Sunday, 30 September 2007

Shocking Truths - The 21st Century Slave Trade

A Meeting Organised By The RSA

The RSA, London, UK
27th September 2007



HELEN BAMBER, The Helen Bamber Foundation

My attraction to this meeting was the content. As part of our project on the Globalisation of Crime, I felt that this would be an interesting source of information about the flow of people, both legal and illegal, for the purposes of an illicit objective – the UK sex trade. I did have reservations about the involvement of celebrity (Emma Thompson has won two Oscars, and is quite well known on the UK) because I feared that it might overshadow the purpose of the meeting. However, on the other hand, it appears to me that many of my fellow attendees were there to see Emma Thompson, so the inclusion of celebrity, on this occasion, did broaden the conversation to a wider audience.

On the whole, I found the talk to very useful and illuminating. Although there were times when Emma Thompson’s celebrity played to the audience, I don’t feel that it detracted too much from the issues. The key point was that the talk persuaded me to go over to Trafalgar Square to have a look at the installation. If that was the purpose of the talk, then it achieved that purpose.

READ the full report.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Dates For Year 10 Time Bandits

12th September- The Futuring Quiz by Peter Bishop
19th September- UK to build zero carbon homes by 2016
26th September- Two-Parent Families: Adoptive vs. Natural
3rd October- Designing for the “Other 90 Percent”
10th October- Sub prime Lenders Target Women Unfairly
17th October- Men Not at Work


7th November- Promoting Parenthood in Japan
14th November- Survival of the cutest
21st November-My Super Sweet Sixteen
28th November- Defeating Terrorism: Is it possible? Is it probable?
5th December- Dislocation and the Global Economy

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Transformative Power In Action

It has been an interesting week for the students of geopolitics. Earlier in the week, the European courts upheld a previous ruling by the European Commission that Microsoft had been engaged in anti-competitive practices within the EU (see report in The Times). Microsoft, after paying a fine of just under half a billion Euros, will have to share some of its source code with other software developers, and will have to unbundle some of its products that are sold in the EU.

This is a clear example of the ‘Transformative Power’ of the EU. The thinking behind the use of Transformative power is quite simple. The EU is the largest trading area in the world, and those corporations who wish to trade in that area have to conform to the trading regulations of the EU. If foreign companies (e.g. Microsoft) wish to trade in the EU, then they have to become ‘European-like’ in their modus operandi. This has two interesting implications for the future.

First, as Mark Leonard pointed out in ‘Why Europe Will Run The Twenty-First Century’ (see our review), this will mean that, increasingly, global corporations will have to adopt the attributes of European corporations if they wish to access European markets. Although the Global Corporations may be incorporated and listed outside of Europe, they will have to become ‘European’ in what they do. They will have to transform themselves into European companies if they wish to operate within the EU.

This is not too much of a problem if European practices area broadly similar to the practices elsewhere. Sadly, they are not. There is a major difference in approach between the commercial practices in the US and in the EU. The EU operates on the basis of the Precautionary Principle (a good must be shown to be safe before it can be sold), whilst the US operates on what The Economist calls a ‘Cost Benefit Approach’ (if a good brings a net benefit to the US, irrespective of the collateral harm it may cause, then it may be sold in the US). In the US, the presumption of innocence lies with the companies, in the EU it doesn’t.

This theme is taken further by The Economist to develop the second implication (see article). Just as Russia has been using its energy policy as an instrument of foreign policy, there are also grounds to suggest that the EU has been using its trade policy as an instrument of a wider foreign policy agenda. It is interesting that the EU Trade Commissioner is Peter Mandelson, a British nominee who might be described as a hard core Federalist who is not at all sympathetic towards the US, and who is not uncomfortable in situations of conflict with the US.

The putative struggle between the EU and the US in setting the regulatory agenda for world trade is important because the trading regulations form a key piece of the architecture of globalisation. If the EU prevails, as the article in The Economist suggests, then Europe will be running the 21st Century. It will set the rules which the rest of the world will follow in global trade. In doing so, it will control a vital piece of the architecture of globalisation.

