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20 Shifts on the Path to 2030

Excerpt from the book Aftershocks and Opportunities 2: Navigating the Next Horizon.

What are some of the emerging future factors that could turn into influential shifts shaping the next decade and beyond?

This book provides a broad scan of the horizon for some of the critical future factors that might shape our world over the next five to ten years and beyond. The contributors discuss a number of megatrends, clearly identifiable subtrends, and emerging ideas that we already believe will have some influence on the scenarios that could play out. In this chapter, we take a look beyond those strong drivers of change to look at some of the rapidly evolving developments and weaker signals of possible change that could turn into major societal shifts quite rapidly. These factors are grouped under operating environment, lives and lifestyles, economy, and business and technology. Many of the future factors highlighted below have a close relationship to the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Hence, at the core of much of the discussion below is the question: how committed are we as a planet to delivering on these goals and delivering sustainable lifestyle advances for all citizens?

Operating Environment

1Accelerated Responses to C­limate Change and Eco ­Tipping Points

How might growing awareness of the scale of the climate crisis raise awareness and encourage action on the broader set of environmental challenges facing the planet?

The climate crisis has started to focus people’s attention on a wider set of critical planetary boundaries being reached or exceeded. There is a growing sense and awareness that the response levels from organisations, nations, and individuals need to be scaled up and accelerated to bring the planet back from the brink and that the natural environment doesn’t negotiate or care about treaties, agreements, or targets.

In turn, this is driving increased understanding that action on a massive scale is required to address a broader range of challenges beyond dangerous climate change, such as forest fires, desertification, loss of biodiversity, declining air quality, and groundwater contamination.

Climate change remains the primary focal point for most, but addressing it could bring wider ecological benefits. The evidence driving the need for a deeper response is increasingly incontrovertible. For example, the latest and most comprehensive report from the United Nations.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that global warming could reach or exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels within two decades. Breaking these thresholds could lead to irreversible damage from catastrophic weather events, melting of polar ice, rising sea levels, and flooding.

Estimates for tackling these ecosystem challenges over the next two decades ranging from US$300 billion to US$50 trillion and 1–5 per cent of GDP annually for different countries. The stark reality of the situation is that nations and the global community will face tough choices. Decisions will be required over prioritising planetary protection or accepting the costs to the planet, countries, economies, lives, and livelihoods of limited and insufficient action.

Action is already being scaled up in some areas. For example, there is a clear acceleration in the rate at which nations, cities, and businesses are bringing forward their timescales for reaching net zero in three key domains, namely carbon emissions, non-recyclable or reusable waste, and energy consumption from the grid. Rising public awareness also drives a greater consideration of ecological factors and sustainability in individual purchasing decisions and lifestyle choices.

2Uncharted Territory for Globalism

What new models, structures, and approaches might we need for collective action to tackle current and emerging global challenges?

The pandemic, numerous points of diplomatic tension, and the digital reshaping of global commerce have highlighted serious limitations in existing global governance models and frameworks. Clear fault lines have emerged or become more pronounced in fields ranging from conflict resolution and national and global governance to international trade, regulation of corporate power, and monetary and fiscal policy.

The capacity of nations, global institutions, economic alliances, and regulatory regimes to respond and adapt to these shifts will be essential. They will determine and regulate the level of volatility globally and be key determinants in the frequency, duration, and depth of national and global shocks, recessions, and depressions. While there are many interesting discussions, few have led to genuinely scalable experiments that could result in new models, institutional structures, and approaches that could serve for a decade or more.

3System Resilience

How can we learn critical lessons from the pandemic and develop better response mechanisms and greater resilience across core societal systems and infrastructures?

The pandemic has highlighted huge variations in the capacity of nations and global mechanisms to respond to an all-encompassing crisis. The coming years could see an increased incidence of such low probability, high impact “wild card” events. From natural disasters and failures caused by human error and oversight to overloading of critical systems, and deliberately malicious actions, the register of potential risks continues to grow.

Events that could drive potentially critical failures and breakdowns range from pandemics, severe climate impacts, and sunstrikes through to infrastructure failures, societal unrest, and the collapse or overthrow of political regimes. They could equally result from the actions of states and non-state actors in the form of large-scale hacking, use of bioweapons, and conventional terrorist actions to disrupt essential services and infrastructure.

The societal impacts will be determined by government, business, and individual choices over the level of resource allocation and capacity building to handle the prevention, detection, response management, and outcome mitigation of such events.

