‘We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters’ said controversial technology entrepreneur Peter Thiel more than a decade ago. Clearly technologies will play an outsized role in shaping humanity’s future, including that of our urban habitat. But predicting which specific technologies will race ahead is no mean feat, although huge effort has gone into dissecting future trends and anticipating new needs and wants.
Futurescape is a Chatham House initiative for our second century, generating innovative thinking and exploring how a more sustainable future could come about in the next one hundred years around London’s Piccadilly Circus, an area which has been the Institute’s neighbourhood for almost a century. Its aim is to sidestep the wormhole of apocalyptic futurism.
The pandemic has catapulted ideas which lived largely in the imagination into near realities in many cities. It is becoming clear a return to business-as-usual is not only unlikely but also undesirable for some. Rebuilding the new normal and finding a way to more sustainable futures requires reconfiguring some fundamentals at both a policy and individual level.
Delivering net zero greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate impacts ultimately requires local, location-specific responses and so how they play out and come alive depends on the geography and economic sectors on which local livelihoods depend.
Exploring several policy destinations
Policy analysts often start with a public policy goal and then divine policies, measures, and incentives to get onto the right pathway. What is not done enough is to imagine what it might feel like to arrive at different policy destinations. This is the spirit Futurescape seeks to emulate because, as Professor Susan Strange – an influential Chatham House alumnus – points out in her seminal States and Markets, we may not be able to predict the future, but we can hardly ignore it.
A major civilization boundary was crossed in 2007 when more than half the world’s populations became urban rather than rural dwellers for the first time and, despite the COVID-19 setback, cities are still seen as innovation gateways to the future. London, the home city of Chatham House, has benefitted from the bountiful cross-pollination provided by density and diversity, for the better in the main but also for the worse when it comes to air quality, traffic congestion, and consumer waste as well as income inequality.
When designing Futurescape, the question to be faced was which technologies come next? Much has been made of the so-called fourth (or is it fifth?) industrial revolution. Breakthroughs in computing power, artificial intelligence, and digitalization were once theoretical propositions but the advent of these technologies provides refreshing opportunities for the world’s denizens to respond to environmental threats and hasten sustainability efforts.
This is easier said than done, not least due to unintended consequences such as the much-maligned amount of energy used by technologies such as blockchains. And, as the Amara’s Law suggests, societies often overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run while underestimating the effect in the long run.
As the world moves into the second year of COVID-19, one question is whether high impact, low probability events such as a pandemic will blast open new trails which change the way people live for ever, just as past episodes of structural shifts did, and spur new generations of sustainable solutions. Jane Goodall recently highlighted the need for societies to adapt to a more plant-based diet following the pandemic, as Futurescape also intimates. But while emissions did take a temporary dip in early 2020, they climbed again when economies reopened.
The reality is societies may be ‘lulled into a false sense of security by smooth projections of global change’, even though upcoming trajectories are shaped by major disruptions which act as major catalysts. Adam Tooze’s Crashed laid out how the 2008 financial meltdown, and ensuing rescue efforts by the world’s governments, sowed the seeds of societal discontent which have reverberated with geopolitical consequences ever since.
Pathways and near-term milestones
As the major 2021 international meetings on biodiversity (COP15 in Kunming) and climate (COP26 in Glasgow) come ever closer, different actors from companies, financial institutions, cities, and countries are clamouring to declare their mid-century climate commitments.
But amid great uncertainty, one certainty is that delivering climate and biodiversity goals is not about picking a year far into the future and taking out an advert promising ambitious environmental action. It is about exploring different pathways and setting nearer term milestones – say for 2035 – and then accelerate the uptake of environmentally and socially sound technologies for different stakeholders to come together and put in place concrete measures to get to zero or even negative emissions.
While talk of mission-driven innovations abound, another inconvenient truth is that, as Thiel intimated, getting desirable innovations from laboratories delivered is far from straightforward even if there is a particular goal or distinct invention in mind, such as flying cars. Vaccines for COVID-19 have been notable exceptions which confounded expectation and long may such positive trends persist.
Innovations also rarely fly solo or piecemeal as they enter the galaxy of daily reality. They often come stacked on top of each another – look no further than the power of smartphone when combined with GPS and payments systems. And they co-evolve with societies.
To that end, Futurescape can play a role in enabling citizens of London and beyond to envisage and prepare for a more sustainable future, a challenge which cannot be ignored. But there are many paths to the desired destinations and so opportunities need to be shaped together.
Bernice Lee, Research Director, Futures; Founding Director, Hoffmann Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy.