This week’s blog post captures the results of an online workshop session of SAMI Principals, brainstorming potential radical events in 2022. We worked through a basic PESTLE format to generate a range of disturbingly likely shocks to the global system.
Workshops are a fundamental part of good futures practice. Ideas can be seeded and built upon, good ones developed, and bad ones discarded. Individual experience and learnings are played back to the broader group and further improved upon. The traditional elements of whiteboards and post-it notes transfer well to the virtual world (we like Miro, but there are plenty of others). Fact-checking can be done in real-time. Our team members specialise in geographical regions or business sectors within the firm. This experience also feeds directly into the process.
At SAMI, we use workshops as a fundamental part of our client practice. They introduce direct, lived experience into the foresight process. They also engage our clients with the range of possible futures they will have to face, beginning the process of understanding and preparing for them whilst the project is underway. We tend to find that this way, our final reports are received as groundwork for immediate action rather than being placed on the shelf.
We also use workshops internally: both behind the scenes, developing scenarios before they get incorporated in client projects or, equally importantly, brainstorming new ideas and approaches, such as in our Journey Game for the European Commission.
Our end of year workshop tends to focus on the short term future – the next year and slightly beyond. Here, we are looking for those strong and weak signals which will soon produce significant systemic changes. Here’s some of what we discussed.
Some future shocks
Geopolitically, we are closely watching both Ukraine and Taiwan. Both are potential flashpoints between nuclear-armed powers, and both have serious potential knock-on effects.
In Ukraine, following the Russian invasion of 2014 and its subsequent seizure of Crimea, a “frozen war” may thaw rapidly. Though Ukraine’s western allies are making strong diplomatic moves and readying sanctions, they have said they will not engage in combat should Russia decide to invade. NATO countries would respond with increased military spending, just in case they are next. Should a ground war develop, the immediate destabilising effects in Europe range from humanitarian catastrophe to refugee crises. European gas supply is at risk from reciprocal sanctions from the Russian side: Russia supplies 47% of EU gas, and is the largest supplier of petrol. Whilst this may be an impetus for Europe to move to renewables, the short term effect on growth, and social order, would be extreme.
America’s support for Taiwan, where President Biden has been more explicit, could lead to a very different situation – American forces directly opposing those from China. China’s military buildup has been astonishingly swift, and Taiwan is on its doorstep. The US military remains the most capable globally, but its expectations for conflict with China are poor. The US needs two things to succeed in Taiwan: domestic support and getting there. Neither is guaranteed. Taiwan would fight, but absent American support, be overwhelmed, and incorporated into China.
And what if both of these events happen at the same time?
We also wondered about the implications of a significant cyberattack. The Colonial Pipeline hack prompted higher pump prices, panic buying, and gas stations running out of fuel. It was resolved reasonably quickly but highlighted the real-world impacts of cyber attacks. The recent ransomware attack on SPAR supermarkets in the north of Englandmade us consider the implications of a significant cyberattack on, say, three supermarket chains within the UK. Covid has shown it is easy to provoke panic buying. How would the supermarkets cope? What would the government do?
Climate change features in all of our scenarios for clients. Here, we posited the impact of the early collapse of an ice shelf. We were less concerned about the immediate effect than what it would mean. The problem with tipping points is that it is too late by the time they have tipped; they are trailing indicators of a crisis. Our ice shelf collapse means the crisis is here and gone, and the second-order differential effects are kicking in. Climate change effects will inevitably continue – floods, tornadoes, and climate migration. We’d use a “futures wheel” exercise here to plot the second- and third-order changes in depth.
The midterm elections in the US may hamstring the Biden administration. Unless precedent is no guide, power will transfer back to the increasingly radical Republican party.
And in Europe, facing the first year without Merkel, presidential elections in France, rule of law issues with Hungary and Poland, and a drive for “strategic autonomy”, stability seems far away. Unity against the increasing demands of the UK as the Brexit process crawls along provides a welcome point of cross-EU strength.
Some developing trends
We maintain a regular watch on megatrends and what we know as “meta-megatrends” – our internal brief on the range of megatrends studied by others. You can find our current brief here.
We see the development of biotechnology as an unambiguous good that has come out of the pandemic. The sheer speed with which the virus was sequenced and then a vaccine produced is astonishing. As Nature says, “The speedy approach used to tackle SARS-CoV-2 could change the future of vaccine science.” James Carthew at QuotedData says, “The industry is in something of a golden age as new advances in technology, our understanding of the genome and our ability to manipulate genes open up new territory.” A slight niggle, though – when will this technology move out of the lab and into the garage? In other words, when will it be possible for bad actors to manipulate viruses themselves? After all, it’s already happening with CRISPr. DNA sequencing could “home-brew lethal pathogens like smallpox”; what we fear is the manufacture of novel viruses outside of government laboratories.
The widening gap between rich and poor, or between the megarich and the rest of us, is a concern. In the US, “the top 1% now own more wealth than the bottom 92%”. This gap – between landlord and renter, bourgeois and peasant, assets versus poverty, is getting out of control. The children of generation rent will not inherit since, for the first time, their parents will have no property to leave them. There will be consequences as political parties align themselves with the have-nots – and the haves do their best to preserve their wealth and the power which stems from it. There will be a tipping point when the majority have enough of the few taking all the assets. Whilst we are not there yet, it feels as if pressure is building up.
Having suffered a brief setback, we may see a resurgence of those forces which led to Trump, Brexit, Bolsonaro and Duterte. Some troubling signs of a return to 1950’s social attitudes are evident. In the US, the challenges to Roe vs Wade are coupled with assaults on anti-discrimination laws. In the UK, projected reforms to the human rights act aim to counter “wokery and political correctness.” In conjunction with the policing and crime bill, the UK administration seeks to control public protest, limit the rights of refugees and others, as well as reducing the power of the judiciary.
And that’s just a sample
We hope that 2022 brings you peace, joy and success. As the above makes clear, there are opportunities for all three. There are also many opportunities for their counterparts. SAMI’s work is about understanding the future to prepare for it; we look forward to helping you do exactly that in the new year.
Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
Future-prepared firms outperform the average by 33% higher profitability and 200% higher growth. SAMI Consulting brings 30 years of experience delivering foresight, futures and scenario planning – enabling companies and organisations make “robust decisions in uncertain times”. Find out more www.samiconsulting.co.uk.
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