Friday January 22, 2021 0 comments
By Thomas Frey
It’s a funny thing about the future. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, changing the future is hard, and changing the past is even harder.
Yet we can predict it, and as time moves forward and the future gets closer, our predictions and visions of the future become framed by reality, and we become more realistic about the impact we’ve had.
That’s why I’ve always been mesmerized by past predictions, including ones that don’t even come close. Hindsight is 20-20, but future predictions are always challenging.
Predicting the Distant Future
In 1930, F.E. Smith, a British politician and contemporary of Winston Churchill, was bold enough to publicly describe his vision of the world and mankind 100 years into the future. In some ways his thoughts about 2030 appear to be on the right track – for example, regarding the prevalence of synthetic meat. In others he was farther off, saying, for example, that future wars would be fought primarily by unmanned tanks and that life expectancy would be increased to an average of 150 years.
Hmmm, 2030 is still not here so maybe he was closer to reality than we originally thought.
This points out the challenges futurists face as well as our dueling approach to futurism. Is the future an extrapolation of current trends, as evidenced by Smith’s miscalculations, or will our future be fortunate enough to benefit from technology breakthroughs and entirely new paradigms?
In other words, are we just going to get better at the things we already do, or are we going to produce entirely new and better things?
“Improving” our Future
Our future will be a reflection of both:
- The continuation of current trends
- A number of sea changes that will fundamentally change our world and our lives
Personally, I tend to focus on the latter, where we step out of our comfort zones to imagine dramatic breakthroughs that are, by their nature, far more difficult to predict.
However, we can’t bank on breakthroughs to magically solve our problems. We simply can’t dream our challenges away.
Yes, we all want to make a difference but with a wide mixture of talents, desires, and motivations that we bring to the table, we find ourselves needing a way to set priorities and focus our energies.
That’s precisely the reason the Millennium Project was formed.
Futurism’s Role in Problem-Solving
The Millennium Project was cofounded by Jerome Glenn and Elizabeth Florescu in 1996 by tapping into the minds of experts from around the world. By last count, the number of experts involved has increased to over 4,000. Their goal was to put us on the path towards a better future.
Through a series of ongoing surveys and discussions, the group settled on 15 global challenges that were clearly evident but not being properly addressed.
- World population is growing; food, water, education, housing, and medical care must grow rapidly to keep up.
- Fresh water is becoming scarce in localized areas of the world.
- The gap in living standards between the rich and poor promises to become more extreme and divisive.
- The threat of new and re-emerging diseases and immune micro organisms is growing.
- Capacity to decide is diminishing (as issues become more global and
complex under conditions of increasing uncertainty and risk).
- Terrorism is increasingly destructive, proliferating, and difficult to prevent.
- Population growth and economic growth are interacting adversely with
environmental quality and natural resources.
- The status of women is changing.
- Religious, ethnic, and racial conflicts are increasingly severe.
- Information technology offers both promise and peril.
- Organized crime groups are becoming sophisticated global enterprises.
- Economic growth is bringing both promising and threatening consequences.
- Nuclear power plants around the world are aging.
- The HIV epidemic will continue to spread.
- Work, unemployment, leisure, and underemployment are changing.
Understanding the World in 1996
What was it like living in 1996, and why did these issues rise to top of mind for these critical thinkers?
To begin with, the Internet was just getting started, with only 100,000 crude websites in existence compared to well over a billion today.
Here’s a few other notable things that happened that year:
- 45 million people are actively using the Internet, 30 million of whom live in North America.
- World population reaches 4.4 billion and is growing rapidly.
- EBay became one of the early dot.com success stories, as it launches its online auction and shopping website.
- An outbreak of “mad cow” had the world on edge.
- The Summer Olympics took place in Atlanta, Georgia.
- Fox News Channel makes its debut.
- Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole to win reelection as U.S. president.
- Pokemon makes its first appearance and becomes an instant hit.
- Amazon launched two years earlier in 1994.
- Mark Zuckerberg was 8 years old.
- Google wouldn’t be launched until 1998.
- Apple announced that it would be acquiring NeXT, and that Steve Jobs would be returning to the company.
As we begin to get a sense of life in 1996, we can begin to understand why these became the top issues of the day.
We can also understand why a list like this needs constant updating.
The 15 Global Challenges of 2020
Over the past 25 years, we’ve grown far more sophisticated in our thinking. The growing presence of the Internet has increased our awareness of the world around us, and the Millennium Project’s list of today’s 15 Global Challenges has morphed into the following questions.
- How can sustainable development be achieved for all while addressing global climate change?
- How can everyone have sufficient clean water without conflict?
- How can population growth and resources be brought into balance?
- How can genuine democracy emerge from authoritarian regimes?
- How can decision-making be enhanced by integrating improved global foresight during unprecedented accelerating change?
- How can the global convergence of information and communications technologies work for everyone?
- How can ethical market economies be encouraged to help reduce the gap between rich and poor?
- How can the threat of new and reemerging diseases and immune micro-organisms be reduced?
- How can education make humanity more intelligent, knowledgeable, and wise enough to address its global challenges?
- How can shared values and new security strategies reduce ethnic conflicts, terrorism, and the use of weapons of mass destruction?
- How can the changing status of women help improve the human condition?
- How can transnational organized crime networks be stopped from becoming more powerful and sophisticated global enterprises?
- How can growing energy demands be met safely and efficiently?
- How can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition?
- How can ethical considerations become more routinely incorporated into global decisions?
Keep in mind, each of the Global Challenges are transnational in nature and will require a trans institutional solution. Because of this, they cannot be addressed by a single government, or a single institution acting on its own.
Each of the Global Challenges will require a group effort, formed around collaborative actions between governments, international organizations, corporations, universities, NGOs, and creative individuals.
We all want a “better future” than the one we’re currently living through. So how do we get there?
Every time the Millennium Project Team publishes their “State of the Future” report, it serves as an overview of our present global situation and helps establish priorities.
It gives us something to focus our attention on. It gives us a reason to form relationships, join forces and combine efforts because these are massive huge problems requiring massive huge solutions.
For this reason, we need to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work needed to change the trajectory of these important worldwide challenges.