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For decades futurologists have been observing the increased pace of change in society, technology, the economy and geopolitics, and there are indications that this may be particularly true of the 10 years between now and 2030. What trends and developments are on course to shape the lives of the world’s people over the next decade, for better or for worse?
“It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future,” the legendary New York Yankees baseball player and coiner of homespun philosopher, Yogi Berra, is reported to have once said. It’s a sentiment shared by Gideon Moore, worldwide managing partner of Linklaters, who observes: “Personally, I have trouble telling people what is going to happen in the next 10 minutes.”
Nevertheless, he believes that in every industry, artificial intelligence and big data will play an increasingly important role in business over the next 10 years, as well as in society as a whole.
"We will all be concentrating more on the crossover between law, society, AI, big data and ethics in the future" Mr Moore says.
“We’ve already dialled up with diversity and gender inclusion, and hopefully in 10 years’ time we will see that those baby steps taken between 2010 and 2020 became quite large strides by 2030.” He also argues that today’s young people will no longer relish the idea of a single 35-year career but will instead view work opportunities as bite-sized chunks that together will amount to a series of careers.
For Linklaters Luxembourg managing partner Patrick Geortay, sustainability and accountability will be more central than ever to a business a decade from now. The country’s tradition of openness to the outside world will be an increasing advantage, he argues, and helps it strike the right balance between innovation and the need for regulation. “It is not the first time Luxembourg has had to reinvent itself as a jurisdiction, and we all know that adaptability is a critical ingredient of success.” Mr Geortay says.
The Grand Duchy’s future will also depend upon the geopolitical environment in which the country, its people and businesses operate – which may be very different in 10 years from that today, cautions Meghan O’Sullivan. A professor in the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and member of the Linklaters International Advisory Group as well as a former US deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan under President George W. Bush. She believes that the fundamental tenets of geopolitics, broadly stable over the past 70 years, are now under unprecedented strain.
“For 70 years the United States has been a promoter and protector of an international order based on liberal norms and institutions, but today it is more of a disruptor than a defender of that international system,” Dr O’Sullivan says. China a few decades ago was a large country completely focused on its internal development, but this orientation has changed dramatically under Xi Jinping. And some of the basic systems that make up the established order, such as capitalism and democracy, are being called into question in the jurisdictions that nurtured them.”
She argues that the changes to the global order will be shaped by four separate but inter-dependent factors: the global role of the US; the relationship between the US and China, and the rest of the world; climate change and global efforts to address it; and the pace and scope of globalization.
Dr O’Sullivan says a change of direction in the global role of the US would require leadership in Washington that was not only interested in America’s role in the world but “willing to invest an enormous amount of resources, time and effort in reconstructing that role and defending it in a new landscape”. Meanwhile, she sees a dramatic and bipartisan shift in US attitudes toward China even in the past year or so, with the near abandonment of the idea that China can be integrated into the global economy and the global international order, in favour of a framework of economic and military competition and possible confrontation.
"The optimistic take is that there is the possibility for a ‘sweetness and light’ scenario to unfold by 2030, but that would require some pretty big departures from the current trajectory of these four strands."
Last November the United Nations Environment Programme reported that to keep global warming to less than 2ºC, global carbon emissions needed to fall by 7.6% each year between now and 2030 – at the end of a year in which emissions actually rose by 1.5%. On current trends, the UNEP says, the world is on track for a 3.9ºC rise by 2100.
Says Dr O’Sullivan: “I am reluctantly of the view that we can no longer hope that a bottom up, market-based, technology-led shift can actually address climate change in the timeframe the world has available – reaching these targets will need a much heavier hand from states and governments.”
In 10 years’ time, she believes, the world is likely to face another set of difficult choices regarding the use of geoengineering. “Scientists already know that we can bring down the temperature of the planet, at least temporarily. But what we don’t know is the side-effects that will come with it. This technology is quite cheap and easy to deploy, even by using commercial aircraft to seed sulphur particles in the atmosphere.”
