It’s about this time when many forward looking pundits outline their views on how the year ahead will shape up. These forecasts are not always very accurate – the example of the forecasts of UK unemployment at 3 million at the start of 2009 come to mind – because they turn out to be an expression of hopes and fears rather than a serious examination of the forces and trends that will dominate the year ahead. I try to avoid making predictions because it is too easy to be wrong. Flying cars and robot house servants come to mind of examples where the speculations of futurists have been wrongly taken for predictions of the future. Instead, I try to consider what the forces are that will shape an emergent future – to look at possible futures rather than predicted futures. We are currently working on a project that examines the forces that are likely to shape the coming decade. As this is the forward looking time of year, we thought that we would share these observations.
We have identified five key trends that we think will shape the coming decade. These are quite broad trends – almost mega-trends, if you like – and are likely to have a substantial impact upon how we live through the coming decade. The five trends are:
1. The Great Re-Balancing Act: There is much of the global economy that is unbalanced – Asian savings, North American and European debt, the levels of household indebtedness, the imbalance between the public and private sectors, productivity differentials, and so on. These imbalances are unsustainable in the long term. The re-balancing of the global economy is likely to dominate the next decade in various shapes and forms.
2. The Reform Of Big Brother: The public sector in Europe and North America has grown substantially over the past couple of decades. It is set to grow even further as the Boomers move into retirement, through the expansion of spending on retirement benefits and age related healthcare costs. At the same time, the prospect of muted recovery will act as a constraining factor to the tax base. As public finances are squeezed, reform will become inevitable and is likely to feature as a trend in the next decade.
3. The New Enlightenment: Our public infrastructure reflects a set of institutions that arose out of The Enlightenment. There are those who believe that this institutional infrastructure is inadequate for modern society. Some look to reform the existing infrastructure, whilst others look to establish new institutions. This is given a sharper edge by the need to reform the public sector, and is likely to be a feature of the coming decade.
4. The New Nationalism: Over the next decade, the best part of a billion souls will be added to the population of the world. This will place acute stress upon all sorts of resources that could result in their prices rising considerably. The traditional response of nations to such stress is to retreat into a nationalist cocoon, a feature likely to be made worse by a muted recovery in the global economy. If so, then the process of globalisation may stutter in the coming decade, with all sorts of consequences.
5. The Icarus Effect: Prior to the global recession, a number of economies were growing and developing at a rapid pace. As recession hit, the growth trajectory of all economies dipped. Some economies have bounced back from that dip (e.g. China), whilst other economies have simply hit the ground (e.g. Ireland). As this trend unfolds further, it is likely to be affected by the re-balancing of the global economy, which could call into question whether this is really the ‘Asian Century’.
None of these trends is set in stone. Events may occur that lead to sharp discontinuities in the trends – we only have to look back 10 years to see what a discontinuity 9-11 was. However, they do provide a useful device by which we can examine current events from a long term perspective. In doing so, we need to be sceptical about our work. Whilst the trends seem to be evident now, they may become less evident as time goes by, as new trends emerge. We see the trend identification as a road map looking into the future, a map that should help us to see where we are going.
Of course, we also need to remember that all maps become out of date over time.
© The European Futures Observatory 2011