Predicting the future is a ‘no go’. However, uncertainty about the economy, emerging markets, climate change, biodiversity loss and many, many more, raises the urgency to know as much about the future as possible. Governments and industries need this in order to anticipate on future situations.
Dutch Future Study on Prosperity and the Environment
The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment asked Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency to make a thorough horizonscan. This serves as the starting point for the 2015 new quantified future study about prosperity and the environment. The previous future study on prosperity and the environment stems from 2006. That is, ways before the economic crisis. Therefore it is time for an update.
Looking into the past, we can say that the future is driven by known, consistent trends, such as population growth, but also by unknown disruptive events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Black Swan events is how author Taleb calls these rare events with extreme impact. While these latter type of events are rather unpredictable, it is quite well possible to analyse the consistent trends that are very likely to shape our future. This horizon scan builds on thorough scientific analyses in presenting the ‘known’ trends. These are uncertainties that the scientists agree upon. In addition, it also initiates the discussion about unknown trends by mentioning an interesting shortlist of those.
18 trends about the future
The horizon scan made a distinction between trends on a global level and trends that are specific for the Netherlands.
1. Population growth slows and people are getting older
Fertility decreases globally. In Western countries, population growth will come to an end.
2. The point of gravity in the global economy switches from Western economies to emerging markets.
The position of Western economies will continue to weaken.
3. Our economies and culture are getting more globalized.
This changes the economic structure of countries. It is uncertain to what extent globalization will extend.
4. The growing impact of emerging economies will lead to economic reforms in those countries, but without taking over Western values completely.
The dominance of Western values and mindset will decline, which will change the way the international community perceives global issues.
5. The world will be more and more urbanized.
Especially outside the Western world, urbanization will show rapidly growing cities as the costs of rural living areas.
6. Population growth and our economy will continue to put pressures on the environment, energy supplies, soils, biodiversity, water and food supplies.
Many emerging economies will soon also have an energy intensive lifestyle. This will pup pressure on all types of scarcity problems. Climate change may worsen the situation, which may add up into conflicts and social unrest. Thus, it has a negative impact on safety and security.
7. Technological innovation will change our lives radically. But we don’t know how and in which ways.
Digital media, biotechnology, nano materials and robotics are all technologies that seem to have drastic impact in future lifestyles. McKinsey earlier also published their view on disruptive technologies. Our current lifestyle may provide some hints for products and services built on these technologies. We wrote about that earlier on Futurista.
8. Europe will remain prosperous and attract immigrants.
Despite the diminishing global power of Europe, the continent will remain affluent and an attractive place to live, also for immigrants. Europe, with an aging and declining population, will need (well educated) immigrants to keep up the system of social security.
9. Working productivity still increases
Technological innovations may help continue the increase of working productivity. However, as the Netherlands relies very much on a service economy, this may signal a slowing forse on the increase of the working productivity.
10. The growth of the population has come to a halt and we will see an aging population.
Uncertain factors are immigration and longevity. There will be more one person households, especially in older people. The working population declines rapidly. Certain parts of the country will see a steady decline of people living and staying in these regions.
11. The distinction between work, leisure, public and private is fading away.
The Dutch love their leisure time. They have the lowest amount of annual working hours of the whole of Europe. However, people tend to mix work and private live, professional and caretaking roles, by means of flexible working arrangements facilitated by all sorts of social media. The inequality between the highest and lowest educated people increases.
12. The role of the national government changes.
As more policy decisions are made on a European level, the primacy of the national government diminishes. On a national level, more and more policy domains are in the hands of regional governments, the Provinces, or on a municipality level. Meanwhile, people become more critical towards governments and take up initiatives that used to be in the hands of big institutions, such as health care arrangements.
13. Cities grow and get divided into several downtown areas.
The growth of the cities is at the expense of the rural areas. As cities grow, newly built services are located at the edge of the city or in the suburb. This may grow into new urban activities, which yields a poly nuclear city structure.
14. The growth of one person households will increase the need for apartments and houses to accommodate this lifestyle.
The cities need to supply sufficient apartments and houses that provide the requested service standards. An older population will face decreased mobility and houses need to be adjusted to their needs.
15. The property market of office buildings, shops and industrial buildings will have surpluses for a long time.
Online shopping, working from home or shared offices are trends that diminish the needs for office buildings and stores. Moreover, with a shrinking working population, there are less people who go to work. As our economy is largely a service economy, the need for industrial buildings also declines.
16. Transportation systems will remain mostly the same.
The electric car is not yet a substitute for the traditional car. Automated features in vehicles will become more common. Aviation and shipping will grow significantly. However, as Western dominance declines, probably the hub function of the Amsterdam airport and the Rotterdam seaport may loose some of their status.
17. Energy consumption growth levels off, but the dominance of fossil fuels remains.
The Netherlands have a large gas supply and a large seaport for oil, and current investments in alternative sources of energy are modest. This may remain in the years to come.
18. The gradual effects of climate change can be managed.
The Netherlands have a long history of battling the water. This has changed into living with the water. Therefore, the Netherlands has sophisticated water management strategies and is able to cope with climate change as it may unfold in the coming years.
Uncertain trends: what if…..?
These trend ruptures may become as relevant as the above mentioned trends. The may be used for sensitivity analyses and further elaboration of scenarios in foresight studies.
1. What if people could reach the age of 120 years?
Breakthroughs in technologies could make this possible. The population in the Netherlands would increase with an extra generation of old aged people. The societal perspective will change, with probably more older people still working.
2. What if corporations own utilities and other public service institutions?
Water, roads, sewage systems and other utilities could be supplied by corporations. Big data combined with new technology will allow governments and the people to monitor the quality of the services. This build on a privatzation wave which started with the neo liberal policies in the eighties.
3. What if energy storage becomes much cheaper due to a revolution in battery technologies?
The electric car will have fewer obstacles and may conquer the streets in no time. Car batteries can store locally harvested energy and a new off the grid energy system may emerge.
4. What if climate change accelerates?
The Netherlands will have to speed up their climate change acceptation strategies and their expertise will be asked for in other regions.
The future is uncertain
These trends are by no means a certain path into the future. By exploring trends, they become more visible and we can anticipate and contribute in making a better future. Horizon scans and trend analyses provide a first picture of what the future may look like. The next step may be identifying and ranking driving forces and their uncertainties. But even then, there are many potential black swans that hardly any one sees. Constant scanning, an open mind for alternative opinions, weak signals and undercurrents of counter trends continue to be important for futurist studies. The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency is very much aware of this and prepares itself for their upcoming study on prosperity and the environment.
For downloading the report in Dutch, click here.