Global trends, big questions: adaptation or extinction?

17 Feb

I went to see a Futurologist recently. Now you may be imagining this:

crystalball

Thankfully, as I soon discovered, Futurologists are not charlatans with crystal balls, they tend to be very much grounded in the reality of now. Before last week I had never even heard anyone refer to themselves as a Futurologist. It was therefore not a great surprise when the speaker began his talk by explaining that the best way to become a Futurologist is to call yourself a Futurologist. It’s not a common profession. A lesson there for anyone saving up for Futurologist school. Oh, and never call a Futurologist a Futurist, it makes them angry. Futurists were spawned from Futurism, an artistic movement that started in Italy in the early twentieth century. Futurology is quite different. It’s the study of existing conditions in an attempt to predict what may happen in the future. Ever looked out of the window and tried to decide whether or not you might need an umbrella later in the day? Congratulations, you’re a Futurologist, feel free to put that on your business card. If you get really good with your analysis of the world, and start to be able to predict global trends, big businesses will pay you a lot of money to advise them on spotting opportunities and scenario planning. Crystal ball is optional.

Anyway, to the point. Despite my flippancy, the talk was brilliant. But, like many brilliant talks, it raised more questions than it answered. Below is a brief summary of what the Futurologist, Richard Watson, had to say.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”
Charles Darwin

As a species, the human race is rubbish at planning. However, we are very good at adapting and dealing with change. This is what has ensured our survival up until now and is likely to ensure our survival in the future. There are five ‘Forces’ that will determine how the future unfolds (six if we include anxiety about the other five):

1. Demographic shifts

Population growth, ageing nations, the rise of single person households, new family forms and other big changes in lifestyle and demographics could, and probably will, have implications for healthcare services, which will come under increasing pressure. There may be skilled labour shortages, a possible shift of economic activity to areas with high fertility rates, such as Africa, and the complexities and volatility of life could drive an interest in simplicity and security. Lots of ifs and maybes, you’ll notice, but that’s what Futorology is about: there are very few certainties, only possibilities.

2. BRICs and Beyond

The big four newly advanced economics (Brazil, Russia, India and China) could conceivably become bigger than G7, but will they become more like the economies of Japan and the US, or will the G7 economies become more like India and China? Can the current global integration hold or are we going to see a counter-trend of nationalism and protectionism? And can China shift from the ‘made in China’ label to an ‘invented in China’ label? However the economies of the world develop, we are likely to see a scramble for resources such as food, land, energy and (this was something Watson was keen to emphasise) water.

Futurologists don’t just look at the present and try to predict the future, they also look to the past. Watson highlighted our tendency to look only at fairly recent history – a generation or two back – in order to establish possible trends. But actually, we should be looking over much longer periods, in fact, as far back as we can, to get a true idea of the big, global trends. Below is a slide that was shown, illustrating the major economies’ share of global GDP over the past 2,000 years:

majoreconomies

So perhaps China, who peaked two centuries ago thanks to the opium trade, are simply climbing back to the global position they were in (along with India) 1,000 years ago, and Western Europe and the US are slipping back to their less dominant position.

3. Global Connectivity

Mobile is now the critical platform – we have huge demand for speed and mobile access in everything – we’ve got open innovation and our machines are getting smarter, but are we? Connectivity is driving data theft, there is volatility and systemic risk, and we have seen that online crowds can bring together both great wisdom and great foolishness. The implications of this global connectivity are more mobile retail and  e-payment systems, growth of augmented reality, more collaborative consumption, and also an increase in personalisation of products.

4. GRIN Technologies

Genetics, Robotics, Information (Internet) and Nanotechnology. We are only just beginning to discover how smart technology can get. These kinds of technologies could help us to solve skills shortages, or add to the amount of skilled employment, there will undoubtedly be a growth in ‘big data’, data analytics and predictive technology, and we may, for example, see a merger between healthcare and financial planning. Check out the DNA home-testing kits on the 23andme website to see how this is already happening:

“Knowing how your genes may impact your health can help you plan for the future and personalize your healthcare with your doctor.”
23andme.com

However, not everyone is likely to embrace this technology-led future, and ‘future shock’ may well fuel a demand for nostalgia. We’ve already seen the ‘slow food‘ movement emerge as a reaction to fast food and fast lives, could the future lead us more towards slow thinking and nostalgia for physical friendships, live events, manual work and local communities?

