength and variety of institutions, trust in society, and free flow of ideas). These axes create a 2x2 matrix for four very different futures in the next 15-20 years:
 
“Lock Step”
Strong alignment, low adaptive capacity--A world of tighter top-down government control, with limited innovation , resulting from a 2012 pandemic originating from wild geese that infected nearly 20% of the global population. Some impacts:
  • national leaders around the world flexed their authority and imposed airtight rules and restrictions such as mandatory wearing of face masks;
  • China’s quick quarantine for all citizens and near-hermetic sealing of all borders saved millions of lives and enabled a swifter post-pandemic recovery;
  • international mobility of people and goods was halted, debilitating industries like tourism and breaking global supply chains;
  • even after the pandemic faded, more authoritarian control of citizens stuck and even intensified (at first, the notion of a more controlled world gained wide acceptance and approval);
  • heightened oversight in developed countries took the form of biometric IDs for all citizens and tighter regulation of key industries deemed vital to national interests;
  • strong technology regulations stifled innovation, kept costs high, and curbed adoption;
  • by 2025, people grew weary of so much top-down control, and sporadic pushback became increasingly organized and coordinated;
  • technologies featured better scanners, smarter packaging for food and beverages, new diagnostics to detect communicable diseases, and regionally defined IT networks mimicking China’s firewalls.
 
Clever Together”
Strong alignment, high adaptive capacity--A world of highly coordinated and successful strategies for addressing both urgent and entrenched issues, resulting from strong global growth after the 2008 Great Recession. Some developments:
  • in 2015, a critical mass of middle income and developed countries publicly committed to leveraging their resources against global-scale problems, beginning with climate change;
  • in 2017, an international agreement was reached on carbon sequestration, with resources pooled to build carbon capture processes; a functioning global cap and trade system was also established;
  • by 2022, projections show a significant slowing in the rise of atmospheric carbon levels;
  • inspired by this success in collective global action, large-scale coordinated initiatives intensified; centralized global oversight and governance structures were developed for energy use, and for disease and technology standards; nation-states lost some of their power and importance as global architecture strengthened;
  • coordinated efforts to tackle hunger, disease, and access to basic needs took hold; new inexpensive technologies improved health outcomes;
  • in 2022, a consortium of nations, NGOs and companies establish the Global Technology Assessment Office, providing easily accessed real-time information on costs and benefits of various technology applications;
  • by 2025, the Maghreb Desertec initiative to create massive thermal electricity plants to supply North Africa and Southern Europe was a huge success;
  • in 2025, Transparency International reports 10 consecutive years of improved governance;
  • by 2030, enormous strides were made to make the world less wasteful, more efficient, and more inclusive through “smart growth”;
  • systems thinking and knowledge management prove to be critical skills to share and spread best practices and identify leapfrog opportunities.
 
Hack Attack”
Weak alignment, low adaptive capacity--An economically unstable and shock-prone world where criminals thrive, due to a series of large catastrophes in the 2010-2020 “doom decade” pressuring an already overstressed global economy. As a result:
  • in 2015, the US reallocated much defense spending to domestic concerns, pulling out of Afghanistan, where the resurgent Taliban seized power once again;
  • with government power weakened, order rapidly disintegrating, and safety nets evaporating, crime and violence grew more rampant; overtaxed militaries and police forces could do little to stop criminals and terrorists from gaining power;
  • countries with ethic, religious, or class divisions saw sharp spikes in hostility
  • technology hackers were busy with Internet scams, pyramid schemes, and attempts to take down corporations, governments, and banks with phishing scams and database information heists; the Internet is overrun with spam and security threats;
  • the presence of many thefts and fakes lowered incentives to create “me first” technologies; many patent thickets made cross-pollination of ideas and research difficult at best;
  • the global have/have-not gap grew wider than ever, with the very rich protecting themselves in even more gated communities;
  • the collapse of state capacity led to feudalism in some places, but also enabled grassroots movements to form and grow.
  • new threats like weaponized bio-pathegens and destructive botnets dominate public attention.
 
“Smart Scramble”
Weak alignment, high adaptive capacity--An economically depressed world where individuals and communities develop makeshift solutions to a growing set of problems, due to the ongoing global recession. The generally unhappy results:
  • the US lost much of its presence and credibility on the international stage due to deepening debt and debilitated markets; in turn, this led to fracturing or decoupling of many international collaborations that relied on the US;
  • social stability grew more precarious in China, leading to sharply curtailed Chinese investments in Africa and other developing regions and nations;
  • unemployment rates skyrocketed in the developed world, as did xenophobia; companies gave the few available jobs to native-born citizens;
  • Internet status had not progressed far beyond its 2010 status due to lack of investment in infrastructure; when cellphone towers or fiber optic cables broke down, repairs were often delayed by months or years;
  • makeshift, “good enough” technology emerged to fill the gaps, with micro-manufacturing, communal gardens, and patchwork energy grids created for local purposes; many communities took on the aura of co-ops, some even launching their own currencies;
  • local innovations could neither scale nor boost overall growth; scaling also inhibited by lack of compatible technology standards; may good ideas thus remained isolated;
  • breakdowns in the global medicine supply chain accelerate emergence of locally bioengineered homeopathic remedies that replace antibiotics.
 
Concluding Insights by RF/GBN:
  • the link between technology and governance is critical;
  • development work will require different levels of intervention, possibly simultaneously;
  • scenarios have potential value as a critical element of strategy development; they kick-start generation of ideas, build a future-oriented mindset, and provide a guide for trend monitoring and horizon scanning;
  • new innovations and uses of technology will be an integral part of international development.
 
Concluding Note :
Despite suggested emphasis on technology, development, and the role of philanthropy in each of the four scenarios, these provocative sketches of plausible developments should be of general interest to anyone interested in world futures, and possible futures for any region or nation.
 

 

 
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