The World Future Society has released its top ten trends for ‘2008 and beyond’, from its journal The Futurist. It’s a slightly odd list, and – as with all such lists – in a slightly odd order. I’ve grouped them below to try to make some of the obvious connections, and added my own commentary.

If good futures work is about understanding your filters and bias, it’s hard not to read it as a rather American list, however. The WFS version of the list and their summary notes can be found here; the whole report can be bought here for a negligible $5.

There’s a big grouping of environmental and related drivers, inevitably, although the decline of oil production is there only by implication.

  • Water will be in the twenty-first century what oil was in the twentieth century
  • World population by 2050 may grow larger than previously expected, due in part to healthier, longer-living people
  • The number of Africans imperiled by floods will grow 70-fold by 2080
  • Rising prices for natural resources could lead to a full-scale rush to develop the Arctic
  • The earth is on the verge of a significant extinction event

Actually, this first point is oddly made; we had more oil than we knew what to do with for most of the 20th century. Reading the WFS summary, the point seems to be about water as the source of big infrastructure projects. But one of the main sources of current water shortages has been the belief by engineers that water shortages can be fixed by big infrastructure projects (see the Three Gorges project, for example). As Fred Pearce argues in When The Rivers Run Dry.

I’m sceptical of the projection about increasing world population growth, although it comes from UN demographics. The long-run reductions in fertility which follow when women in poorer countries become better educated and participate in the economy seem to me to be likely to be more dramatic than incremental increases in longevity. And the grim collection of resource impacts will also take its toll on population.

  • Fashion will go wired as technologies and tastes converge to revolutionize the textile industry
  • More decisions will be made by nonhuman entities

Both these are obviously about the falling cost of technology, but the point about the fashion industry seems narrow. Most objects which can usefully have intelligence embedded in them will have. The interesting question is what happens when people start using this new technology in new ways. The second point, about decisions being made by non-human entities, is the theme of Ian Ayre’s recent book Supercrunchers, which I mentioned in a recent post.

  • The threat of another cold war with China, Russia, or both could replace terrorism as the chief foreign-policy concern of the United States

I don’t want to come over all European here, but if I recall – from reading (critical) accounts of the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century – the point of gaining control of Middle East oil reserves through occupation of Iraq was to make sure that China (in particular) didn’t. The ‘war on terror’ (circa 2001) was a cover story – hence White House enthusiasm to make a false link between the Twin Towers bombers and Saddam Hussein. The ‘war on terror’ (2004 onwards) has been unintended consequences.

  • Counterfeiting of currency will proliferate, driving the move toward a cashless society

This is a bit of an odd ‘top ten’ candidate – it applies only to richer countries, counterfeiting of many other things is also a serious economic problem, and given concerns over identity theft and poor electronic security, cash seems at least as likely to hold its own. If cash is going to disappear, it will more likely be because of the cost of moving the stuff around. All these arguments are covered regularly by Dave Birch on the Digital Money Forum blog.

  • The world will have a billion millionaires by 2025

Well, I suppose it depends on how you measure ‘millionaire’, and in what currency, and whether you allow for inflation or not. It’s also difficult to gauge whether this comes about a result of increased prosperity (and if so how widely it would be spread) or the result of increased inequality. If we’re talking dollar millionaires, a cynic might also say that quickest way that this trend will come about will be through the long overdue fall in the value of the over-exposed and over-borrowed American dollar.
Thanks to a thousand tomorrows.