Every four years, the US National Intelligence Center produces its Global Trends report. The 7th edition, published this year, reflects on the way global trends and dynamics are creating “a more contested world”.
This is a substantial piece of work that deserves serious consideration. The core report contains many important and interesting sets of data. So I will be examining its conclusions in a series of four blogposts that follow the structure of the report. This first one is an overview, and will be followed by Structural Forces, Emerging Dynamics and Scenarios for 2040. There is also a set of Regional forecasts.
As with most scenario work, the intent of the authors is “to help policymakers and citizens see what may lie beyond the horizon and prepare for an array of possible futures”. Aware of potential US-bias and blind spots, the project consulted widely. Those involved included civil society organizations in Africa, business leaders in Asia, foresight practitioners in Europe and Asia, and environmental groups in South America.
Naturally, this year’s report is considerably impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The authors compare the scale of its impact with the attacks of September 11th. But before addressing that the report examines more STRUCTURAL FORCES likely to affect the future. Unsurprisingly, these are very similar to the “megatrends” identified by many organisations which SAMI summarised in our “Meta-megatrends” document.
They begin with demographics where they note that over the next 20 years the global population slows and rapidly ages. Some countries, in Latin America, South Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa, benefit from an increase in working-age population, creating the potential for a demographic dividend. These will only be realised if there is continued improvement in human development – health, education and household prosperity. The report is concerned that recent progress will be difficult to sustain. Differing levels of success will increase unequal economic opportunities within and between countries and create more pressure over migration.
The second major structural force examined is the environment and climate change. They note that the effects of more frequent extreme weather events will fall disproportionately on poorer countries. The costs and benefits of adaptation and mitigation will not align, so co-ordinated global action will remain difficult.
Several economic trends, such as increasing debt burdens, are thought to reduce flexibility in several countries. Global platform corporations are increasingly likely to try to exert influence in political and social arenas, but may face a backlash of regulation. Continued GDP growth in Asian countries is thought unlikely to bring them up to match the US and Europe.
Technology is seen as continuing to be “used, spread, and then discarded at ever increasing speeds around the world”. Despite offering the potential to mitigate many problems – such as climate change – the authors are concerned that technology development could create new tensions and threats to economic, military, and societal security.
These four forces relate closely to SAMI’s “Six drivers of change”. We split “technology” into digital and biotech, and we had a cultural, societal attitudes driver to capture different generational perspectives.
The next section addresses three EMERGING DYNAMICS – interacting and intersecting forces.
Their first is societal forces – akin to, but different from SAMI’s “societal attitudes” driver. Here it is taken to mean a collapse in optimism about growth and instead a retreat into like-minded, sometimes populist, group identities. This undermines civic nationalism and increases volatility.
The second is the state and its role. Increasingly empowered and more demanding populations are putting governments under greater pressure at a time when they have fewer resources. “This widening gap portends more political volatility, erosion of democracy, and expanding roles for alternative providers of governance”.
Finally at the level of the International system, a range of factors lead the authors to expect greater competition between China and a Western coalition led by the United States. Other powers will identify areas where they may exert influence. Overall they see a more conflict-prone and volatile geopolitical environment, with failing multilateralism, and a breakdown of transnational institutional arrangements.
This section also addresses the future of terrorism.
The structural forces and emerging dynamics are brought together to create five GLOBAL SCENARIOS. These are built out of considerations of three questions:
- How severe are the looming global challenges?
- How do states and non-state actors engage in the world, including focus and type of engagement?
- What do states prioritise for the future?
Renaissance of Democracies describes a future where the US and allies enable technology to improve quality of life around much of the world, easing social division and increasing trust in democratic structures. At the same time China and Russia atrophy as innovation is stifled.
A World Adrift is a future in which multinational institutions fall into decay, China increases its influence, but fails to take global leadership and major issues such as climate change remain unaddressed.
Competitive co-existence is a balance of economic power between the West and China, each recognising the need to collaborate on trade and other issues. Potential for open conflict is reduced, though challenges of long-tern climate change still remain.
Separate silos describes a world of political groupings looking to be self-sufficient, with fewer global supply chains and separate cyber domains. Vulnerable developing countries are caught in the middle and global issues scarcely addressed.
Tragedy and mobilisation. A global food catastrophe caused by climate change stimulates a concerted response revitalising multinational institutions. Rich countries help poorer ones and begin to address climate change and other global concerns, rolling out high-tech solutions across the world.
As always, the scenarios are not forecasts, expected to come true. Instead they highlight the wide range of possible outcomes and the need for flexible, robust and adaptive policies to deal with them.
Returning to the question of the COVID-19 FACTOR, the report examines its effects on global trends, accelerating or decelerating them.
In Economic terms, the pandemic has increased debt levels and disrupted global trade. The report suggests that governments will struggle with debt for years and that new supply chains well become fixed.
Nationalism and Polarisation were building before 2020, but have been accentuated by restrictions on travel, vaccine supply problems and the search for scapegoats.
Existing inequality has been exposed and deepened. The digital divide was highlighted and could spur efforts to improve internet access worldwide.
Governance is strained. In open societies trust in authorities has been challenged; in repressive ones, leaders had taken the opportunity to remove liberties.
Failing international co-operation. Bodies like WHO and UN have been scarred and failed to overcome protectionist inclinations. On the plus side there could be a reaction against this with new reforms.
Elevating non-state actors: Gates foundation and private sector pharma have been the main leaders through the pandemic and represent a better approach to future challenges.
Reversals to human progress on health and education are anticipated because of budget challenges.
Overall the authors lean towards the pessimistic – maybe this is a function of their role, alerting the Government to potential risks. There is no suggestion of “build back better”, “Green New Deal” or “we’re only safe when everywhere is safe”, though there is a nod to the EU’s economic rescue package and a suggestion this could improve integration.
The report ends the section with a manifesto for futurists everywhere:
“We must be ever vigilant, asking better questions, frequently challenging our assumptions, checking our biases, and looking for weak signals of change. We need to expect the unexpected and apply the lessons of this pandemic to our craft in the future.”
Future blogposts will explore the NIC’s analysis in each of the sections in more detail.
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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