Monday, 29 September 2008

Thinking aloud - a glimpse of the future.

Every now and then something happens that brings the future clearly into focus. Perhaps it is because a variety of connections have been motoring around our sub-conscious or perhaps it is because we find that we have a bit of time and space to clear our minds from our immediate concerns. Whatever the causes, the effect is that we suddenly can see one path into the future with a great degree of clarity. This clarity of vision is what I like to call foresight.

My wife has been in Ireland this weekend and her trip has given me a number of reference points into the future. The journey started by catching a bus from Ipswich to Stansted Airport. Normally I would have driven my wife to the airport – and again to collect her on the way back – but a new bus service has called all of that into question. The new shuttle service (a bus every 2 hours, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week) is priced to dominate this service. At £23 return ($US44, €28), the journey costs less than the petrol cost of driving to the airport. For multiple passengers, four people would travel on the bus service for less than the cost of a taxi. This says something about the future to me. In a future where the cost of resources is appreciably higher than today, I see the price mechanism forcing people to abandon resource inefficient methods (the car) and adopting more efficient collective forms of transport (the bus or the train). That the bus in this case was a low-carbon bus is something of a bonus in terms of carbon footprint.

My wife flew by Ryanair to the west coast of Ireland. The flights cost £1.98 return ($US3.50, €2.30), but with £50 ($US95, €60) added to cover taxes and luggage. One wonders how long this will last. In a world where the price of aviation fuel keeps rising, the business model of the low cost operators must be coming under considerable pressure. The latest results update shows that, for the quarter to 30th June 2008, Ryanair profits had fallen by 85% compared to the same quarter of the previous year. The impact of high oil prices ($US130 a barrel for the quarter to 30th June 2008) is obviously having an effect. The second and third order effects upon the destination areas – such as the west coast of Ireland – would make a really good subject of a scenario exercise. If the low cost airline business model were to fail, what would be the impact on regional development in Europe?

My wife, joined at the airport by her sister, boarded the plane on time, but then spent two hours on the runway. The air traffic control computer for Southern England had failed and the whole air traffic system was seriously degraded. It seems to me that we are currently in a world characterised by high levels of complexity and interdependency. When large and complex systems are designed, I wonder how much tolerance for failure is built into the system. In many of the futuristic techno-fantasies, it is taken for read that there will be sufficient power to operate the system, that its supply will be uninterrupted, and that the system will actually work. Most of us know these assumptions to be heroic. The UK faces the prospect of brown-outs from 2012 onwards (electricity demand is likely outstrip electricity supply from that year onwards) and large scale IT projects are notorious for being delivered late, over-budget, and not fully functional. I wonder how long it will be before we take a step back from complex solutions to a more simple approach to problem solving.

If that were to happen, we may well find the world to be a bit more resilient to disturbances, but then, my wife and her sister wouldn’t be able to pop over to Ireland for a weekend family visit. I guess that we can’t have our cake and eat it!

© The European Futures Observatory 2008


Guy Yeomans said...

Hello Stephen,

I think your identification of "second and third order effects" is particularly apposite at this time.

Given our immersion in the details of the various 'rescue' options currently being proposed for the global financial crisis, I wonder how potential 2nd & 3rd order outcomes are now being re-conceived and / or re-modelled?

What 'n'th order issues or circumstances (and their ongoing combination) could now 'tip' the system into a state of overall & fundamental structural change?

Stephen Aguilar-Millan said...

Dear Guy,

Thanks for your comment. Have you come across Joel Barker's 'Implications Wheel'? It's an interesting process (and software tool) that allows us to think about nth order effects in a reasonably systematic way.

With best wishes,