Foreseeing Long-Term Global Trends Matters

posted by Banning Garrett on February 10, 2015 - 4:14pm

The future of countries, organizations and individuals will not happen in a “vacuum” – that is, it will not be determined solely by a narrow set of parameters isolated from developments in the larger world around them. Nor will their destinies be simply of their own making or a result of navigating their immediate economic, political or social ecosystem.  Rather, their immediate environment and their futures will be conditioned and buffeted by larger global forces at work.  And the future that these global factors will shape almost certainly will not be a simple extrapolation of the present forward. 

The future is uncertain and volatile.  It is inherently unpredictable and subject to disruptive change, such as the end of the Cold War, 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, and the rise of the Internet.  Moreover, the future will be shaped by untold billions of human decisions and actions that cannot be predicted as we do not live in a Newtonian world where human behavior follows universal laws like gravity and inertia. 

But we need not throw up our hands in resignation. While we cannot predict the future, we can benefit from striving to understand the forces at work shaping the future – trends and uncertainties that present both dangers and opportunities.  This foresight will enable us to better mitigate potential dangers that we cannot avert and take steps to seize potential opportunities that may arise.  Identifying factors, risks, and potential opportunities can provide the basis for analysis, strategy, planning, and foresightful decision making. 

Climate change is perhaps the poster child for this type of foresight.  Warnings by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about global warming have led the global community (international organizations, national and subnational governments, businesses, NGOs, and individuals) to recognize the potential dangers of the current path of global carbon emissions and seek to mitigate these risks through reducing carbon emissions and adapting to current and foreseeable impacts of climate change.  At the same time, these efforts have created new opportunities for accelerating the development and deployment of new low-carbon technologies and other “green” technologies and innovations that can lead to more economic as well as environmental sustainability. 

Exponential technologies are also changing the world on a global scale.  In less than two decades, the Internet has been a comprehensively transformative force around the world and not just a niche technology affecting a few select people. Every government, from the US to North Korea, has had the way it functions transformed by the Internet, as has virtually every business, small and large, and even individual lives.  Moreover, the pace of technological change and its impact on society is accelerating, promising more change in the next twenty years than the last half century.     

The future will be shaped not only by many long-term trends and highly uncertain potential game changers, but also by one-off “black swans” that could happen at any time – or never.  While Black Swans include completely unpredictable events – “unknown unknowns,” they also include known possibilities that could occur “out of the blue” and disrupt the trajectory of history, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the 9/11 terrorist attack, and possible future terrorist use of a nuclear weapon or a new lethal airborne bird flu leading to a global pandemic. There are also “tipping points” that are foreseen as possible but uncertain if and when they might occur.  This could include a sudden and massive slipping of the Greenland or West Antarctic ice sheets into the ocean, which would create a rapid and catastrophic rise in sea levels that inundated coastal cities and forced potentially hundreds of millions of people to move inland permanently, creating social, political and economic chaos on a global scale. 

Failure to foresee the long-term global trends and uncertainties shaping the larger context and potential futures that might unfold could lead to serious miscalculations by governments, businesses, organizations and individuals.  Not only could dangers not be averted or prepared for, but major opportunities could be missed as well.  Moreover, as future articles on global challenges will argue, there is significant risk that the international community will fail to invest in scientific research and in technology development and deployment that will be necessary to change the trajectory of the most worrisome trends, from climate change to food and water shortages and sustainable urbanization. 

Envisioning “alternative futures” is a useful to way to provide a guide to policy and action for both avoiding bad outcomes and striving to achieve positive outcomes.  Such envisioning is a way of foreseeing possible futures that are plausible and working backwards to inform current policy decisions that would likely help avoid an undesirable future or achieve a preferred outcome.  These include both the “big picture” global futures and their implications for alternative futures of a specific region, government, business or organization.  Such envisioning could include development of narratives on how such alternative futures might develop, including the factors and decisions that might lead to the different outcomes.  Such alternative futures have been well-developed by the International Energy Agency, for example, to assess different mixes of energy sources with greenhouse gas accumulations.  These studies and IPCC reports have indicated possible alternative policy decisions not only by the international community and individual governments but also for individual businesses.    

My monthly reports will look at major long-term global trends, game-changing uncertainties, and emerging technologies and their implications for society, business, and government to provide context for foresight analysis, strategic planning and decision making.  We will especially look at the challenges and opportunities of urbanization as the world adds 2-3 billion people to cities over the next 3-4 decades and spends some $1 trillion/year in spending on urban infrastructure, from the built environment to transportation systems and the Internet of Things.  We will also look at emerging exponential technologies, how they are likely to change the world for government, business, and individuals as we experience more technological change in the next twenty years than in the last half century or more.