The world is becoming increasingly aware that there is no such thing as ‘normal’ any more. Some say this near immunity to large scale shocks started with the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President, and the revelations about fake news on social media influencing voters and elections around the world.
More recently we’ve seen near daily announcements of the mind-blowing capabilities of artificial intelligence, wild fluctuations in the price of the digital currency Bitcoin, and the 30,000 per cent price increases on some initial coin offerings.
Shocks have become something we accept as part of the mix in the modern world and – in a sense – nothing really shocks us anymore.
However, preparing for shocks is important whether as individuals, society, governments, or businesses – and many can be anticipated. Indeed, this is a core part of the work that we as futurists do. Shocks can be identified through a systematic review or ‘horizon scan’ of the trends, forces, developments, ideas, and weak signals of possible future changes. We study and share these to help people make sense of the emerging future and the possible scenarios that could play out. In our forthcoming book 500 Futures, we introduce a range of these future factors and potential disruptions which could shape the next decade and beyond. In this extract from the book, we highlight 10 possible shocks that could have a truly transformative impact on life, society, government, the economy, and business.
Political and Economic Shocks
- Brexit Brings Down the Global Economy?
A badly managed and chaotic Brexit could drive a prolonged global recession. As the exit date of March 30th 2019 draws closer, the UK government could come to a near complete standstill, with most civil servants becoming focused on extracting Britain from the European Union (EU) and putting in place the mechanisms to provide the activities formerly undertaken by the EU. The immense costs of withdrawal, implementing new systems in areas such as customs, and of recruiting new staff into government could lead to cuts in public services and welfare payments.
Foreign companies may opt to move key operations out of the UK to ensure continuity of access to European markets. The pace of automation may accelerate as firms seek to reduce their risks by cutting staff costs and replacing humans with machines. The prospects of an uncertain transition period and protracted post-transition rebalancing of the UK economy could spook markets, driving down share prices and the value of the pound. Collectively, these measures could lead to massive job cuts in both the public and private sectors, declining spending, higher import costs, and a significant reduction in government tax revenues. The UK economy could nosedive into a prolonged recession that lasts several years with a contagion effect that sweeps across the planet and drives a global downturn.
- Techlash – Global Society Rebels Against the Machine?
As the pace of development accelerates in artificial intelligence (AI) and other disruptive technologies such as blockchain, we may see a technological backlash as those affected rage against the machine. Technologies such as AI and robotics are already beginning to replace humans in significant numbers and will undoubtedly continue to do so. The hope is that new industries and the reskilling of the workforce will mean that eventually even more jobs will be created. However, there could be a significant time lag between redundancy, retraining, and the rise of the new opportunities.
At present, it seems unlikely that any government will have a guaranteed basic income scheme ready in time to help those affected to feed, house, and clothe themselves and their dependents. During that period, global social unrest could rise, and be whipped into a frenzied, and social media fuelled, rage against the machines and their owners. The implications could be severe to say the least for governments, financial institutions, technology companies, investors, the wealthy, and anyone else seen to be part of the problem.
- The End of World Hunger Within a Decade?
A number of critical developments are coming together, and these could literally bring about the end of world hunger. A combination of technological advances in managing the food chain coupled with tighter regulation, more effective food recirculation schemes, and a growing business commitment to be more sustainable could yield a dramatic reduction in the estimated 40 per cent of fresh food that currently goes to waste globally.
The process has already started, and the members of the Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), including Nestlé and Unilever, have committed to halving food waste in the next decade. As a result, the cost of food should also decline, and the ecological impact of food supply chains would be reduced significantly. Society would need to adapt to eating “ugly” produce, as well as accepting foods that are slightly past their ‘best by’ or expiration date. Indeed, a number of retailers are already selling the latter at a significantly lower price. Food sharing apps and community food storage might also grow to accommodate a growing subculture within the foodie movement.
- Manual Cars Banned from City Centres?
The days of taking a drive into busy city centres could be numbered. With the transition from petrol and diesel cars to electric, the precedent was set to accept new technologies in personal transport. Electric cars sought to keep people safe from polluting petrol and diesel engines, and the promise of autonomous cars is to eliminate human error; the major cause of road traffic accidents and the resulting injuries and deaths. With the development of artificial intelligence in vehicles and the connectivity with traffic signals, city authorities might begin to ban manually driven cars from city centres, almost totally eliminating accidents.
- Farming – No Place for Mere Humans?
