Wednesday, 17 October 2007

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How will things be in ten year's time?

I'm not usually a huge fan of trend predictions. They usually get it wrong. The paperless office, the death of television, the society of leisure where robots are the new working class... When the future does turn up, it does so clothed in culturally specific ways which make predictions look anachronistic even when they were half true. We don't follow trends we are seized by ideas that are 'just right'. Yet occasionally trends gurus have got it right. Alvin Toffler's future shock from nearly 30 years ago predicted not only the internet but also a new 'shape' of media relations (the prosumer) which fits the social production trend which dominates web 2.0 (Wikipedia, Amazon reviews, Ohmae, Youtube etc.) pretty well.

But generally they get it wrong. Because they are peddling a type of change (the disappearance of somethhing familiar) which is rare in cultural evolution. The only known medium to disappear in modern times was the telegram. And even that had simply evolved into a money wire system, one which has grown fast as the global workforce has become more mobile.

So much for the mixed history of predicting the future. Why attempt it today?

The reason Toffler got it right, I suspect, is he grasped something about the logic and form of information technology: a general change which was irrestible for economies, societies. In a capitalist system, information technology plays a particular role: it makes new connections and enables flows of information which releases locked up value or 'liquidity'. In the capital markets what I am describing is arbitrage, futures and so on. But it is the same logic and form with eBay or Facebook, with the organisation of workplaces, with the way news is sourced and received, with political debate, with shopping. The internet is only one temporary manifestation of this new massively networked society, which is in many ways (as McLuhan predicted) modelled upon the brain.

What of the future? A new and additional systemic change has become apparent in the last few years: people call it the sustainability revolution. Put simply in ten years we - individuals, companies, countries, the world - will use 50% less energy. Every indicator points this way, from commodity prices, to regulation, to global treaties. In the longer term we will use more of new types of energy, fuel cells, new (for instance bacterial) biofuels. And we will find big new technology solutions like aerosol parasols to lessen heating by the the sun. But for now a low carbon economy is the only known fix.

Why will this happen? Partly because it has to. Partly also because people now know it has to: international surveys show that consistently, right across the world, about 70% are concerned about climate change and very nearly all of these are acting on these concerns. Partly economic: through oil, timber and other basic commodities becoming harder to source and through taxation and market prices, much more expensive. Realising the future risks and responsibilities global companies such as Walmart, GE and Toyota are strongly committed to a low carbon operation and the impact on their supply chains and hence the whole economy is set. But first and foremost I think it will happen because people are literally sick from modern life: anxiety, obesity, loneliness, crime and so on make material gains not enough. We need to invent a liveable way of life and sustainability as well as information technology can help, creating stronger local communities, more focus on quality of life (like the slow food movement) and what really makes is feel alive, like time with our families. Consumer capitalism was always an Indian rope trick: carried by the confidence to spend, the global housing price boom, easy credit. As the events in the banking world in only the last six months show, that whole system is very close to collapse.

There won't be one simple futurist style trend: the death of flying, the hyper car, the well insulated (no central heating) passive house. But let's not forget that 50% in 10 years is only 4% a year. Our culture will settle on wave after wave of solution, which meets our real needs better, and still makes profits, albeit not always for the old players. Launderettes with zero net water and soap use and very low energy use may replace washing machines. People may rent, share, barter and borrow more. Living spaces may be smaller, more communal and packed into denser mixed use neighbourhoods. And anything like this will make sense, be more appealing than alternatives. Water only runs downhill: the changes will not run against human desire. But rather will cut new channels. In the last 20 years we have learned to love technology and it has evolved to be loveable. That's the journey we have to make with low carbon living. Marketing will play a big role, we working with the skin of culture.

This is all just speculation of course. There are other scenarios involving bleaker routes to the same 50% cut. I suppose the point of imagining a positive future is that its better than those alternatives. Now its time for big new ideas. Can you glimpse it? If you can then we can build it!

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