EC SAFIRE Scenarios Sample: Life in Oak

EC SAFIRE Scenarios Sample: Life in Oak

This is the second in a series of blogs based on a report to the European Commission by SAMI and a consortium of partners, IFOK, Cadmus, and Teknologi Radet, to develop a system for using foresight to develop EU R&I policy.

The first blog described four global scenarios for 2040. This one looks in more detail at one global scenario – the one that most closely reflects the current state of the world.  The third in the series will describe how the scenarios can be kept up to date.

After that, a series of ten blogs will look in turn at scenarios for each of the regions covered by the study.  The ten regions are:

  • China;
  • Japan, South Korea & Taiwan;
  • ASEAN;
  • India & its Neighbours;
  • Australia & New Zealand;
  • Russia & Central Asia;
  • The Middle East & North Africa;
  • Sub-Saharan Africa;
  • Central & South America; and
  • United States, Canada & Mexico.

The Report is available to download here.

The Global Scenarios

The previous blog (see link above) described the process by which we developed the four global scenarios. This is how the global scenarios look in diagram form.  The “tree” identities match neatly the different characteristics of the four scenarios.

In late November 2019, the European Commission ran a workshop, at which experts in each of the 10 regions, along with officials from the Commission itself, looked at the global scenarios, and the impact of each scenario on their own region.  Of the ten regions, nine suggested that the starting point was in the Oak scenario, either  within the quadrant, or on its margins.

Two months after the workshop, it became clear that the Covid-19 pandemic was spreading around the world. In terms of the project, this necessitated an update of the scenarios to encompass the pandemic, and the emerging evidence of its consequences.  The global response, which included travel restrictions, disruptions to trade and supply chains, and differing approaches to managing the pandemic, served mainly to reinforce the influence of the Oak Scenario.

What Does Oak Mean?

Axes: protectionism and focus on business as usual

In summary, our report to the European Commission described Oak as follows.

Social and political systems fractured along fault lines of power, privilege, wealth, and bias. The Covid-19 pandemic reinforces this. Autocratic leaders have tightened their grip on structures of governance. Vladimir Putin manoeuvres Russia’s Constitutional Court into amending term limits, enabling him to run for a fifth and even a sixth term as president. In Hungary’s ‘coronavirus coup’, the Hungarian parliament grants Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree for an indefinite time, and declared new penalties on speech and breaking quarantine. In Brazil, Joao Bolsonaro reinforces populist fervour by focusing on the economy over epidemiology.

In the first five years after the pandemic, most countries are simply struggling to address massive unemployment and the homelessness and food insecurity that followed.  Lockdown surveillance grows as an overall restriction on people’s movement and rights of assembly.  Fears that incomers might trigger additional infection fuels anti-migration sentiments. An abrupt end to remittances from migrant workers to poor relatives in their home countries heightened poverty and desperation. 

National digital IDs are widely deployed – many countries use them for identification, driver’s licenses, virus and infection tracking, and ration cards. Social credit in turn opened or closed access to resources and rights. 

In 2040 populist political movements have kept many authoritarian leaders firmly in power, backed by wealthy supporters. Inequity has increased both internationally and internally – big data-hoarding companies have concentrated wealth and digital power mechanisms in the hands of a few. 

Signals of Oak

  • Increased protectionism focus on economic interests, and moves to gain greater control of supply chains. We have seen trade used as a proxy weapon by China in its dealings with Australia. In Europe, Brexit has opened up fissures over trade between the EU and the UK.
  • Increased nationalism and suppression of minorities within nations. Ethnic, tribal and cultural conflicts are seen in the Middle East, in Africa, and in North Western China, and may become more intense due to economic and environmental pressures.
  • Hostility to foreigners has seen conflict in some regions (for example migrant workers in parts of Africa), and repatriations in others, as controls on foreign workers become tighter. Some states have used migrants as a weapon of asymmetric warfare, eg Belarus and Turkey.
  • There is an increasing use of technology for enhanced surveillance of citizens, and this technology is transferable from those states which lead in its development to allies and trading partners. “Good” citizens may be rewarded with social credits, and “bad” ones restricted in access to services and allowances.
  • R&D may become focused more strongly on defence and security, for example the development of new generation missile systems in some states, and the adaptation of drones and other technologies in those with less R&D capacity.
  • Conflict over natural resources, eg Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the Nile, or SE Asian states over the waters of the Mekong, is likely to become more widespread, for example where water tables dry up, or river flows reduce.
  • Under oak, there is likely to be a diminished role for international institutions, such as the UN and its agencies, and informal ones, such as the WEF.

Drawbacks of Oak

  • Greater risk of conflict – possibly accidental in origin, eg India and China frontier, or over water and other resources.
  • Economic inefficiency as a result of protectionism is likely to lead to reduced (and/or unsustainable) growth, and reduced progress in developing new and greener technologies.
  • Reduced cooperation in addressing the key strategic issues such as medical and other research, may inhibit the resolution of the current pandemic and hamstring responses to future ones.
  • Protectionism and local conflicts are highly likely to obstruct action to prevent and mitigate global heating.
  • Failure to combine expertise in research and development, amplifies the risk of ineffective science: such as vaccines are less effective, or failures in food production.
  • Consolidation of ethnic and other grievances within nation states, will be a potential source of further conflict, and lead to further migration pressures.

As the bullet points above illustrate, Oak is not immutable.  It will magnify problems and challenges that demand different ways of thinking, and greater collaboration even between bitter rivals.  The statement of intent by China and the USA at the Cop26 in Glasgow was perhaps a “weak signal” of this: the world’s regions will have to find ways of working together to address global problems such as climate change, even if current economic pressures and the Covid-19 pandemic, are currently pushing the World towards Oak.  Oak trees seem long-lived and immutable.  But they can be destroyed by a storm almost in an instant.

In the next blog, we will look at ways of using the scenarios, and how the world, or individual regions might move between scenario borders, by factoring in new information, reflecting new drivers of change, and wild card events.

Written by David Lye, SAMI Fellow

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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