Report on the Future

Neon sign saying - This is the sign you've been looking for.
Back in the 1991, Faith Popcorn published ‘The Popcorn Report‘ in which she predicted how the first world would live through the 90s and beyond. I was thrilled because the book resonated with me. I could see many of the predictions were already germinating back in the 1980s. New Zealand had become a more leisured society because of unprecedented numbers of unemployed people – the government manipulated the numbers to deal with inflation. Side note: here we are in 2023 and perversely, the government is using the same techniques attempt to deal with inflation.

That’s the topic for discussion today – how things go around and my predictions for the future. What will society look like 50 years on. Hey, if it’s good enough for Faith Popcorn to think about the future, it’s good enough for me.

  • Green Living: The emphasis on environmental consciousness and sustainability is likely to grow. We will focus on sustainable practices, eco-friendly products, and renewable energy solutions. Societies will work towards mitigating climate change. Partly this will come from citizen-based initiatives like tree planting campaigns here in New Zealand. Society will respond to extreme events – droughts, floods, fires – as they change the way we live.

    Another catalyst will be the costs of materials and labour. They will be such that people will only want to do things the once. The days of buying land-fill quality materials from China will decline as the cost of shipping limited life (and life-limiting) materials continues to increase.

    Environmental conservation will mean we can expect to see landfills themselves being mined for materials. Already sewage settling ponds are drained and mined for gold and other minerals. Scrap metal will be recycled and repurposed as it always has, but dwindling resources costs and ease of access will be an even higher priority. Juice and milk boxes are being recycled into wallboards. We will come to expect more products to be repurposed, recycled, reinvented.

    Politically and commercially, climate action will be big business. Protest actions in all its forms from consumer choice/rejection campaigns through to old school marches and petitions will continue to jab those in power. Small Pacific nations and indigenous people everywhere will become increasingly respected as their traditional wisdom and relationships with the earth and climate are finally heard and understood.
  • Digital Integration: Technology will continue to play a central role in our lives, with increased integration of AI, augmented reality, and virtual reality into daily activities, including education, work, and entertainment. AI will cease being ‘gee whiz’ and start being the norm – in much the same way that we think nothing of electricity heating, cooling, and lighting our homes.

    There’ll be a counter response as people suddenly delight in ‘handmade’ arts as they do today, responding to mass production by collecting hand bound books, calligraphy, hot glass, and ceramics. AI art prompts already are styling in classical oil paintings, retro, film noir, and anime. As we begin to see AI generated art as a cliché, the gifted fine artists will continue to find patrons.

    Augmented reality is likely to become off the gamer’s machines and on to our grandparent’s giant screens. The notions of vacations that we take today (covid-willing) will be replaced by high resolution experiences. Why struggle through the expensive and exhausting travel processes when that can be streamed into the comfort of our homes? Sure, there’ll still be the desire to travel, but the environmental risks and costs will dampen the enthusiasm of many. Who wants to go downtown (or worse, to a mall) to try on clothing when you can try on the custom-made clothing at home? And needless to say, the sex industry will be quick to find ways to redefine relationships.
  • Health and Wellness: As people prioritise their well-being, trends in personalised medicine, tele-health, mental health support, and wearable health technology are likely to expand. AI will be huge in the health and well-being space. Faster and more exacting diagnoses informed by a comprehensive research across all languages will make a phenomenal change to how treatments are planned and implemented. There will be more precise medication informed by bio-monitors.

    One of the current difficulties for people dealing with mental illness is accurately feeding back to their psychiatrist what impact the drugs are having on them. The same is true for any patient with diminished capabilities. If anyone is on more than four different drugs in a day there’s an increased chance of falls. In the future the AI-based analyst will review the drug uptake against bio-marker baselines and refine the volumes and timing so the minimum volume of drugs required to be effective will be used. Pain will be managed by the patient’s biofeedback and will allow for placebos to be used in a measured way.

    People will focus on lifestyle eating – gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, blue-zone, mediterranean, and the vast range of supplements that have proliferated. No rainforest plant left behind, no meteor mineral, no water taken from a sacred well. We all want to live long lives. There will be more discussion about how living a long life is not the same thing as living a long, vibrant, happy life. People will be able to end their lives in dignified and painless ways, and this will become more socially acceptable.