“But currently we have no global architecture for achieving a responsible global consensus about doing something that will have unknown and potentially massive impacts on the climate and different effects on different parts of the world. I fear it could become a point of geopolitical friction as some countries feel they have the capability to conduct geoengineering and that it is in their existential interest to do it, while others see it as detrimental. This creates a new platform for geopolitical tension.”
Finally, she believes governments must take a different approach to addressing the losers from globalisation, especially since the spread of automation and technological development is set to swell their ranks: “To adopt policies and strategies designed to avoid people blaming globalisation and the free movement of people, goods and technology for their plight requires action by states that enjoy legitimacy, strength and clear mandates for change, as well as a co-operative international environment. There are large questions as to whether these things exist.”
What current trends imply, Dr O’Sullivan says, is a world where the US has abandoned its dominant role but no other country will have the capability or desire to assume it; a world divided not only over technology but other areas of business, media and entertainment; and one whose priority by 2030 will be attempting to avoid destabilisation resulting from the impact of climate change, not least the prospect of as many 200 million climate refugees. “It is certainly plausible that we will be in a world where globalisation has at least stalled – if we want to be optimistic, call it a pause.”
The evolution of technology and its disruptive impact will play a key role in how these trends play out. But Joshua Klayman, one of the world’s leading blockchain and crypto-currency lawyers and Linklaters US head of financial technology, notes: “When we talk about disruption, remember that technology develops incrementally, so the tech of the future is something we already have today.”
It helps to look two decades back for perspective, she says. At the end of 1999, the technology world was concerned about whether computers could handle dates around the turn of the millennium, whether the tech stock bubble could be sustained, and whether anyone could dethrone Microsoft as the world’s dominant tech company. “During the 1990s tech bubble people were looking for a use for the internet and how to make money from it, and you didn’t know if their business plans were written by a genius or a fool.”
"Your Alexa fridge might warn you that apples in there aren’t good to eat. That sounds very good, until you start to think about all this data, how it is being tracked, and how blockchain can keep a record of where something is at all times and where it has been. We could all end up being apples in an Alexa fridge."
Today, Joshua Klayman points out, all these years later, today the internet is simply part of the infrastructure, and she believes the same will be true in the future of technologies such as distributer ledgers. With McKinsey predicting that by 2025 there will be more than 75 billion interconnected devices needing to talk to each other, a blockchain can provide a secure dataset.
She notes that whereas in 2009, the largest stock market-listed companies were active in the extraction, manufacturing and sale of goods, today their counterparts are not dealing in physical objects but data. Fintech, in this light, is not a niche area connecting financial services with technology but a broader field as the connection between the capital that drives the economy and the digital mechanics through which business is done.
The convergence of technologies and sectors, from the internet of things to digital assets and self-driving cars, is exciting, Joshua Klayman says, but also scary.
The creation of bitcoin in 2009 was born out of a mistrust of government and banks, and a desire for anonymity or at least pseudonymity, but today as authorities examine the digitisation of national currencies, it could lead to the opposite of what the crypto-currency pioneers sought, if governments can track all payments and completely cut off swathes of the population if they so wish.
The same, she says, is true of AI, which needs to be supervised to protect diversity: “We need to make sure that those developing algorithms consider different views and different types of people so that we don’t end up with biases baked into our technology. But one of the beautiful things is that these are new technologies and no one has been working on them for long, it’s still an open field. There are more seats at the table, and more tables.”
Dr Jacques Bughin, a former senior partner at McKinsey and leading researcher into global economic and technology trends, declines to make forecasts. But he does argue that the future will be different from today; that the signs of the changes that will be dominant in 2030 are visible today, although they may not be correctly interpreted; and that the future is not predictable because it has to be shaped, and there is no way of knowing whether or not people will make the right choices.
He argues that the global economy today is characterised by a series of decouplings – between a soaring stock market and stagnating economic growth, between wealth creation and people’s perception of their own well-being, and between GDP growth and the faster rate of extraction and consumption of resources.
These trends can mean, for instance, that globally inequality has diminished – principally down to increasing prosperity in China – while it is growing within countries like the US, where inequality is at a level last seen a century ago as a result of the globalisation of the financial services industry that began in the 1980s and 1990s and allowed money to be moved across the globe.
