A spot of global crystal ball gazing

Robert Hickson outlines some trends to keep an eye out for this year – and over the longer term.

A stagnating economy

Whether the Euro and/or the European Union shatter or shrink is only part of current economic uncertainty. China won’t be the same economic prop that it was in 2008. Its growth is slowing as the easy growth opportunities disappear. There are concerns of inflation and a housing bubble in China.

The OECD has warned that the unpredictable “animal spirits” of the market threaten the stability of many governments (finally, the shamanistic nature of economics is acknowledged?). Brian Easton has noted that many of the economists of his acquaintance expect a long global stagnation and aren’t sure how long it will last.

Most of the global discussion at the moment is about austerity. The stimulus packages put in place in 2008 are largely gone, so how will economies grow? Some liberal economists (Stiglitz, Krugman, and Roubini) point to the need for additional stimuli, but politicians don’t appear enthusiastic.

Longer term, the growing middle classes of Asia are likely to re-stimulate economic growth. But why should we sit and wait for that to happen?

Two degrees of warming

International opinion widely concurs that insufficient action has been taken so far to contain greenhouse gas emissions to levels that would prevent an assumed “safe” global temperature rise of 2o Celsius. The International Energy Agency’s 2011 Outlook notes that “the door is closing” on the chance of keeping C02 emission levels below 450 ppm to meet this target.

The New Zealand Climate Change Centre has a helpful briefing on the challenge of limiting warming to 2 degrees. The impacts of such a temperature rise (or even a lesser one) are uncertain, but analyses are getting better at attributing extreme weather events to changing climate. However, more evidence won’t necessarily change the minds of those who don’t accept humans can change the climate.

3D printing

The ability to print three dimensional objects is developing rapidly. It is no longer the realm of garage-based hobbyists, but is being applied to aircraft parts (as well as the whole plane), electronics, and medicine (bone and soft tissues).

It is too early to claim that it is the next industrial revolution, but it is opening up new design and manufacturing opportunities, both for established and new companies. And the larger issue it highlights is a growing interest in Do It Yourself technology development (be it biology or engineering) that may lead to new well springs of innovation, similar to what has occurred in the software sector, and what kick-started the first industrial revolution.

More data

Avind Krishna from IBM predicts that in 2020 there will be 35 zettabytes of data (let’s just say that’s an awful lot), compared with 800,000 petabytes in 2009. (Of course all computer companies would say there will be more data, but we can see this in our daily lives too).

To help make that more imaginable – a smart phone user now may download about 15MB of data a day. In 2020 that may be 1 GB. The interesting issue is what we will be able to do with that information.

However, our ability to absorb and understand the information may limit this trajectory.

And now, some key trends to think about for the longer term:

700 quadrillion

770 actually. The amount of energy (in British Thermal Units) the planet may be using in 2035, up from 505 quadrillion Btu in 2008, according to the Energy Information Administration’s International Energy Outlook 2011 Reference Case projection. A quadrillion is 10 to the power of 15. And one quadrillion Btu is the energy released by burning 45 million tons of coal.

Most of that additional energy will be consumed in the developing world, and most will still be derived from fossil fuels. How much of our energy will be from renewable resources by then? The EIA projects a rise from 10 to 14 percent renewables by 2035. Shell optimistically forecast 30 percent renewables by 2050, but admit that is an ambitious target.

The cost of photovoltaic cells is declining by around 7 percent a year. This may mean that the cost per watt of PV cells will, in 2030, be close to 50 US cents. This will make solar power a more attractive option for the public and private sectors; especially if better battery systems can store unneeded (solar) power.

The falling cost of solar panels is forcing some companies out of the field. The economics and technological innovations of solar as well as other renewables are changing rapidly making them risky investments. Nevertheless, some big companies are still investing in solar and other forms of renewable energy.

Eight wildcards

At least. Terrorism, oil (or water) shocks, resource booms, pandemics, natural disasters, financial crises (again), fecklessness, scientific breakthroughs.

Not a trend, I admit. But it is important to remember that we are going to be surprised one way or the other.

