Disarmament Insight


Monday, 15 October 2007

Let’s polish up the crystal ball

The World Future Society recently released the Outlook 2008 Report as part of the November-December 2007 issue of its magazine “The Futurist”.

This report includes some 70 forecasts covering developments and breakthroughs in technology, energy and the environment, international relations and society in general.

Among the thinkers who have contributed to “The Futurist” magazine in the past years are current climate change activist (and just-announced Nobel Peace prize co-winner) Al Gore, former United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

So, what should we expect in the coming years? Here are the top 10 forecasts of the Outlook 2008 Report, some of which are directly relevant to human security and multilateral disarmament diplomacy:

1. “The world will have a billion millionaires by 2025”, as a result of globalization and technology innovations.

2. “Fashion will go wired as technologies and tastes converge to revolutionize the textile industry.” Smart fabrics – such as colour-changing or perfume emitting textiles –, digital wallets and computer shoes are just a few examples of the new technologies that will radically transform the textile industry.

3. “The threat of another cold war with China, Russia, or both will replace terrorism as the chief foreign-policy concern of the United States.” According to Luttwak, terrorist attacks are a relatively minor threat to the United States that Soviet missile capabilities.

4. “Counterfeiting of currency will proliferate, driving the move toward a cashless society.”

5. “The earth is on the verge of a significant extinction event. The twenty-first century could witness a biodiversity collapse 100 to 1,000 times greater than any previous extinction.”

6. “Water will be in the twenty-first century what oil was in the twentieth century.”

7. “World population by 2050 may grow larger than previously expected, due in part to healthier, longer-living people.”

8. “The number of Africans imperiled by floods will grow 70-fold by 2080”. The predictions indicate a 38cm increase of sea level by 2080. If this is the case, the number of Africans affected by floods is estimated to grow from 1 million to 70 millions.

9. “Rising prices for natural resources could lead to a full-scale assault on the Arctic”. According to Brigham, the control over arctic natural resources will be a major political challenge in the next decades.

10. “More decisions will be made by nonhuman entities”. Because of the ever-increasing complexity of the world, artificial intelligence will play an increasing role in decision-making processes.

Of course, “The Futurist’s” predictions could well be proved wrong. That’s the problem with prediction – hence we’re not getting around in jet cars or rocket-powered backpacks despite assertions that it would be the case by today a few decades ago. Conversely, few saw the Internet or the iPod coming.

Humans often make their predictions based on current evidence and past experiences. If there’s one thing we’re learning in an increasingly interdependent world it’s that plenty of social phenomena are non-linear and inherently unpredictable. In complex systems – and complex social systems in particular –, actions sometimes have unintended consequences.

So, while forecasts like those in “The Futurist” are stimulating, I’m sure we’re in for some even more way-out surprises it didn’t predict – both good and bad.

Aurélia Merçay


The top ten forecasts from the Outlook 2008 report by the World Future Society are available online.