In the years to come, we shall look for further examples of US companies adopting a European modus operandi. If examples come readily to hand, then the EU is prevailing. If not, then perhaps Europe will not be running the 21st Century.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

World Future 2007

This year for the World Futurists conference we went to Minneapolis. As this was my first conference I was a little nervous but really I didn't know what to expect. When I got to the Hilton it was a little overwhelming as everything was so big. Also I had never seen escalators in a hotel so I thought that was really cool.

There was some great material that was given and I learnt loads about what a “Futurist” means, like you have to know loads about everything even if you don’t do much work on it. Also how you need an opinion on most things and to be able to back that opinion up with evidence.

I started off with a pre conference course of Futuring: An Introduction to the Study of the Future by Peter Bishop. I found this really useful as there were some points where I had to speak and talk about why I thought something. Also something that is quite good to learn is that 9 out of 10 times a forecast is wrong.

In a way the conference was quite a blur as it went so quickly but one talk that stuck in my mind was Future Flow by Derek Woodgate. It really made me think about what most people must think of the future and how it is always bleak. It made me think that if many people take a step back and are less pessimistic then the world can become a much happier place. Especially, I think, in schools.

My dad did a few presentations so I went and helped him for these (being his slide girl) I think they went really well but I wasn’t always concentrating a lot as I was working. Overall I think the conference went really well and I am looking forward to next year in Washington.

Should Ipswich Develop Its Infrastructure Before It Builds More Houses?

A Meeting Organised By EUFO

The Ipswich Institute
19th September 2007


CLLR RICHARD ATKINS, Ipswich Borough Council

BARBARA ROBINSON, Community Campaigner

This meeting was organised as part of the RSA Coffee House Challenge initiative. The aim of the programme is to empower groups of people at a local level to meet to discuss matters of significance to them. It is part of a movement to reinvigorate public life in the UK at the grass roots level. The issues of development and regeneration in Ipswich have been at the heart of much activity of the Borough Council in recent years.

The central core of Ipswich is being modernised and given a fresh life, whilst the construction of large housing developments within the town have been a feature with us for some years. This development has not been without its problems. Traffic congestion, pollution, and the degradation of the built environment in the town centre have also accompanied the development in the town. This has led some members of the public to question whether the redevelopment of the town centre ought to be paused to allow for the accompanying infrastructure to catch up. This was the heart of the question being asked at the meeting.

READ the full report.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Transport For the 21st Century

For those following this subject (see original post), the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce - one of the organisers of the seminar have posted some Podcasts of the event onto their web site (see link).

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Plate Tectonics!

Continents change as the tectonic plates on which they rest shift around. The results are earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and the creation of mountian ranges. The global economy is a bit like this.

As the locus of economic and political power changes its centre of gravity, so there will be economic earthquakes, financial volcanoes will blow, and new political mountain ranges will form.

In practical terms, whilst there may be the occasional bout of turbulence in the financial markets, most of the effects will be slow, gradual, and prolonged. For example, it could be argued that the current value of the dollar contains a 'hyper-puissance' premium that is draining away from the US. The more that the ineffectiveness of US foreign policy is demonstrated in Iraq, the greater will be the reductions in that premium.

There is an interesting piece in The Economist this week (see article) that examines the effect of a constantly depreciating dollar. If our view is correct, then the US dollar is over-valued at the moment, and further depreciations ought to be expected in the near future.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Is It Bear Season Yet?

While the focus of the world is upon the woes of the credit crunch, other significant stories are slipping by under the radar. One of these reported in The Economist caught our attention – a discussion of the cooling of relations between Europe and Russia (see article). It would appear that the Russian tactic of asserting itself through bilateral disputes has now reached such a critical mass that Russia risks provoking a reaction from a concerted Europe. In response to this, there is evidence reported in The Times that Russia might be a little more conciliatory if the nations of the EU were to offer a conciliatory approach (see article).

For those with an interest in future geopolitics, these two stories have certain significance. On the part of the EU, it would be unusual for the nations of the EU to act together jointly on a single policy. We call the two views within the EU the Atlanticist (to follow the lead of the US, to act as a weak confederation in matters of foreign policy) and the Federalist (to act jointly in matters of foreign policy, not necessarily following the lead of the US).

