FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

What are the top future trends?

One of the first things I've done as an aspiring futuristic is to research and analyze what others feel are the top future trends -- social, political, and technical. To that end, I've developed my own matrix to help me sift through and make sense of all the disparate trends. Here are the top "megatrends" that have come to light (in no particular order):

* Obesity will become a global epidemic as the developing world adopts Western eating habits. The health consequences will have a serious impact on healthcare and economic productivity worldwide.

* At the same time, the world's population is aging as families in both developed and developing countries have fewer children. The burden of supporting a large elderly population will fall on a dwindling youth workforce. It will also have as-yet-unforeseen implications in politics and marketing. The consequences of a large retired population may be twofold: It may lead to a large new leisure class, or we may see a demographic that's financially unprepared for retirement.

* The economies of China and India will continue to evolve and grow, presenting the U.S. and Europe with continuing challenges... but also opportunities. With its traditions of democracy and free enterprise, combined with a large English-speaking population, India appears to be well in the lead here. But China is rapidly upgrading its infrastructure, though its continued suppression of freedoms will hamper the progress it makes in other areas.

* The world will continue to become more Westernized as global populations have the freedom and incomes to choose Western consumer products, and as Western capitalism proves itself to be the most effective and stable (if not perfect) economic solution available. But not everyone will embrace a McWorld, as evidenced in our current war with Muslim Jihadists (a.k.a. the "war on terror"). Not only will we see a backlash from traditional cultures, but perhaps even an embracing of socialism and even communism in areas where capitalism is not working, and by populations too young to remember the Soviet Union. Much of this backlash will be symptomatic of...

* Religion as the source of much of the world's conflict in the 21st Century. America's war with radical Islam may only be the opening salvo in a bloody and prolonged struggle with no end in sight. The pitting of Islam vs. the West is only the most obvious flashpoint; on a cooler level, the gap between conservative Christians and others (liberals, moderate Christians and the non-religious) in America is continually widening. Traditional Christian churches are losing influence in America, and are replaced by a collection of institutions, many of which border on the radical. Look for major divisions -- and perhaps even a major schism -- in the Catholic Church once the current Pope passes from the scene. These divisions will be further fueled by those who reject this divisiveness by turning away from organized religion altogether.

* The continuing spread of AIDS, particularly in Africa, will mandate aggressive safe-sex campaigns worldwide, potentially bringing healthcare and science in conflict with traditional cultures and religions. Many sociologists believe that the response to AIDS in America led directly to deeper understanding and openness on a host of sexual matters (rape, sexual abuse, sexual dysfunction, etc.) as well as a greater acceptance of the gay/lesbian lifestyle (the current debate over gay marriage is possible only because society has accepted the basic right of gays to live as they wish). However...

* Genetic therapies have the promise of curing most any imaginable disease and greatly increasing lifespans. The issue here is not in the therapy itself, but in the ethical debates that are sure to follow. Is reshaping DNA morally correct? At what age should people "ought" to die? Who will benefit... everyone, or just those wealthy enough to afford "designer" healthcare?

* Information systems will become increasingly interconnected, particularly with the rise of Web services and RFID tags that can track individual items via radio transmitters. While initially good for business, privacy concerns are sure to be raised. This also has the potential to change the nature of employment -- particularly in the tech arena -- dramatically.

* Robots -- in the way we see them in science fiction -- will become a reality as models are developed that are "smarter" and more mobile than anything before. This will lead to all kinds of creative applications for robots... some good, some bad. Look for the upcoming movie I, Robot to inspire some interesting discussion on the future of robotics.

* Increased urbanization worldwide will have a number of unintended consequences. One that we may have already seen is "urban warming," in which cities retain heat at dangerous levels. The deadly heat wave the struck Paris in the summer of 2003 may be a sign of things to come.

* The need for alternative energy sources will reach a crisis point sometime in the next decade. For years, cheap oil has made the search for alternative fuels cost-prohibitive and a low priority. But at some point within the next 10 years, our oil supply will be severely disrupted, whether by political turmoil, the exhausting of known supplies, or demand outstripping supply. And when that happens, we probably will not be ready.

This essay is hardly comprehensive, and I'm sure I left some things out that are key. But it's a first stab, and I plan to elaborate on some of these musings in future posts.