5. Sustainability

Watson appeared to have a fairly positive view of the future, stating that whilst there are some big concerns – environmental, political, social, economic – on the whole we’re pretty good at adapting, so extinction of the human race is probably not on the cards (at least not in the near future). Nice to know. However, there is a key issue of energy shortage, combined with the fact that conservation is being largely ignored. We could see tightening regulations, H2O could become the next CO2, and measures such as personal movement allowances may not be that far-fetched.

He then went on to present four possible ways in which our world could progress, illustrated below:

Enoughism

Moreism
A combination of social passivism with market optimism will lead to people striving towards a culture of excess. Some would argue that large chunks of the world are already heading in this direction.

Personal fortress
Social passivism and market pessimism lead to people extracting themselves from society and creating small, secluded communities (or taking to the hills with canned food, bottled water and automatic weapons).

Enoughism
Market pessimism and social activism creates a culture of cooperation, conservation and equal sharing of resources. Very much the opposite of Moreism.

Smart Planet
A combination of market optimism and social activism results in an embracing of new technology to build a future based on global collaboration and smart solutions to problems.

I would argue that the world is big enough for all of these to exist simultaneously. Those of us who were listening to this talk, drinking wine in a trendy building in Old Compton Street, London, were, I suspect, all in the fortunate position of being able to select any part of the grid above and living our lives in whatever way we chose. But we’re in the minority. If there’s going to be a big global shift towards one of the quarters outlined above, then it’s going to be driven by the masses, and those masses don’t currently have the luxury of choice.

Pretty big topics. I was a bit disappointed, therefore, when we moved from considering the implications of a global shortage of energy and water to questions from the audience such as ‘What’s the future of the British high street?’ I guess it’s normal though to try and relate global concerns to our immediate world and experiences. With that in mind, I wondered what impact some of these big, global trends could have on publishing, and more specifically, ELT publishing.

“What a business needs the most for its decisions, especially strategic ones, is data about what goes on outside it.”
Peter Drucker

You do not need to be a Futurologist to see that printed books are soon going to be overtaken by their digital counterparts. Printed books can be beautiful, desirable objects so I doubt they’ll disappear completely, but the immediacy and mobile nature of eBooks, combined with ever-decreasing prices of the hardware to read them on, make the switch to digital inevitable. The boom right now is in fiction, but educational resources (including ELT) are already heading in the same direction, and we are seeing initiatives to flood schools with tablet devices in countries such as Turkey and the UAE.

Publishers who adapt to this change to digital will survive, anyone who doesn’t will very soon become extinct. ELT publishers in particular also need to consider where the big markets will be for English language learning in the future and how learning will take place. Do we need more investment, for example, in online resources for remote learning, and adapted, localised support for emerging markets? Localisation is an interesting one as in some ELT markets we’re seeing a real growth in small, local publishers who are producing materials that suit local needs, in terms of content, delivery and just as importantly, price. Global publishers can bring quality and experience to this mix, yet seem determined to compete rather than collaborate. This could be a big mistake.

And finally, what will the role of the English language teacher be? Will physical classrooms all but disappear in the future? Personally, I think the digital can sit very comfortably alongside the physical, and in ELT at least, I can’t see a desire for language learning in a classroom setting disappearing.  Technology just becomes another option, another layer, it can be integrated into more ‘traditional’ approaches, it’s not a case of one or the other. We’ve seen this already in the music industry. The iPod generation have not stopped going to festivals and concerts. The digital world allows us to share content instanteously and create virtual communities, but it cannot replace shared, physical experiences and the thrill of live events. I’m not suggesting that English language teachers are rock stars – despite what some of them may think – simply that most people like to socialise and share the same experiences, particularly when it comes to learning. It’s why people still form book clubs, museums continue to thrive and why, in my opinion, virtual schools and classrooms will never fully replace their physical counterparts. Then again, I’m no Futurologist ….

Richard Watson’s website: http://www.nowandnext.com

He’s written some books too, most recently: Futurefiles and The Future: 50 ideas you really need to know

And finally, check out this great Trend Map

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One Response to “Global trends, big questions: adaptation or extinction?”

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  1. Global trends, big questions: adaptation or ext... - March 4, 2014

    […] I went to see a Futurologist recently. Now you may be imagining this: Thankfully, as I soon discovered, Futurologists are not charlatans with crystal balls, they tend to be very much grounded in th…  […]

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