(Dual Selection) Richard Watson and Oliver Freeman
Futurevision: Scenarios for the World in 2040
Prepared by Michael Marien
Two experienced futurists note that the future is not what it used to be, and there is now a high degree of volatility in everything. “Our aim is to prevent people from getting the future seriously wrong.” (p6) The authors seek to challenge fundamental assumptions and reframe viewpoints, by alerting individuals and organizations to a broad range of longer term questions, expectations, and decisions. It is misleading to analyze trends to predict the future, because trends must be lined up with discontinuities, counter-trends, anomalies, and wildcards. “The only rigorous way to deal with a future so uneven and disjointed is to create a set of alternative futures that cover a number of possibilities.” (p.5) Four highly detailed Worldview Scenarios are presented, as regards what the world in 2040 might be like, based on the premise that “the world today offers more promise than ever before, but also more threats to our continued existence.” (p.1)
1) Imagine: A World of Intelligence
A society where people are fully aware of threats to the future such as climate change, but have an unshakeable belief in the power of science, technology, and free market capitalism to make life better. Science and technology have restored order to the natural world by changing it, with nature under control by synthetic biology, geoengineering, and forests of CO2-absorbing artificial trees. “It is a mind-blowing new world of technical challenges and radical inventiveness and re-engineering, where everything is connected to everything else.” (p.37) Clean technology is booming, especially nano-solar; fusion power is coming online; food and water shortages have been addressed by smart technology. Automation accelerates the pace of everyday life, and industries are turned upside-down by digitalization, virtualization, miniaturization, and ubiquitous connectivity. The Internet is a central feature of life, as well as various robot-human relationships. Overall, life is good.
The Timeline of some 30 events includes widespread investment in shale gas (2016), 95% of payments are mobile or embedded (2023), most homes in Western nations have at least one 3-D printer (2029), computers are 1,000 times as powerful as in 2012 (2030), US fighter jets are completely replaced by unmanned aerial vehicles (2031), commercially farmed insects provide protein in some microwave-ready meals (2032), 85% of homes have three or more robots (2035), the world’s fifth largest company is Syn-Bio, Inc. (2037), Google unveils the Space Mirror Project with an estimated cost of US$8 trillion.
2) Please Please Me: A World of Greed
An era of economic growth, free markets, individualism, consumerism, selfishness, and self-indulgence, where people work harder and longer, and where greed and status are key drivers of much human activity. It is a world of money, luxury, displacement, and detachment—for those who can afford it. It celebrates newness, planned obsolescence, over-supply, and over-consumption; a narrowly focused, narcissistic future where everyone is for themselves. Most people see the threats of global warming as largely exaggerated. The transhumanist movement is burgeoning: life is good and we’d like much more of it, so let’s slow down or end aging. Charitable donations show a yearly decline, while tax avoidance services rise 10%/year.
The Timeline of some 30 events includes Red Bull as the drink of choice at most company meetings (2022), legal action from disgruntled staff as the major cost for many businesses (2024), 80% of police and healthcare services in most countries are privatized (2028), 25% of people worldwide are obese (2030), the average person sleeps 5.5 hours per night (2032), 67% of US adults are single (2034).
3) Dear Prudence: A World of Temperance
People are alarmed about the health of the planet and the pervasive influence of materialism and individualism: they seek a future of sustainability and switching things off, buying fewer things, seeking to reconnect locally with simpler pleasures of life. It is a world where many things go backwards, where ethics and reputation really count again, and collaborative consumption has blossomed. As lives become more balanced and “less is more,” most people are happy. Big-box out-of-town retail sites are largely empty now, or dug up to grow food. Organic farming is back, and fair-trade values are prominent. Society as a whole has become more self-sufficient and resilient, picking up on ideas of Edward Bellamy Looking Backward (1988) and Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality (1973). Left-ish and center-left political parties gain ground, as well as community and town-hall meetings. Slow is the new fast, and local production and consumption brings purpose to people’s lives. Adding carbon pricing to items means that almost everything has become more expensive, but the upside is less waste. Congestion charges in cities are ubiquitous, with a boom in public transport systems. The overall lesson is that “society moves in giant circles.” (p.128)
The Timeline of some 30 possible events includes profit caps imposed on major banks and limits to corporate bonus payments (2012), Greece exits the Eurozone (2013), ratings.com allows users to assess the environmental impact of services (2018), the US government announces full transparency targets for all companies (2020), the US adopts a flat annual tax charge of 1% of total wealth (2022), the EU limits the working week to 22 hours (2023), sale of imported bottled water is banned globally (2028), all consumer products have ethical ratings and carbon and oil labels (2030), church attendance rises to record levels (2034), membership of cooperatives is up 900% over two decades (2039).
4) Helter Skelter: A World of Fear
A world where a series of unexpected events creates a general sense of fear and fragility, and people turn their backs on the notion of a single global economy. People worldwide rediscover an angry appetite for parochialism, protectionism, and regulation. It is a society of anchorless institutions and rudderless young people; of mutual distrust and disillusionment; a world running on empty, where global politics drifts to the right, and nationalism and tribalism re-emerge. There is a rise in gated communities and home security products, anti-immigration rhetoric and narrow national self-interest, and a general decline in health due to increased smoking, drinking, and drug-taking. The vicious circle of physical and psychological damage explains how young and old alike tipped from being anxious into a state of full-blown anger, with a desire for physical destruction.
The Timeline of some 30 possible events includes a heatwave across the US and Europe that kills some 600,000 people (2015), flooding destroys half of the world’s wheat crops (2020), 25% of adults worldwide take anti-anxiety medication (2029), the global airline industry and thus the travel industry collapses (2031), pirates block the Strait of Hormuz which sends the price of oil to $600 per barrel (2036), inflation hits 16% (2039).
After presenting the four scenarios, the second half of the book describes the role of foresight in “taming the crystal ball” and the four stages in the scenario-planning QUEST (developing framing questions, examining environmental influences, building scenario worlds, and creating transformational strategies). An Epilogue adds “Ten Game-Changers for 2040,” including a Second American Civil War, oil rising to $300 a barrel in 2035 and $500 a barrel after the Strait of Hormuz is closed, a bird-flu pandemic killing 500 million people worldwide, the Moon becomes a colony of China in 2040, users of the Internet abandon it in droves due to serious problems of viruses and censorship, water is the new oil as half of the world’s population lives in highly water-stressed regions (notably China and India), and energy becomes almost free due to breakthroughs in new technologies (synthetic biology, fusion technology, nanotechnology, etc.)
These Worldview Scenarios are written in informal style, especially contrasted to the sober style of The Economist, which pretty much confines its vision to the first scenario of successful technology. Watson and Freeman provide numerous wild cards, possible game-changers, and imaginary events for a lively read that makes a sharp contrast to Megachange. Along with the NIC’s Global Trends 2030 report and Al Gore’s six drivers of the future, there is shared agreement, however, of more and more change in coming decades.
The over-riding questions are what changes are likely, what changes deserve to be promoted or restricted, and what changes are desirable—and for whom. As these Book of the Month selections make abundantly clear, we have yet to make much if any progress in attaining any consensus on any of these important questions. Is it worth trying to do so, somehow?