The challenge will be for nations to overcome pride and arrogance to learn from the strategies, response protocols, and practical reactions of the nations that have done their best in responding to the pandemic.

4Conflict Resolution

What approaches could prove most effective for resolving national and international tensions in a postpandemic world?

Tension levels worldwide appear to be rising, while the economic stability of many fragile nations is at risk. The dramatic collapse of the Afghan government and return to power of the Taliban highlights how quickly situations can evolve and create new potential sources of national, regional, and international tension and turbulence.

Economic and environmental imperatives also increase the potential for conflict over ownership of, and access to, water, land, minerals, and other natural resources. The opportunity here will be to find modern era approaches to conflict resolution. Indeed, as the capability of artificial intelligence (AI) advances, there may even be the potential for technology-mediated solutions.

Lives and Lifestyles

5Corporatisation of Housing, Home Ownership, and the Rise of the Rental Society

How desirable and achievable would it be to shift from ownership to rental across key areas of human activity?

There has been a rapid growth in the corporatisation of the housing market in the US in particular, with 200+ US financial institutions buying low end and entry-level properties and entire towns across America. The underlying assumption is that people’s financial situation may well change for the worse in the coming years through a combination of economic instability and job replacement through technology. This is not a uniquely US phenomenon and could turn into a global trend or megatrend within a few years.

In the face of potentially long-term unemployment and resulting economic hardship, those affected would be forced to sell their properties and switch to renting. Of course, renting has been the only option in many countries as property prices are prohibitively high.

This trend ties in with a broader view that the rise of the rental and sharing economy will continue over the next two decades – to the point where most of us own little or nothing and rent everything, from our homes to the clothes on our back. Key questions here are whether such shifts would be welcomed or opposed by society and whether this would lead to more or less financial freedom and security.

6Compassion v Competition

Can we influence whether compassion or competition become the dominant driver of individual priorities and behaviours in the coming decade?

The pandemic has highlighted even more starkly and exacerbated major societal challenges worldwide – from extreme poverty and homelessness to acute mental health issues and wide geographical differences in health and life expectancy.

The question now arises over how different nations will respond to these challenges. Some have suggested that this is a time for extreme compassion and taxation to fund enhanced social care programs and guaranteed basic incomes (GBI).

In contrast, many argue that the costs of caring for those left behind are a burden on society and a drain on resources. The suggestion here is that the best way forward is to encourage self-sufficiency, competition, and the survival of the healthiest, smartest, most adaptable, and most productive.

Others point out that, in many respects, the latter is already happening and that societal divides will be harder to close and are more likely to widen. An overt decision to move in either direction will require tough choices and extreme bravery for the governments involved.

7Generational Conflict

How might the shifts shaping society play out in the relationships between generations?

Many factors are contributing to the potential for increased tensions between generations. Examples would include changing family and relationship structures, the declining potential for homeownership, and the rapid evolution of the technology and social platforms that provide the operating context in which different generations connect. In many countries there are concerns that those under 25 may be the first groups in society to earn and save less than their parents.

At the same time, the data suggests that young people are increasingly turning to the crypto economy to manage their finances and achieve far higher returns than the more traditional saving and investment routes favoured by older generations. While there is the potential to experience massive losses, there are also many examples of new crypto investors achieving higher returns within days on one small investment than their parents have earned in a lifetime.

In the world of work, rapidly evolving workplace environments and the growth of working from home have created wide differences like the employment experience of new entrants to the labour market compared to their parents.

Workplace automation and the rise of artificial intelligence are also causing challenges in both directions. Older generations are finding it harder to secure new opportunities with equivalent rewards to the jobs they have been automated out of. For young people, accelerating automation is creating opportunity and also the risk of shorter employment tenure. How generations can be brought closer together will be a defining challenge of the next decade, with many ­questioning whether it is even desirable.

8AI Society

Where could the rise of AI have the greatest impacts across society, and how can we prepare people for what’s coming?

There is much talk about the potential of AI. However, understanding is lagging on what it is, how it works, and the potential breadth and depth of its penetration and transformational impact across every aspect of human activity.

Examples range from autonomous vehicles, the organisation of personal finances, and career development through to management of our health and the matching of potential partners on dating apps.

Some nations, like Finland, have a conscious commitment to raise citizens’ AI literacy through the free Elements of AI online education tool. However, most countries are currently doing little to encourage citizen awareness or participation in the debate about the role we want AI to play in our societies.

9Humanity 2.0

Are human enhancement and life extension desirable, and how can we ensure they don’t increase and entrench divides across society?

