Predicting The Future And Keeping It Bright

I spent some time in the ever fascinating city of Geneva this week for some meetings with the World Economic Forum where, as always, we are trying to figure out what to do about the world right now while trying to understand how the future will look – hopefully better than the present is the short answer!

One of the problems with predicting the future is that it is very easy to be horribly wrong. Predictions tend to fall into two camps, the incremental and the disruptive. The incremental view is that everything will continue along the current path while getting marginally better.  Following this path mobile phones were predicted to gradually shrink in size until they could be worn as wristwatches, but no one foresaw either the iPod/iPhone or text messaging.

On the disruptive side predictions involve huge shifts and changes, with for example manufacturing being replaced with nanotech and biotech, or, as every investor gets told by every entrepreneur, new products emerge which blow away all competition and disrupt the entire market.

While the first approach shows a lack of imagination, the second perhaps indicates a rather over active imagination, and the true path of the future lies somewhere in between – but not, I should caution, at some midway point.

This becomes important when I work with organisations on corporate technology strategies – how to keep an eye on the future and an option on potential disruptive technologies while maintaining growth in the current business and of course being able to respond to emerging opportunities? For many corporate people, the constraints of their organisation means that while they really do understand their business and markets inside out, they often end up either overspecialised, or over sensitive to internal business drivers that cause the bigger picture, and with it sometimes the bigger opportunities to be missed.

This became apparent when discussing the issues facing the chemical industry. Many resources are in increasingly short supply, and this may be political, such as rare earths, or structural, such as most metal ores where all the high quality ore has long been mined out. While there is a lot of discussion about how to manage resources, one of my major themes recently has been whether we can replace them?

This becomes crucial when you look at our dependence on resources. Lithium, for example, is a very abundant element, but only in a few areas such as Bolivia and Chile does it occur in sufficiently high concentrations to make the mining and processing of it for the lithium ion batteries that power the world economic. It only takes a bit of political instability or an earthquake to bring the world to a very sudden halt, as we saw with oil process in the 1970’s.

Nanotechnology and industrial biotechnology both have huge potential for replacing scarce resources, in the case of biofuels by moving to a second generation where the feedstock doesn’t require the replacement of food crops (or rainforest) with fuel crops, and in nanotechnology by creating entirely new materials. But in both cases, this is something we have to start doing now, rather than waiting for a crisis and expecting to be able to respond quickly enough.

So why were we discussing issues like this with the World Economic Forum? Simple, we’re in a bit of a mess at the moment, and with an extra 3 billion people on the way, all requiring food, land, houses, cars, healthcare, phones, laptops, energy and jobs we have a good idea what the problems will be. What we have to do now is start to imagine how we can stave off the worst effects of this huge and mounting pressure on resources without triggering waves of migration and war.

While the World Economic Forum is trying to create a Global Risk Response Mechanism, I argue that we need to create a system that will allow is to be proactive about risks. While technology cannot mitigate the effects of another banking crisis, and may indeed have contributed to it, we can make some large steps forward in addressing resources, health and climate change.

While accurately predicting the future is difficult, one of the biggest risks that we face, and one with implications far larger than the credit crunch, is not being ready for the future. In an increasing number of businesses and organisations that I work with are getting that message, but the real question is whether governments and policy makers will listen?

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