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The Four Macro Certainties

In any look forward in time, we are dealing with differences that may or may not be predictable. If we look to next year, we can usually identify a number of things that will be largely the same, such as the food available for us to eat, the nature of our work or where we choose to live. Equally there are several aspects of life that we can pretty well guarantee will change slightly, for example by being faster, slower, smaller or bigger than today: faster computers, slower traffic, smaller cars and bigger networks. All of these are relatively predictable – in fact, almost certain.

One of the core assumptions of many futures programmes is that there are certainties and uncertainties, so, assuming you can identify what they are, it should be perfectly possible to build alternative views of the future based on combinations of these. As we look further out, to, say, two to three years, we can see a range of trends that might have an increasing impact in the world. These are things that are emerging or accelerating today and may become more influential as they become mainstream; alternatively, of course, they may give way to the next fad or ideology. Although these are more ‘possible’ than ‘guaranteed’ futures, they are extrapolations of the world today and so we can be reasonably confident that they will come about.

The challenge in looking further out, say to the future in five to ten years’ time, is that many of the changes that could take place may be significant departures from today’s reality and so not on our collective radar. As such, our confidence in what those changes might be, let alone their impact, could be quite low. Think back to 2000 and ask how many saw what effect the recently launched Google would have on the internet, never mind the advent of social networks. Or consider how ‘green’ we have now become and observe how sustainability is now a hygiene factor for us all rather than a niche issue for some.

All in all, there are a host of changes that we need to think about when considering the next ten years. Some are marginal incremental evolutions and some are radical revolutions. The big challenge in any foresight programme is in differentiating these and gaining a clear understanding of which changes are most likely.

In order to distinguish what many term the ‘probable futures’ from the ‘possible futures’, futures programmes such as the IFTF’s Map of the Decade, IBM’s Global Innovation Outlook and their like use a range of different techniques to highlight developments in which there is more collective confidence, rather than those considered less predictable, and group them accordingly. For example, Nokia’s Wildcards programme looks specifically at the low probability events that could have a significant impact while other scenario programmes, such as those undertaken by the likes of GBN, seek to explore possible outcomes of the interaction of certainties and uncertainties and the implications for the world, a market or a business.

Another school of thought looks at the future on a known versus unknown dimension. So we have ‘known knowns’ – things like population growth – that we can predict quite clearly, and then we have ‘known unknowns’ – such as the future price of oil. The interesting bit comes when we consider the ‘unknown knowns’ – those things that are definitely occurring but the impact of which we do not fully understand, such as, perhaps, a shift in values or another environmental impact of our actions alongside CFCs and carbon. These are the nuggets that many futures programmes seek to uncover by bringing together different views and making new connections. As if this wasn’t complicated enough, we finally come to the ‘unknown unknowns’ – the events that will take us all by surprise and which we therefore find difficult to prepare for. All of this was famously and spectacularly hijacked by Donald Rumsfeld in his NATO speech in 2002. The principle, however, is still clear.

The intention of the Future Agenda project is to clarify which issues fit into these types of categories. By doing so, we want to enable people, companies and governments to make more informed choices and place more intelligent bets. However, although it is easy to put certainties into the ‘known known’ group, the problem is that we have to challenge ourselves as to which issues really are certain.

We believe that it is a pivotal issue to get the certainties for the future clear up front. Once we have clarity on the ‘known knowns’, we can build a better understanding of the options and possibilities that exist on top of these. Of course, the process is problematic. For example, we tend to have greater confidence in those things happening within our industry or field of expertise and could quite possibly discount events or developments from other areas. We have tried to avoid this by using the varied initial perspectives on the different topics and the subsequent discussions around these to help us highlight, test, challenge and validate the themes that participants from around the world agree are the driving forces of how the world will develop over the coming decade.

This first part of the book therefore details what, from the programme, we see as the four macro-certainties for the next decade. Unless there is a massive and fundamental global shift that we have not anticipated, these are the things that will most definitely occur. They are, therefore, those certainties upon which everything else is built. Signals of these global trends can be seen today and are already being factored into plans and strategic approaches by some governments, institutions and businesses.

The four certainties are: a continued imbalance in population growth; more constraints on key resources; an accelerating shift of economic power to Asia; and universal data access.


imbalanced population growth
asian wealth shift
key resource constraints
universal data access

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