Reality is beginning to catch up with science fiction around the use of scientific and technological advances to change how we define what it means to be human.

Growing levels of funding are being directed toward enhancing ourselves and the pursuit of transhuman capabilities. The domain encompasses developments such as radical life extension and the augmentation of fundamental human capabilities through genetic, chemical, biomechanical, and electronic enhancements.

The field has many passionate advocates who believe this is the logical next step in our evolution. Many in the opposite corner argue that this is unnatural, conveys an unfair advantage on those who could afford such enhancements, and further deepens existing divides between the haves and have nots.

The implications of such developments are wide-ranging, from influencing workplace rewards and career advancement opportunities to the allocation of residence permits and student grading in education. How regulators navigate, this minefield could have a significant bearing on the future of the evolution of the augmentation sector and in the competition between nations with differing views on the social and financial benefits of augmentation.

Economy

10Single Global Currency

Could a single currency be workable, and how might we manage the transition and governance processes?

If we look 30–100 years ahead, it is hard to imagine the planet operating with multiple state-issued fiat currencies in a digitally centric world.

The rise of the crypto economy offers numerous digital currencies and tokens to exist in parallel. However, it is highly possible to envisage one digital currency is accepted globally as the base medium of exchange through which all citizens can be rewarded and make their purchases.

Clearly, there are questions about how quickly this might happen, how it would work, governance, and which currency would be chosen. Today’s most likely candidate would be a so-called “stablecoin” that was initially pegged to the value of a key global currency such as the US Dollar, Chinese Yuan, or Euro.

The core challenges of such a development would include managing nations’ transitions from their fiat currencies and addressing citizen concerns over the potential for all their financial activities to be monitored and judged by governments. A further issue would be the potential for the strongest economic powers to influence the governance of the currency and the issuance of new coins. Today, governments can print or borrow money to address financial challenges, such as paying for the pandemic’s economic costs. Such policy options might be less possible with a single global currency.

11Infrastructure and Growth

How can we deliver the global infrastructure required to enable sustainable growth and development for all?

The role of infrastructure is well understood in enabling growth, particularly in developing countries. Highway systems alone are seen to enable anything up to 20 per cent of the GDP for different countries. Estimates suggest that a total investment of US$100 trillion or more could be required over the next three decades to deliver a modern, robust, and resilient physical infrastructure of roads, rail, airports, ports, and energy facilities. Providing high-speed broadband connections and associated infrastructure could add a further US$2 trillion to this figure.

The costs of delivery vary dramatically across the planet. Many of those most in need of infrastructure can least pay for it and deliver the financial returns required by investors. Hence, there are the twin challenges of developing innovative and equitable new infrastructure funding models and transforming the cost of delivery. Smart and self-healing materials, 3D printing, rapid construction, robotic assembly, embedded monitoring sensors, and modular, scalable architectures are all seen as potential contributors to the solution.

12Wealth, Taxes, and Resource Allocation

How might we bring about a rebalancing of rising global disparities in wealth, incomes, asset distribution, and resource ownership, and how desirable is it to address the challenge?

Research from Oxfam suggests that in 2018 just 26 billionaires had as much wealth as the 3.8 billion poorest people on the planet, roughly 50 per cent of the population. A 2020 Oxfam report found that the world’s 2153 billionaires had more wealth collectively than 4.6 billion people, who made up 60 per cent of the global population. Eight numerous studies have also found that the income gap is rising in many countries.

Mechanisms exist to bring about a more equitable distribution of financial resources. For example, taxation of wealth and incomes has traditionally been a core policy tool to redistribute resources across society. However, the last 40–50 years have seen increasing competition between nations to bring down personal and corporate tax rates, attract the wealthiest and increasing inward investment. In parallel, there has been a growing concern that the amount of tax paid by corporations has declined and is hard to address without coordinated global action.

As mentioned earlier, opinions are divided over whether redistribution is even a desirable policy goal. Measures such as introducing GBI proved popular to help populations through the worst impacts of the pandemic. However, while several experiments are taking place, there is also ideological opposition in many quarters to the adoption of a more permanent GBI solution.

13The Crypto Economy

What key impacts could the rise of the crypto economy have on the economic landscape and the management of personal finances?

In just 13 years, we have seen the crypto market rise to a market capitalisation of over US$2 trillion at its peak in May of 2021. Starting with Bitcoin, many crypto assets have emerged utilising blockchain as the core enabling technology for distributed and decentralised applications that any one entity cannot control.

