This summer saw the publication of an interesting range of futures work, with different approaches and perspectives.
This is a classic scenario exercise, conducted over a long period and involving many people. It recognises the disruption and uncertainty created by the pandemic before identifying drivers of change and building three scenarios of the future. They then explore the strategic considerations and their implications for the organisation’s purpose, values and relationships.
Their drivers of global change – and the key uncertainties – are:
- Effectiveness and alliances of states: balance of states vs markets post-Covid; shift of power West to East and developed to emerging economies;
- Common risks to humanity: environmental change; existential threats from AI, pandemics
- Shift in value and values: deflationary effects of digitalisation; broader measures of well-being than GDP
- Influence of non-state actors: power of “big tech”; highly networked social movements (eg BLM, XR)
- Digital interconnectedness across borders: technology drawn into geo-politics; death of distance
- Resource management: renewables vs fossil fuels; risks and opportunities of increased activity in space
The three structured scenarios they explore (they don’t explain how they arrived at them) are:
|Multitrack World||Virtual Worlds||Vulnerable World|
|Description||The world has formed into several separate digital clusters with distinct ecosystems/economic systems and standards||Life has gone virtual on a global, interoperable digital platform run by tech companies and managed with state intervention||Humanity faces new existential risks following rapid technology-driven, progress on reducing emissions|
|How it happened||Digital decoupling led to proliferation of competing ecosystems that solidified as country clusters||Citizens demanded global connection and interoperability in virtual space||An innovation boom and government inaction resulted in the private sector leading the energy transition|
|Assumptions challenged||That globalisation will continue, or the world will become bipolar with OECD countries in the same digital ecosystem and trade bloc||That growth of virtual life will be modest and marginal, and platform companies will remain subsidiary actors in the multilateral system||That future global challenges will be similar to those of the past, and the world can muddle through with limited global cooperation|
|Dominant narrative||Different Ideas of Better Lives||Different Policies for Different Worlds||Better Collaboration for Bigger Challenges|
As one would expect from the OECD, this is a deep, solid piece of foresight work.
Imperial Tech Foresight is a futures practice at Imperial College London. Their foresight thinking “spans the possible, probable and plausible, researching the fringes of disruption and breakthrough technologies assessing their potential impact on humans and society at large.”
Their vision is for a “cleaner, greener, fairer future for us all” based on positive views of technological development. Their approach is to construct a series of optimistic “day in the life” stories relating to different technologies or applications that they have identified as leading edge developments.
Retrofitting housing for improved heat performance: heatmaps showing leakage, robotic insulation fitting, insulation material from waste, windows from carbon capture materials.
Self-aware buildings: Artificial photosynthesis technology using algae for carbon capture and storage; solar-thermal cells with advanced battery technology and micro-grids sharing energy around local communities; light-activated coatings on the windows purify pollutants from the air.
Transport and urban planning: flexible living/working; urban design encouraging cycling and walking, e-scooters and e-bikes; on-demand multimodal transport payments; mapping and sensors for a flexible EV charging network.
Fresh, local food: aquaponic farms in buildings and underground areas, allowing people to produce fish and vegetables at scale in city centres; algae-based packaging with sensors to assess freshness virtually eliminates waste.
Precision farming: sensors to improve soil quality; regenerative farming as an ecosystem service; solar-thermal desalination technology to overcome summer droughts; climate-adapted strains of plants.
Waste is wealth: a circular economy that re-purposes almost everything; organisational accountability; surplus solar energy traded or converted into hydrogen for storage.
Seagriculture: seaweed farms for food and packaging; self-cleaning systems extract plastic pollution; drones and robots to recycle waste.
Imperial took a deliberately optimistic, technology-based view. They may well be close to the peak of the Gartner hype cycle – the “peak of inflated expectations”. They pay little attention to socio-political dynamics, other than to assume a continued drive towards a greener world.
On the other hand several of the future views are not that futuristic, certainly for 2050, as many of the technologies are already being used.
Two other projects focused on the future of energy.
Shell’s “Energy Transformation” scenarios work firstly identified four fundamental conclusions about the energy market to 2050:
- Energy needs will continue to grow: the growing needs of developing countries will exceed energy efficiencies
- The energy system will be transformed – the issue is speed, depending on socio-political decisions
- Transformation will have costs and benefits: costs are manageable, and Covid presents an opportunity for change
- Action accelerators are necessary to meet climate aspirations: Society is not on course to meet Paris targets, but it is still technically possible.
Shell explored three scenarios:
“Waves – late but fast decarbonisation” is a scenario that prioritises economic recovery from the pandemic, though there are repeated waves of infection. Moving quickly but starting later “net zero” is not reached until 2100.
“Islands – late and slow decarbonisation” sees a new emphasis on nationalism, autonomy and self-sufficiency, frictions in international trade and stagnating global growth. The Paris agreement unravels, and despite incremental technological advances, “net zero” is not reached until beyond 2100.
“Sky 1.5 – fast decarbonisation now” is a more ambitious scenario where advanced economies target green technologies as an economic goal and a way of recovering from the pandemic. There is rapid and deep electrification led by renewable resources, with biofuels and hydrogen used extensively in hard to electrify sectors.
The climate implications of these are shown below. Not encouraging!
The International Energy Authority took a more prescriptive approach in their report: “Net Zero by 2050 – a roadmap for the global energy sector”. Another substantial piece of work, this report identifies key policy priorities that governments must take if the 1.5°C target is to be met. It is targeting COP26 to get agreements. But they accept that this pathway to net zero “remains narrow and extremely challenging” and “requires vast amount of investment”. Commitments made to date fall far short of what is required – net-zero pledges are not supported by policies, and even if met would imply a path to a 2.1°C rise.
The pathway includes some 400 sectoral and technology milestones. Early ones include:
- no new unabated coal plants approved
- no new coal mines approved; no more new oil or gas fields
- no new sales of fossil fuel boilers
- improvement in energy efficiency so that a 40% larger economy uses 7% less energy – a rate of improvement three times that achieved over the last two decades
- installing solar PV at a rate equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park every day
- electric vehicles to go from 5% to more than 60% of new car sales.
- providing electricity to around 785 million people who currently have no access; and providing clean cooking solutions to 2.6 billion people
Their top priority action is to “make the 2020s the decade of massive clear energy expansion”. This entails a wide range of policy initiatives, incentives and disincentives around existing technology. But it also requires innovation in heavy industry and long-distance transport, advanced batteries, hydrogen electrolysers and direct air capture and storage. Massive investment is needed in publicly financed R&D and demonstrator projects to encourage private sector research.
Above all, the pathway requires new heights of international co-operation, tackling global challenges through co-ordinated action.
The four reports demonstrate quite different approaches to thinking about the future, reflecting the organisations’ differing objectives and situations. As such they illustrate different ways you could consider your own futures needs:
- How wide is the scope? All-encompassing like OECD or focused on technology or a particular sector?
- Are you trying to persuade – like IEA – or explore alternatives?
- How qualitatively different are the futures? Both OECD and Shell scenarios are effectively “High, Medium, Low”, though with some added colour.
- Are scenarios what you want? Or “back-casting” like IEA? Or stimulating imagination like Imperial?
SAMI most often works through a set of scenarios and their implications, but we can help you think through what sort of “futures” you want to explore.
Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
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