Nine billion people

By 2050. More people with more money are anticipated to require 70 percent more food production globally, relative to 2009 levels. Is that achievable? The FAO report notes that another one billion tonnes of cereals and 200 million extra tonnes of livestock products will need to be produced every year. But the rate of growth in agricultural production in developing countries now is half what it was a few years ago.

Half the world may live in water-scarce regions then (up from 36 percent now). Seventy percent will also live in cities and towns in 2050 (compared with 49 percent now). Using more water and land, as we have done in the past, isn’t likely to be feasible. So it will be a case of getting more from less, but will that be possible and affordable without relying on oil, which was a major enabler of the green revolution?

Conflicts over resources may consequently grow.

The UK’s Foresight report The Future of Food and Farming identified five key future challenges to feeding the world:

(i). Sustainable and balanced demand and supply – to ensure that food supplies are affordable.

(ii). Adequate stability in food supplies – and protecting the most vulnerable from the volatility that does occur.

(iii). Achieving global access to food and ending hunger.

(iv). Managing the contribution of the food system to the mitigation of climate change.

(v). Maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services while feeding the world.

More inequality

The OECD’s Divided we Stand report notes that income inequality in OECD countries has increased on average by 10 percent over the last two decades.

OECD (2011). Divided we stand Figure 1.

New Zealand’s rate of change has been particularly large. Tim Hazeldine points out in the New Zealand Herald that much of the change in New Zealand’s inequality occurred between 1987 and 1995 after the reforms introduced by Roger Douglas. Nonetheless the above figure shows that the trend is, for most of us, in the wrong direction.

The Occupy Wall Street, Auckland, Wellington, etc movements haven’t had much real impact yet, apart from awareness-raising. Without specific demands they may not amount to much . But some of the underlying sentiments will prevail, and likely re-emerge in sharper form so long as inequalities persist. The recent protests are also feeding into more influential discussions (conducted by economists, academics and journalists) about more equitable forms of capitalism that will be interesting to watch. Other economists, though, consider the fundamentals of capitalism to be sound; change in other parts of the economy (such as health and education), they suggest, are needed.

Random Robots

Not yet our overlords, but we’ll be working, playing and fighting with or against them more frequently.

Looking after our health needs (and this and this).

Therapeutic bots

Robotic guide dogs

Robots to reduce snoring -

Soft and inflatable robots breaking free from metal

Robot cars and quadrupeds

Robotic guards and micro flying spies.

Cooperative robots

And keep an eye on the increasing synergy between man and machines. As Mark Billinghurst noted, the physical & mental barriers between humans and machines are rapidly breaking down. While robots are taking more human jobs, there is also a growing recognition of opportunities where humans and computers can achieve more together than either alone.

Twelve new ways of governing

Poetic licence rather than a strict dozen. The preceding 11 give a flavour of the complex and uncertain times ahead. It is critical to recognise when a problem (or opportunity) is complex and to respond accordingly. New ways to manage complexity are required.

The US’s National Intelligence Council’s report on Global Governance in 2025 noted that existing governance frameworks are “…not going to be sufficient to keep pace with the looming number of transnational and global challenges …” They don’t advocate for a global government, but note that States and non-state actors (regions, corporations, NGOs, and other organisations) will need to cooperate in more innovative ways to manage systemic and interrelated problems (such as food, energy and water).

On the other hand, Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom advocates greater freedom for communities to develop their own and more enduring solutions to their challenges through what she calls “polycentric governance”.

WWF has also noted that new community and NGO approaches need to be explored to more effectively address environmental issues. Landcare Research in New Zealand is working with communities on a range of such issues to find good local solutions (See Chapter 22 in Hatched).

Rather than it being a case of government’s always getting out of the way, there will also be a need for governments to, once again, be innovative leaders and champions in addressing complex issues. Hopefully we’ll see healthy tension between local and global governance.

New ways for governing and regulating technologies are also being called for – not just by those fearful of new technologies, but also by some who want to ensure we get the greatest benefit from new developments.

This post originally appeared in two installments on Sciblogs.

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