If it is true that a new consensus is growing between France and Germany towards Russia that leans towards the Federalist view of the world, then that might imply the pendulum has started to swing away from the Atlanticist view of further enlargement of the EU. In practical terms, this would be a good piece of news for Turkey, which has significance in Europe as a Black Sea bulwark against a resurgent Russia, and which has a geopolitical significance in terms of the Federalist agenda, but not necessarily in terms of the Atlanticist agenda. It would also suggest that relations between Europe and the US, which have been thawing in recent months, might start to grow cooler again.

It also highlights an interesting conundrum for the Russian Government. If the EU does distance itself from Washington, as President Putin called for, then it is quite likely that a more assertive EU in Federalist colours will emerge. This may not be to the advantage of Russia, as The Economist article suggests. After all, the EU does have two vetoes on the UN Security Council in the hands of the UK and France, which may be used to counter Russian interests in the Balkans. If, on the other hand Russia wants a more compliant EU, then the result may be a more Atlanticist perspective on the world, where the US offers a lead in European affairs.

We shall continue to monitor the developments in this relationship because it could be quite significant in the near future. Much of US policy in the Middle East presumes a disengaged Russia. However, with a proximate border with Iran across the Caspian Sea, it is difficult to see how US policy towards Iran could escape comment from Moscow. So far, Russian diplomacy has not been a feature in the war in Iraq. We wonder if this might be a feature in the near future.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Flying Cars (Again)

The BBC recently carried a story that caught my attention (see story). It was about Dr Paul Moller, a Californian inventor, who claims to have a prototype flying car that will enter production in 2010. This captured my attention because I am cursed, like most futurists, by the vision of the flying car. The flying car is often touted as an example of ‘bad’ futures gone wrong. A predicted future event that didn’t happen. It would be ironic if Dr Moller was right, in which case the predictions would simply seem ahead of their time.

There are, however, grounds to suspect that we might not see Flying Cars by 2010. A Google search quickly unearthed the case against Flying Cars. An article on the Downside Web Site (see article) calls into question the veracity of the Flying Car story. Even if the Downside story is right, and we do not see Flying Cars by 2010, it would be interesting to consider what might happen if it were to be true. It would be interesting to think about a truly disruptive technology in the field of transportation.

I had hoped that this opportunity had come my way. I recently attended a half day conference on the future of transportation in Suffolk (see meeting notes). I was keen to get to grips with concepts such as the impact of Peak Oil on commuting by car, the possible impacts of disruptive technologies, and how work patterns might be reorganised in an effort to reduce carbon footprints. In doing so, I had made a key mistake.

My fellows at the conference were not futurists. They were professionals in other areas of endeavour who have an interest in the future. The conference served to remind me of two factors. First, unless we encourage people to think differently, they will continue to think in straight lines. Many at the conference thought in terms of a linear link between the past, present, and future. In which case, the key to understanding the future is to understand the past and present. The possibility that the future might be different from the past was a concept that didn’t readily settle with most participants.

Second, whilst most of the conference goers were experts in their areas, very few had managed to join the connections between the various disciplines. One of the key attributes of many futurists is their ability to piece together a connection across disciplines. We look for weak signals in a variety of areas to provide evidence for, or against, a given hypothesis about the future. Sometimes, I forget that not everyone does this, which closes the circle nicely.

When my fellow futurists rail against the Flying Cars, perhaps we ought to have a bit more patience and forbearance with others. Not all have embarked upon the journey into the future, and, if they have, they might not have travelled as far as us. After all, the future is a frightening place where anything can happen.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Transport For the 21st Century

A Conference Organised By Suffolk County Council

Trinity Park, Ipswich, UK
7th September 2007


CLLR GUY McGREGOR, Suffolk County Council (Chair)

DAVID FROST, British Chamber of Commerce

ROB MAIDMENT, Suffolk Development Agency




COLIN IRLAM, Suffolk County Council

I was originally attracted to this meeting by a number of factors. To begin with, the focus of the conference was local to where I live, and the issue of transport is one that will affect me – personally - for some time to come. I was also interested in observing the state of play with regards to Foresight in the Public Sector. One could quite well argue that the UK is one of the leading exponents of Public Sector Foresight. However, there is a view that this is confined to the national level and has not really permeated down to the level of Local Government in the UK. I wanted to test this hypothesis. Finally, our research indicates that one of the major trends within society is the shift of allegiance away from the national and towards the community. I wanted to gain a feel for the community in which I happen to live and work.

