Opportunities and risks for 2023

Opportunities and risks for 2023

Last December we reported on our thoughts about the coming year. As we review those, and think forward another twelve months, we note that futures thinking is not forecasting. Generally we look beyond the immediate news cycle by reflecting on major underlying trends and other “weak signals”. We don’t judge our effectiveness on whether a specific prediction was correct or not. Instead, the goal is to capture the range of possible futures in key areas, and so help people plan for less likely events and avoid surprises.

On the radar

Major events that we successfully covered in our analysis of potential futures included the seismic Russian invasion of Ukraine. The impacts on gas supplies and prices, the solid support of NATO and increased defence spending (but refusal to engage in combat), an increased push for renewables, and the impact on growth were among the consequences we identified. We didn’t do a full Futures Wheel analysis that would have also brought out the impact on grain supplies and famine risks in Africa, the drawing into NATO of Sweden and Finland, and effects on Greenhouse Gas commitments.

We also flagged up the other major global geo-political concern of China’s ambitions in Taiwan. The issue simmered all year long, but fortunately did not escalate into a full-blown assault.

A similarly sized elephant, hard to overlook, was the climate crisis. Here we were particularly concerned with irreversible “tipping points”. This remains a concern of many scientists: one study in September identified nine different tipping points. In 2022, the lack of progress on further emissions cuts at COP27 had brought forward these concerns.

The US mid-term elections were a “known unknown” in 2022. We flagged that the typical swing against the incumbent might not happen – and that largely proved to be the case. We also noted the pressure on Roe v Wade, which was duly overturned, even though a majority of the US population was in favour of keeping it.

What surprised us in 2022

Perhaps the most remarkable and unexpected event in 2022 – at least here in the UK – was the chaos in the Conservative party. Pressure had been mounting on Boris Johnson over “partygate”, but he mostly seemed to have weathered it. Even when he was fined and an investigation opened into whether he had misled Parliament, it seemed that the affair would just rumble on at a low-level. But suddenly discontent among Tory MPs reached a level where resignations from cabinet forced him out of office. To have forecast what would happen next, with Liz Truss becoming PM and throwing everything up in the air would have been beyond Nostradamus himself. Although we are now in a period of relative stability, the implications will ripple on throughout 2023.

The scale and duration of popular public protests in both China and Iran were also surprising. The fact that in both cases they forced the regime into backing down a little was even more so. Whether these foreshadow more radical change is more debateable as both regimes have a strong sense of self-preservation.

Looking forward – ongoing trends and embedded issues

We maintain a regular watch on megatrends or drivers of change. An updated presentation is now available and a new Working Paper will be published shortly.

2023 is widely forecast as a year of recession. The current wave of strikes is set to continue even if inflation does begin to fall back from its peaks. By the end of 2023, the Government’s reaction to the economic situation will have set the terms for the upcoming General Election.

An ageing population will continue adding to the challenges of the NHS and care systems whilst undermining the tax and pension balance.

Globally, economic pressures, ongoing geo-political uncertainty and increasing demands for self-sufficiency will lead to major re-engineering of the supply chain.
On the positive side, technological advances will continue to multiply. AI in particular looks set to become mainstream. The recent launch of ChatGPT from OpenAI caused a stir, despite some concerns about its limitations. The breakthrough in fusion technology promises real change, when energy is so key to the health of nations and the world. Last year we flagged biotechnology as the coming disruptor, with concerns about nefarious uses. That remains on our radar.

We also worried about cyberattacks; despite the Ukraine war these have not multiplied substantially, but the threat remains.

Known unknowns for 2023

Implications of geo-political uncertainty:

  • Even if the outright hostilities in Ukraine come to an end in 2023, which is by no means certain, the ramifications will continue to echo, with effects on the global economy yet to be fully worked through. Recent attacks within Russia itself could herald an escalation that leads to even more extreme and dangerous outcomes.
  • China’s future seems less clear than ever. Increasing internal pressure on President Xi – that has already led to him changing course on Covid policy – could lead to him feeling the need to create a distraction and bring forward threats to Taiwan.
  • There will be elections in Turkey. How disruptive to the stability of the region will these be?
  • Lula da Silva takes over the reins from Bolsonaro in Brazil. How radical will he actually prove to be in office?

We can be fairly sure that 2023 will see more extreme weather events, floods, fire and droughts. What we don’t know is where and how severe these will be. Will there be loss of life on the scale of the Pakistani floods? Perhaps a major incident in a Western city – Sydney burnt to the ground, New York flooded New Orleans style – will radically change the agenda.

Migration is not going to stop – the unknown is just how much, when and where. If anything, war and climate change will increase the numbers seeking sanctuary. How will Western nations react? Repressive attempts become increasingly difficult to sustain, and the economic benefits of more youthful, enterprising people may yet bring a change of mood. Public attitudes to immigration may be softening, but this is not being reflected politically as yet.

What do we “know” that may not be true?

Japan is stable. But as the remarkable coup plot in Germany showed, nowhere is immune from sudden shocks. What would happen if extremists (left or right) stormed to power in Tokyo?

We’re over the pandemic. For now, maybe, but various threats have not gone away and the range remains unknowable. One of current concerns is a “Covid for crops” – massive disruption of food supplies caused by new plant pandemics.

Islamic terrorism has gone away. While many argue that the growth of right-wing terrorism is of more concern, in 2018/19 (the last year for which data is available) 60% of terrorist-related arrests were classed as “international”.

Hype

Technological advances are amazing, but often take longer to become realised than expected, if at all. From Amazon drones to flying taxis (a SAMI favourite bugbear), some scepticism is often justified. We’ll look into this more next month.

Our work over the last couple of years on modelling a Horizon Zero into the standard “Three Horizons” model has shown us how key an understanding of yesterday and today can be. Futures thinking is in many ways about “the seeds of the future in the present” so we will keep our eyes on that present as the year progresses.

We will be back in January to help you understand both the short- and long-term future, in its risks and opportunities. After a remarkably intense year, not least in the UK and Europe, we hope that your short-term includes a joyful holiday season, and a successful, peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Image by Markéta (Machová) Klimešová from Pixabay
Image by Markéta (Machová) Klimešová from Pixabay

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

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

Achieve more by understanding what the future may bring. We bring skills developed over thirty years of international and national projects to create actionable, transformative strategy. Futures, foresight and scenario planning to make robust decisions in uncertain times. Find out more at www.samiconsulting.co.uk

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Featured images by Markéta (Machová) Klimešová from Pixabay 

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