When a great number of factors congeal and the future of a complex system is dependent on a multiplicity of actors, there is never only one possible future. We need to take account of a plethora of changes that intermesh – from demographics to the possibility of sustained major migratory movements (associated with security, war, and conflict and destined in future to be increasingly caused by the fall-out effects of climate change) and globalization (which exacerbates still further the rapid spatial shifting through digitization and automation). Other factors in the global context are security /data security as a possible disruptor of the expected course of development and a particular focus on political instability; decentralization and a worldwide switch to renewable energy sources; a shift of values towards a non-materialists outlook; and a massive increase in life expectancy and the productive and intellectually active period of life.
Current and future environmental degradation on the one hand, and the pursuit of environmental sustainability on the other – will influence the future of our society. Environmental degradation has a negative impact on our society in general and the quality of life due to its close links to the natural environment, in particular through the loss of ecosystem services, the occurrence of natural disasters and the inequalities associated with exposure to environmental degradation and the associated risks. Humanity’s collective impact has been in ecological overshoot since 1970 and this has been eroding planetary health at an accelerating rate. Without deep systemic transformation we will fall victim to a mass-extinction we set in motion through a degenerative and exploitative system that drives cascading ecosystems collapse and is detrimental planetary health. The challenge is to fundamentally redesign the human presence and impact on Earth within the lifetime of the generations alive today — from being exploitative and degenerative to being regenerative and healing.
But there is more ….
The coming decades will see an acceleration of new technologies, some of which are now emerging and some of which will surprise us. This not only concerns the effects of artificial intelligence and robots at work, but also synthetic biology, 3D/4D printing and bioprinting, nanotechnology, virtual and augmented reality, other future technologies and the synergies between them. There is no way round the technological transformation: this technological convergence is what drives social-economic development.
Robotics, convergence and synergies between various technologies, and artificial intelligence are also the possible drivers of rapidly rising unemployment, directly followed by the problematic issue of the failure of further training and education to keep pace with the speed of technological change. At the same time, the key technological developments can be identified as 3D printing in all fields of production, networked production (Industry 4.0), digitization and networking, and the technological enhancement of the human-machine interface through to brain-to-brain interfaces and self-replicating robotics.
There are concerns that increasing instability due to the withdrawal of social safety nets and uncertainty over employment due to these disruptive technologies would develop a survivalist atmosphere of anxiety that would provoke nationalist tendencies. Moreover, there would be widening inequality, which could have especially critical implications for the youth population. Poverty and inequality would widen under the current socioeconomic structure, and the changing landscape in employment due to automation will only worsen this inequality. Also, governments and other organizations would have to cope with a fast-changing world both in structure and decision-making processes due to the ever-accelerating rate of technological development and innovation.
Against the backdrop of a volatile and globally networked world economy in interplay with accelerated technological development, we have to fundamentally change our concept and definition of the economy so that these include all kinds of value-added performance. The abstracting, generalizing, norming, reductive, mechanistic, extractive and explicatory foundations of the industrial growth society are at odds with and erode the much more sophisticated and intricate living pattern of fractal place that generates diversity, redundancy at different scales and hence resilience, creating shared abundance through diverse regenerative communities at local and regional scale.
A totally new orientation for society and an economy based on individual self-fulfillment, the common good and self-actualization: a re-localized and highly networked closed loop economy, a switch to self-sufficiency, a move away from consumerism. An economy to which social systems will have to change and adapt, and where the principle of wage labor might well become completely obsolete. Economic growth decoupled from ecosystem degeneration and material consumption and linked back to sustainable economic development and social well-being. Circular, closed systems boost a successful industry and reduce the need to extract primary resources and make the concept of waste obsolete. A level playing field through real values, including external factors such as environmental impact and the benefit of ecosystem services, is built into the market for all competitors.
The processes that enables societies to adapt and to thrive in the face of long-term social and environmental challenges suggests that societal capacity to anticipate, sense, interpret and respond to both external and internal challenges through adaptive processes of social change is essential to societal resilience. Society is redefining the concept of prosperity and successful lifestyles, as well as the foundations of profit and loss, progress and value creation to include more long-term considerations such as environmental impacts and personal and social well-being and development. A network society, characterized by intelligent consumption, game society, blockchain, new approaches to business organization and hierarchy, and open innovation.
We can expect a transformational phase stretching over the next ten years in which we need to create attractive and specific visions of the future that broaden our imaginations to consider positive forms of development and show that positive utopian futures are also conceivable and not just dystopian development paths.
Summarizing, this era can also be characterized by a tightly interconnected world operating at high speeds with hyper-efficiency in several dimensions confronts us with a deep structural crisis induced by its contradictions and limitations: perpetual growth on a finite planet, political fragmentation in an interdependent world, widening chasms between the privileged and the excluded, and a stifling culture of consumerism. Feedbacks are everywhere: environmental stress exacerbates poverty and incites conflict, thereby threatening economic stability; economic instability weakens efforts to protect nature and reduce poverty; desperate underclasses degrade the environment and seek access to affluent countries, exciting backlash that undercuts geoeconomics cooperation. Multiple interweaving threads of connectivity lengthen, strengthen, and thicken, forming the ligature of an integrated social-ecological system. A macro-shift in the human condition is underway with implications as far-reaching as those of previous great transformations.
A systemic crisis urges a systemic response. Although what future societies would be like cannot be predicted with certainty, the future can be co-created by bringing those engaged in preparing for it together with opportunities, both anticipated and unanticipated, that arise. This requires deliberate efforts to understand potential changes that are ahead, and also empowering societies to map out scenarios of possible or desired sustainable futures. Current futures studies, which generally apply quantitative models and scenario-based predictions, are somewhat constrained as they fail to capture transformative and dynamic changes in areas such as disruption, innovation, and nonlinear change in human behavior. Such a process would provide a readiness for change, and individuals and communities would have at hand not only a shared view of tomorrow but also possible interventions to inject when positive disruptions occur. Naturally this requires more than just awareness. It also requires concrete investments in social-economic infrastructure, organizational practices, and new institutions that can shepherd society into a future that is evidently different from that which current infrastructure and institutions are built for.