Within a decade, low cost automation solutions could mean that farms of almost any scale could choose to be fully ‘human free’, operating within a web of real-time, constant monitoring from thousands of sensors. Soil sensors would trigger automated fertilizing or watering, while aerial drones could scan for and scare away natural pests like foxes and deer. Ground level sensors could also monitor weed, insect, and fungus levels and chemically analyze produce, to schedule the perfect time for driverless harvesters to roll out. Finally drones and robots could undertake home delivery, with domestic bots then preparing and serving the food. From farm to table, the produce of tomorrow might not touch the hands of a single human until the moment it is eaten by the end consumer.
- A More Caring Society Courtesy of the Empathy Internet?
By 2025, the internet could evolve into a multi-sensory environment which helps bring about a shift in our behaviours because we can literally feel the impact of our words and actions on other people. Futurist Michio Kaku predicts that by 2025 “we will see the gradual transition from an Internet to a brain-net, in which thoughts, emotions, feelings, and memories might be transmitted instantly across the planet … historians and writers will be able to record events not just digitally, but also emotionally as well. Perhaps even tensions between people will diminish, as people begin to feel and experience the pain of others.” If this were to occur, it could provide the jolt of empathy needed for the human species to elect for cooperative survival. This may be a life-saving shock for the planet.
- Unplugging: The Off-Grid Holiday?
The rise in workplace stress, and the pressures of 24/7 availability for the modern employee, could see employers, doctors, and even the state mandating that people deliberately take an unplugged break to rediscover and rejuvenate themselves. The desire for privacy and the need to unplug and go ‘off grid’ are also likely to grow as we become ever-more deeply enmeshed in the matrix of always-on, ever-present digitally enabled objects and sensors that connect and monitor humans virtually.
Today, some retreats offer Wi-Fi-free zones as an amenity, others promote themselves as a tech-free haven. In the near future, guaranteed off-the-grid, fully disconnected ‘sanctuaries’ may become the next hottest vacation destination to escape the fast paced, constantly observed modern lifestyle. Governments might be forced to act to mandate such breaks because of the rising costs to society of poor mental health, and the potential loss of tax revenues from people who take long-term sick leave, or simply quit their jobs due to stress.
- Total Recall Lite – Experience Dangerous and Different Worlds from the Comfort of Main Street?
With rapidly rising rates of retail closures around the world, they could be replaced by technology rich experience centres offering the promise of plugging in, zoning out of daily life, and tuning in to a range of other worldly experiences. A new type of leisure agent could start appearing in shopping districts and malls around the world. Where once travel agents provided their clients with a one stop holiday shop, they could in increasingly be joined, and even replaced, by experience agents.
Equipped with a range of immersive, multi-sensory technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, customers would experience the heat, humidity, rain, and sounds of the Amazonian rain forest. For a drier experience, why not try the intense heat, blinding sun, and shifting sands of the Sahara Desert. For those seeking otherworldly experiences, why not select the haunting sounds of wind passing across the Elysium Planitia in the near vacuum of the Martian atmosphere. Building on the trend of experience gifting from the noughties, the popularity of this new retail phenomenon could grow exponentially.
- The End of Aging?
Manipulation of our cells at the genetic level using ingestible nanobots could help reverse or retard the aging process quite dramatically. Nanobots are capable of moving through our bodies and blood stream to perform specific tasks such as removing or repositioning molecules from one place to another. The development of this technology might have dramatic effects on the of future human health. Based on the patient’s health requirements and their genetic predispositions, the nanobots could be designed to fabricate required medicines autonomously. Whenever certain disease starts manifesting, such as cancer, nanobots could deliver the medicine needed to fight it.
- Death of the Screen and the Spoken Word
A decade from now, our children may not speak to us at all. Computers, smartphones, and tablets might be replaced by the projection of data and images directly onto our eyes. Virtual reality projections might be overlaid onto our eyeballs to influence and enrich our experience when interacting with the world. When coupled with thought transfer via our headsets, we might never need to speak to another human again. We could interact silently with a friend´s avatar instead of having to type the text on a screen. Mixed reality could become our daily experience of life. Those living in this mixed reality existence might choose not to interact with humans that don’t use eyeball projection and thought transfer and still require us to make the effort to speak.
Rohit Talwar is the CEO of Fast Future Research, a global research and consulting company that specializes in identifying future growth industries and helps governments and global companies to explore and respond to the sectors, ideas, trends and forces shaping the next five to 20 years.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.