Of particular interest is the notion of smart contracts that allow transactions to be completed without any human involvement, thus enabling the emergence of decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) with no employees and governance controlled by the holders of the relevant crypto tokens.

The sheer scale of the opportunity sees market entry of large financial institutions, with a growing number of corporations adding crypto assets to their balance sheets and developing their own crypto token solutions. Countries like El Salvador are adopting Bitcoin as legal tender, and others like China and Ghana are piloting central bank digital currencies (CBDCs).

With an estimated 300 million+ global users, nine the field is still in its infancy. Concerns remain over the unregulated nature of the market, volatility, and the potential for fraud and manipulation. The largely tech-savvy crypto community have high hopes of disrupting the traditional financial system, helping take people out of poverty across the planet and creating a fairer and more transparent marketplace for investments, savings, loans, and more complex products. Corporations, financial institutions, and governments, in particular, are torn by the desire to participate in and influence the development of the crypto economy while also worrying about the loss of control and the threat to their franchises.

14Smart Money

What opportunities might arise from the digitisation of money and the incorporation of intelligent functionality into our mediums of exchange?

The digitisation of money opens up a range of new possibilities around how we can build intelligence into currency. Even without the rise of the crypto economy, we see a gradual shift toward smarter money.

Examples that are emerging or on the near horizon include user-designed savings products, rounding up our purchases, such as our daily coffee, to invest in savings, equities, and crypto. Companies are replacing loyalty points with savings plans if you buy their offerings, increasingly smart money and credit card trading our purchase history for discounts and rewards and turning our social media likes into assets with a transactional value.

Business and Technology

15Rapidly Changing Reality

How might the nature of business, work, and the workplace evolve, and the expectations and responsibilities of employees change?

The next decade could see the business environment and the nature of business experience an unprecedented level and pace of change. A combination of factors will come together with secondary and tertiary outcomes that many of us cannot even conceive from where we stand today.

Businesses are already being challenged to think about for-profit organisations’ purpose, social role, and wider social responsibility. From taxation policy and profit-sharing to environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG), societal and governmental expectations could rise dramatically. New organisational forms and collaborative structures and ecosystems could proliferate.

The debate about how best to measure corporate performance and contribution could evolve, and regulation could drive a shift in emphasis from shareholder returns to wider stakeholder contribution.

Within the workplace, disruptions caused by the pandemic have led organisations to emphasise self-directed learning and development. This has been accompanied by accelerated job rotation, automated onboarding processes, and deepening the autonomy and level of virtual connectivity within teams.

Virtual working has changed organisational cultures and the process of socialising new employees. The role of managers has also been put under the spotlight, highlighting the difference between those who make a real value-adding contribution and those who largely attend meetings and read reports.

The next few years are also likely to see many organisations reduce their dependency on humans by accelerating the automation process and adoption of AI. This, in turn, could lead to a decline in the size of workforces, a shift away from teams, and deep technological unemployment as the displaced workforce reskills for new roles. At the same time, the new industries coming through, such as autonomous vehicles, personalised medicine, rapid construction, and synthetic biology, are all highly automated from the start and hence require fewer employees for each dollar of revenue generated.

Questions are likely to arise over what the responsibility of employers will be toward their displaced employees. To what extent might they still provide access to learning resources and offer continuing training and job seeker support? The level of debate could also increase over whether firms should contribute in some way toward the costs of transitional GBI payments while workers retrain and seek new employment. Could employers one day be asked to take responsibility for ensuring job creation in the economy in proportion to their contribution to GDP? This might be through jobs in supplier organisations, support for new venture incubators, and direct investment and mentoring of startups.

16Digital Literacy Divide

In an increasingly technology-centric world, how can the acquisition of deep digital literacy be accelerated across society?

Whether in business or broader society, the reliance on technology is increasing and demanding that we take society-wide digital literacy capabilities to a higher level. Failure to do so could lead to a greater digital divide, with citizens increasingly locked out of career opportunities, access to services, and financial opportunities.

Digital is penetrating every aspect of organisations, with increasingly automated tools for workflow management, decision-making, team and task coordination, HR support, productivity monitoring, and communications. Hence, career advancement is increasingly likely to be determined in part by our ability to understand and get the best out of the technologies increasing in the workplace.

Across society, technology is increasingly governing how we access public services, make purchases, engage with friends and family, and book everything from travel to entertainment. In the personal finance world, many providers deliver greater functionality online, gradually closing physical branches and reducing the amount of human telephone support. The world of crypto investment is still largely geared toward the tech-savvy who are willing to research to learn how to access the best-decentralised finance offerings.

