Global Trends 2030: Where the Technology Will Take Us

26 June 2012 Author: EIFonline

The 26 June EIF breakfast debate was something of a departure from the usual format as there was but one speaker: Dr. Mathew Burrows, Counsellor and Director of the Analysis and Production Staff at the United States National Intelligence Council.

Dr. Burrows gave a preview of the forthcoming NIC "Global Trends 2030" report. The US NIC began conducting regular scenario planning exercises back in the late 1990s and these reports (of which this forthcoming publication will be the fifth) are the fruit of that thought process. Burrows notes that these are used extensively by the US Government for planning purposes. But as they are unclassified over the years many outside the corridors of D.C. have had the chance to benefit from them as well. Burrows directed everyone's attention the restaurant menus which stood at each place. On a recent visit to Washington, Carl Bildt (Sweden's Minister for Foreign Affairs) was keen to preview the forthcoming report and these "menus" were devised as part of a NIC briefing given to him. The menu contained three sections: starters (trends with relative certainty), main courses (game changers and critical variables), and desserts (alternative worlds). Burrows stated that the forthcoming 2030 report places a larger focus on two major topics: the future role of technology and that of the United States. Some potential scenarios, he noted, are very good and some very bad. He sees the tendency towards increasing political fragmentation representing a particularly bad trend. Speaking to potential upsides he noted the global growth of the middle class, rising education, and advances in public health. The increasing penetration of the internet is connecting people all over the world and this is seen by many as empowering the individual. Burrows noted that it is still somewhat of an open question whether in the end it will be more the individual which is empowered or whether national, religious, and ethnic group identities will be reinforced and dominate. Burrows expressed his opinion that it will be more on the individual side. While some foresee the decline of the State as a result of all this empowerment, Burrows noted, there are clearly signs that the State might claw back power to itself. He drew an analogy to the historical co-opting of the printing press by Catholic Church, observing that by looking to both the massive (and growing) data sets which governments have access to and the increasingly powerful tools which allow the mining of that data clearly the potential is there. Burrows was optimistic, however. He went on to speak about the challenge of foreign policy challenges posed by a world in which nonstate actors play increasingly powerful roles. Environmental and demographic changes pose their own challenges. Burrows expressed his belief that impending water and food shortages can be averted by the rapid development and deployment of suitable technologies. He spoke to Europe's own demographic challenges and suggested that the way forward to maintain a high quality of life while simultaneously addressing the needs of an aging population lies in developing more high-tech industries. He talked about the growing importance of ICT in other sectors like nanotech and genomics. He expressed concerns about falling education standards in the United States and noted that at the same time other countries, such as China and Brazil, aren't slacking off.

Dr. Burrows observed in closing that "the process of thinking about the future is as important as the eventual product."

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