The Conference was a first step in the engagement with the future. It was a good first step, and we ought not to expect too much from that first step. It will be interesting to see what comes from the Conference. If it is a stand alone event, then it would take on the characteristics of an opportunity missed. If, however, it was to represent the start of a process by which there is a discussion about what futures are possible and what futures are desired, then we shall all look back at the afternoon as quite a memorable event.

READ the full report.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Thinking About The Future

by Andy Hines & Peter Bishop (Eds.)

ISBN 0-9789317-0-X

The intention of the book is to be practical. It describes itself as setting out guidelines for strategic foresight. I rather see it as a navigators guide into the future. The book identifies 115 guidelines for undertaking strategic foresight activity, which are grouped into six sequential steps – Framing, Scanning, Forecasting, Visioning, Planning, and Acting. This framework has been derived from a wide collaboration between 36 leading foresight practitioners and academics, which was also cross-referenced and synthesised by the Association of Professional Futurists’ Professional Development team. The contributing team was global in its origins and cutting-edge in its approach.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book. I believe that it will provide an important landmark in the literature of strategic foresight. It may not become a business best seller because of the limited audience to which it will appeal. However, I would thoroughly recommend it to those engaged in the area of strategic foresight and strategic planning.

READ the full review

BUY from Amazon US

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

When The Music Stops .....

Following up our story "Crisis, What Crisis?" (see link), this story in The Times caught our attention (see article). It would seem that Barclays is one of the banks that have been left holding the paper when the music stopped.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

The Oiks 1 HSBC 0

An interesting example of the exercise of people power has come to light over the past couple of weeks. It concerns a disagreement between the banking giant HSBC and a number of their student and graduate customers. For a number of years, as an inducement for students to open an account with the bank, it has offered a facility whereby overdrafts run up whilst at college – up to a limit of about £1,500 to £2,000 – are left as interest free loans for a short period after graduation – generally no longer than two years.

This is part of a tactic to attract the custom of graduates, who, over the course of a lifetime, are unlikely to change banks and who are likely to generate a stream of profitable business for the bank (checking accounts, mortgages, insurance, pensions, savings, investments, wills & trusts, and so on). It is a common marketing tactic amongst the UK retail banks.

In July, the HSBC announced that it was to withdraw the facility with immediate effect, even for existing customers who had opened accounts on the understanding that there would be a facility after graduation, and who had relied upon that inducement in placing their business with the HSBC to begin with. The story came to our attention through a report in the Guardian (read report).

The student body, galvanised by the National Union of Students, and using Facebook as an organising vehicle, planned a campaign to protest against this unilateral change in their banking arrangements. The idea was to use the smart mob to clog up the banking facilities of the HSBC in selected cities across the UK. The protest would be non-violent, and would consist of several hundred students all turning up at a selected branch, at the same time, and querying the notice of charges sent to them as customers. It would generate a fair deal of negative publicity – particularly as the HSBC brands itself in the UK as ‘the listening bank’.

In the face of this, according to the Guardian (read report) the HSBC has relented and has scrapped the plans. The NUS are claiming this as a major victory of the small guy against the corporate world (see link). This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the tenor of the claim is in the right direction.

In the UK, for many years, the retail banks have treated their customers with complete contempt. They realise that, in modern society, not to have a bank account is to become a non-person, who cannot be paid a salary and who cannot receive state benefits. The banks are in an oligopolistic position, and it is often alleged that they abuse this market power to the detriment of their customers. Indeed, there are now so many cases before the courts where customers are suing their banks for alleged unfair and illegal bank charges, that the judiciary are complaining about how the volume of cases is starting to paralyse the Small Claims Courts.

We see this as part of a longer trend – one that large corporations need to heed. The communications revolution and the internet have delivered a vehicle to activists to organise a campaign against companies. Turning this around, as a futurist, we now ask companies what they would do if 80% of their customers turned up to their outlets at the same time, on the same day, to complain about poor service or to return allegedly faulty goods. Or to call the Chairman’s office, or the company’s auditors, or the company’s bankers, and so on. The new technologies have given the customer a new voice.

I wonder how many organisations plan for this Wild Card.