17New Business Models

How might the range of underlying financial models and pricing options for businesses evolve in a fast-changing, digital economy?

A common feature of most crypto ventures is the publication of a white paper that sets out the “Tokenomics” – the underlying economic model for how the business operates. While similar to a pitch deck or business plan for new ventures, the range of models tends to be much wider.

In more traditional markets, the notion of alternative business models is starting to take hold. For example, subscription services, gainsharing with suppliers, and “pay for usage” models are becoming increasingly common.

New ideas now entering the market include accepting personal advertisements and allowing brands to access our online networks in return for discounts and rental of everything from household goods to clothing. Recycling schemes are also becoming more common where customers can drop off unwanted items, such as clothing, in return for discounts on new or recycled products.

The rise of the crypto economy offers several new models such as paying with cryptocurrencies, suppliers potentially incorporating capital gainsharing with customers, and issuing crypto tokens to fund new developments with direct reward distribution from the venture to the token holders.

With many brands offering loyalty points, digital models allow for those tokens to be traded more easily, enabling customers to realise the value of relatively small amounts of points held across multiple brands.

18Recoil from Big — Does Size Matter?

Could multinational corporates’ growing power and privacy infringement capabilities lead to a shift in consumer purchasing toward alternative providers?

Concerns continue to rise about the power of multinationals, their influence over governments and regulators, and their ability to dominate and even manipulate markets. These concerns are amplified by the extent to which these firms can invade our privacy with digital technologies and the potential for “surveillance capitalism” in the exploitation of our personal data. In response, there are weak signals around the world of people opting to buy from alternative providers, which are often more human, independent, local, smaller, and increasingly focused on ethical and sustainable offerings. The rise of social ventures in many markets is further evidence of the growing demand for such alternatives.

19Closed Corporate Ecosystems

How might digital technologies give rise to new corporate community ecosystems in the crypto economy?

In a world of intense competition where technology innovation effectively drives down prices, corporations will increasingly look for enhancing revenues and profits. Key strategies might include increasing the returns on customer loyalty and lock-in, reducing the cost of customer acquisition, and decreasing the share of revenues given to third parties such as retailers and credit card companies. Hence, we are seeing the desire to grow customer bases and networks and binding them in so that a growing proportion of their spending happens within the corporation’s ecosystem. Discounts and loyalty rewards can help lock customers in and encourage them to recruit their friends and family.

The use of a corporate crypto token for payment could further incentivise customers. This was seen by many as Facebook’s goal when it launched its Libra crypto token (now Diem). The larger the network, the more other vendors are likely to join, thus creating further incentives for customers to do the bulk of their purchasing within the ecosystem.

For customers, alongside the loyalty discounts and perks, there is also the potential for appreciation in the value of the crypto currency. While this is a clear development path for the big technology players such as Amazon and Google, it could also become a prime opportunity for brands as diverse as Disney and Walmart.

20Corporation Zero and the “Designed for Digital” Enterprise

What impact could digital technologies have on the way we think about the design and functioning of our organisations?

The explosion of “born digital” ventures is triggering a wave of new thinking about designing and running our organisations. The rise of DAOs has also highlighted the potential to create entirely digital entities with literally no employees, no management, and no organisational structure.

In response, the coming years could see the rise of “corporation zero” organisational models. In such entities, the start point is to focus on the desired outcomes, the core processes required to deliver and the set of measures and indicators needed to assess and optimise performance and achievement of targets.

The requirements can then be modelled in simulations to see what can be done entirely digitally, where physical elements are required, such as production equipment and robots, and where human involvement might still be essential.

In both cases, the emphasis will be on ensuring that the physical and human elements of the system can feed in the desired information to provide the effective functioning of the “designed for digital” enterprise. The appropriate underpinning management structure can then be determined.

Over time, advances in AI could further enhance the digital ecosystem, with commensurate headcount reductions. While some see this as a shocking and scarily dystopian possibility, others view it as a natural outcome of the rise of digital.

Which emerging developments could have the greatest impact on your lives and your organisation?

How can we raise societal understanding of current drivers of change and potential shifts on the horizon?

What new models of societal engagement, policy development, and governance might be required to help navigate the next decade at the national and global level?

Rohit Talwar is a global futurist and the CEO of Fast Future, where he focuses on helping clients explore the emerging future, respond to global opportunities, and identify and manage risks on the horizon.

Photo: iStock.com/NoDerog