From consumer agencies to military intelligence, many organisations study trends, each through a unique lens shaped by their purpose – be it short-term marketing advantage, strategic investment or domestic security. At Forum for the Future, our purpose is to identify opportunities to put our systems on a more sustainable footing. We track our own trends, but we also listen to what the others are saying. What changes are some of the heavy-hitters of the foresight world reporting? How are familiar trends evolving? Here we bring together findings from governments, management consulting firms, and forward-thinking publications. For each, we also present the long view: a brief analysis of possible implications for sustainability. We begin with five global megatrends: those that shape all other goings on, and were quite rightly among the most discussed in 2014. Then, we explore five lesser-spotted trends that could help you prepare for the unexpected.
Five greater-spotted global trends
1. Diffusion of Power
Power is no longer concentrated in a small number of nations, with new networks of countries emerging to replace a global hegemony. Many of the reports studied (US National intelligence Council, 2012; UK Ministry of Defence, 2014; PWC, 2014; McKinsey, 2010) highlight power shifts, both economic and political. The term ‘global economic repatterning’ recurs, describing how BRICs and other groups of developing countries may overtake the aggregate purchasing power of the G7 countries by 2030. Private organisations run by influential individuals, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, now wield the power that was previously held by governments.
The long view: While a diffusion of power is generally good, there are some drawbacks, particularly in global governance. Weakened governments are vulnerable to instability and potential conflict: witness the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Changing power dynamics could also delay global action on big issues such as climate change.
2. Demographic Change
Demographic change is described in nearly all of the reports studied (US National Intelligence Council, 2012; UK Ministry of Defence, 2014; PWC, 2014). The UN estimates the global population will reach 9.6 billion by 2050. In many developed countries there is also a growing ageing population. In some countries, such as Japan and Italy, this is compounded by a declining birthrate, challenging societal and economic norms. Meanwhile, in developing countries with high birthrates, there are large numbers of young people entering the workforce.
The long view: Everything from health to housing to employment will be affected. Yet concurrent trends could help different demographic groups to thrive. For instance, ‘smart’ cities are responding to increased urbanisation by reinventing city living – from infrastructure to shared spaces aimed to reinvigorate community interaction.
3. Demand for Resources
Not only is the global population growing but so is the global middle class, increasing demand for food, water, land and energy. People across the world aspire to the affluent, resource-intensive lifestyles of the West, from car and home ownership to increased meat consumption. Water scarcity and quality are growing problems. Many of the reports explored growing pressure and resources, and the relation of this to economic growth (US National Intelligence Council, 2012; UK Ministry of Defence, 2014; PWC, 2014, World Economic Forum, 2014).
The long view: Scarcity is not inevitable. The sharing economy is challenging long-held ideas of ownership, potentially reducing consumption. Businesses are aspiring to circular resource use, cutting costs and reducing waste. In the food technology space, companies are creating diverse food products with fewer inputs.
It is becoming increasingly hard for governments, companies and individuals to hide their actions from public scrutiny. Organisations like WikiLeaks demonstrate that even the powerful can be exposed. But transparency isn’t a one-way street. While citizens can know more about products, services and policies, personal privacy is becoming harder to maintain as companies compete for personal data to better target consumers. Transparency, data and privacy were raised by several reports (World Economic Forum, 2014; UK Ministry of Defence, 2014).
The long view: Greater transparency can help everyone along the supply chain, but only if the information is consistent, easily accessible and responsibly sourced. Citizens are taking information and rapidly crafting a response, and non-profit campaigns are seeing quick results. In just two weeks of campaigning and 10,000 tweets, Greenpeace prompted Burberry to remove toxic chemicals from its manufacturing process.
5. Democratisation of Technology
Technological innovations in medicine, agriculture and robotics are not only advancing but achieving a greater reach more rapidly than ever (PWC, 2014; McKinsey, 2010; The Economist, 2014; US National Intelligence Council, 2012). Smartphones are constantly updated; you can go for personal DNA sequencing, and 3D printing cafés offer rapid production.
The long view: Technology is helping to conserve and maximise resources – such as satellite systems to detect illegal logging; mobile phones to help farmers get valuable data on crop prices; and cheap laptops for students in developing countries. In Kenya, the government has committed to using drones in its national parks to monitor and deter wildlife poaching.
Five lesser-spotted trends
1. Increased Defence Spending
The UK Government’s Ministry of Defence (2014) describes increased defence spending among many of the current world powers. By 2045, China’s defence spending could match that of the US, and the two combined could account for nearly half of the world’s total defence spending in 2045. Russia and India are projected to increase their spending. Technological advances will lead to more non-lethal weapons and increased precision, according to the UK Government.
The long view: More military spending might mean a decrease in other areas, impacting employment and national culture. However, it may also ramp up investment in new technology, bringing some solutions to market.
2. Lack of Values in Leadership
The World Economic Forum’s top trends report (2014) describes “a lack of values in leadership”. This highlights the problem that many now believe that world leaders care more about themselves and their legacies, rather than the common good. Leaders who draw upon a global knowledge base to develop positive visions, and who view learning as a lifelong endeavour, are tipped to succeed.
The long view: A lack of values in leadership may hinder long-term planning for resilience – and not just in the next election cycle or fiscal year. But growing demand for integrity may also see leaders confront human rights abuses – think the CIA’s Torture report.
3. Rapid Spread of Misinformation Online
The World Economic Forum (2014) also draws attention to the proliferation of misinformation. Given the extent and interconnections of online networks, word rapidly spreads to a large audience, even when poorly substantiated.
The long view: Data aggregation and search tools will become even more important, while curation, reflection and analysis will be required to support clear decision-making for a sustainable future.
4. Individual Empowerment
The most recent US National Intelligence Council’s global trends study (2012) highlights individual empowerment due to poverty reduction, a growing middle class, higher education rates and improved healthcare. Greater access to media is exposing inequality and social unrest. In many countries, debates around the inclusion of GLBT individuals and of women’s equality are coming to the fore.
The long view: The empowerment of individuals needs to be paired with more equitable social systems that enable everyone to enjoy high standards of healthcare, education and employment.
5. Disease Outbreaks
The Economist’s World in 2015 report explores trends in global health. The 2014 Ebola outbreak had a devastating impact in West Africa, not only costing lives and straining weak health systems but severely weakening the economy of the region by disrupting tourism, trade, and foreign investment. Meanwhile, noncommunicable diseases are on the rise in the developing world, due in part to poor diet and sedentary lifestyles.
The long view: The Ebola outbreak highlights the importance of wild cards: low-probability but high-impact events. While we can’t predict everything, we can build resilience into our systems.
World Economic Forum (2014), Top 10 Trends of 2014
US National Intelligence Council (2012), Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds
UK Ministry of Defence (2014), Global Strategic Trends – Out to 2045
PriceWaterhouseCooper (PWC, 2014), Five Global Megatrends Continue to Advance
McKinsey (2014), Global Forces, An Introduction
The Economist (2014), The World in 2015
Alisha Bhagat is a Sustainability Advisor in Forum for the Future’s New York office