Dr Bughin argues that the biggest economic problem today, however, is the world’s fertility rate, because of the importance of labour productivity to growth. People’s productivity peaks around the age of 45, he says, as a result of the structure of education and employment, so and decline in fertility and the supply of labour to the economy will lead to lower growth. The ageing of the population in countries such as Germany, Italy and Japan is well known; rather less so the loss of 100 million people of working age in China over the next 10 to 20 years as a result of the country’s one-child policy in the late 20th century, as well as the sharp decline in birth rates in recent years across Africa and the Middle East.
"The right combination of technology, developments in society and institutions, and market incentives can shape the world of tomorrow for the better."
Dr Bughin believes this fear of unemployment among people who are unused to it is a significant factor in the rise of the extreme right in Western countries.
A more hopeful sign is the example of China, which in a generation has gone from export-led growth on the model of Asia’s Tiger economies to R&D-intensive industries such as pharmaceuticals and information technology, especially artificial intelligence, driven by a vision of global leadership within 50 years. This is not necessarily a threat, he argues, as an example that the right combination of technology, developments in society and institutions, and market incentives can shape the world of tomorrow for the better.
No element of the future is more fundamental to human society than what people eat, argues food futurologist Dr Morgaine Gaye:
“Food connects not just us as people, but everything in and about our world. What we are eating influences our behaviour, from how we socialise to everything in between. And every day we are voting with our wallets with what we buy.”
Concern about what is in our food and water has played an important role in the rise of vegetarianism and now veganism, with a quarter of girls under 25 now vegan in the UK and around one-fifth in continental Europe. With the advent of vegetarian ‘meat’ that’s hard to distinguish from the real thing, she predicts that by 2030, the term vegan will be disappearing from use as plant-based food becomes the mainstream.
The problem, Dr Gaye says, is that while the historically recent trend toward meat-eating is already in decline in Western countries, it is being adopted enthusiastically by developing nations, despite the unsustainable strain this is putting on global agricultural resources. But there are alternatives – notably insects – even though in the West people are socialised from a young age to regard insects as disgusting.
“There are about 3,500 different varieties of insects and if you don’t like one, there are others that you will,” she says. “Some taste cheesy, some taste like lemongrass, and there are all the flavours in between. What’s great about insects is that they are happy to grow in captivity, they’re very cheap, have a very low environmental impact, and like to eat waste matter. They can be put to sleep humanely by making them cold and then you put them in the pan!”
There are about 3,500 different varieties of insects and if you don’t like one, there are others that you will,” she says. “Some taste cheesy, some taste like lemongrass, and there are all the flavours in between. What’s great about insects is that they are happy to grow in captivity, they’re very cheap, have a very low environmental impact, and like to eat waste matter. They can be put to sleep humanely by making them cold and then you put them in the pan!
Another element of the food of the future is air – already used for filling out packets to make them look bigger, we can expect to see air used for making foods crispy which currently might have a slimy texture such as avocado or okra. From oxygenating water to specialist pure air facilities, air is a future ingredient.
As with veganism, many of the changes are being driven by younger generations attracted by a broader philosophy based on simplicity, experience and sharing rather than consumerism and possessions. Dr Gaye points to trends such as the return to fashion of earthy brown colours and natural dyes, the emergence of eco-futurism such as vegan hotel rooms, and the increasing circularity of business models and re-use of products and materials, including the re-use of food waste as packaging.
Critical to the re-use of food waste, she says, is the use of 3D printing to change the shape of food, making it more attractive than leftovers – an important development as environmental changes lead to less variety in produce.
These trends dovetail with a broader disruption of traditional patterns of behaviour and consumption driven by sustainability issues.
"Kindness and human connection is going to be the value system as we go forward, rather than money and ownership. Companies will seek to communicate this because it’s where consumers will start placing their value.” Dr Gaye says, driven by a desire for realism and authenticity, but also kindness.
“Kindness and human connection is going to be the value system as we go forward, rather than money and ownership. Companies will seek to communicate this because it’s where consumers will start placing their value.”