    As the globe warms there’s a good chance of new viral-based pandemics and/or antibiotic resistant bacterial plagues. There are viruses locked up in the Arctic circle permafrost. As the thawing progresses the viruses become exposed and potentially available. The same could be true from space ice or as material from meteors is returned to earth.
  • Urbanisation and Smart Cities: Urban areas will evolve into smarter, more efficient cities, with advancements in transportation, energy efficiency, and digital infrastructure enhancing the quality of life for residents. Key word – sustainability. The costs of materials is already prohibitive and labour costs will continue to spiral.

    Retrofitting cities with slow drainage (spongey cities) in high water zones will become an increasing priority as flooding events become more common. Alternatively, in high heat zones, passive cooling and moisture will be designed and integrated into the architecture. For domestic accommodation passive sustainable will the essential – strong, warm (or cool), dry. Architectural aesthetics will change.

    Roads will be rethought as we move away from fossil fuels and into renewable sources of energy. High speed, luxuriously appointed trains will become more widespread as air travel begins to price itself out of contention. Within cities roads will become refocussed for transport essential services, rather than routes for commuters.

    Big cities will become even more fragmented into territories with the haves and have nots polarised over access to data, energy, services, and food. Citizen based initiatives will include (as they always have) repurposing resources and growing of food in “public” areas – sides of of the road, parks, roof tops, or whatever resources people find available. The techniques and technology of how to DIY will be shared via whatever social media exists at the time.
  • Remote Work and Collaboration: Flexible work arrangements and remote collaboration will persist, potentially transforming traditional office structures and influencing where people choose to live. I expect AI to be transformative in terms of the kind of work that gets done, and the notion of the 40-hour work will be something kids will ask their grandparents about.

    The call for conversations about two-three day work weeks should be on the agenda, along with work from anywhere. As when we had the covid pandemic offices will become where you are working from. The bedoffice or the conservaoffice. Working from home isn’t for everyone, but as the price of fossil fuels go up it’ll be interesting to see how keen people are to pay for driving themselves for an hour or more to work.

    Work will become more collaborative – job sharing or adaptable in ways we haven’t discovered as yet. The jobs most likely to be soon affected by AI are the reading intensive jobs. Jobs with ambiguity build in like plumbing and the trades and emergency rescue type roles are going to be harder to replace with a generative AI.

    Creatives will live and work from where they can they can. They’ll make lifestyle choices and move to a far corner of Hawaii or a suburb of Stockholm, or a seashore cabin in New Zealand. They probably spent time working in Sydney, London, Austin, or any other centre, but they’ll make sustainability choices and retreat from the rat race.
  • Future of Capitalism: The future of capitalism is questionable. It’ll exist, but not in the form that would be recognisable in the 1950s. We will have conscious capitalism where business owners do make a profit, but will be informed by ethical considerations and social responsibility.

    We can expect a more inclusive economy – gender, age, and thanks to technology, location. People will be more able to live in one country and work in another. The tech-powered economy will continue to operate where conditions exist. Business owners might be attracted by snow slopes, golf courses, or other tech businesses. The only resource they can’t find somewhere else is the people, and they can be be attracted if the conditions are right.

    Worker empowerment will continue to be an increasingly critical aspect of doing business. As jobs are replaced by AI keeping key staff members will be critical. They will be demanding labour rights, fair wages, and fair labour practices. Or they will go elsewhere, or worse, take the knowledge and start their own businesses.

    The circular economy will be huge. Consumers will have increased expectation that there will be reduced plastic waste and increased recycled (and recyclable) packaging and content. Zero waste will be a demand. Companies will want that as well because costs will make alternative prohibitive. The entire supply chain and production will operate as sustainably as possible.
  • Biotechnology and Genetics: Advancements in biotechnology will lead to breakthroughs in areas like gene editing, regenerative medicine, and disease prevention. Accompanying that will be a growth in the importance of ethics and questions about what is the essential nature of humanity. There will be a widening between North and South, the haves and have nots.

    All it takes is money. We’re already seeing that kidneys from genetically edited pigs are showing promise for transplantation into humans. Once this has become mainstream it will save the lives of thousands able to afford the surgery. Humans are replacing and rebuilding themselves in ways that a generation before was just science fiction.

    Disease prevention resulting from gene reviews is a well established technology, and I expect it to become enhanced in the future. AI will be used to analyse the millions of documents and find patterns we can’t find manually. We can expect to see rare genetic diseases in humans and domesticated animals to become even rarer.

    We will have ways to address antibiotic resistance, to limit the impact of invasion species, and make of food crops more resistant to climate change.

    Indigenous communities will defensive of their genes (either personal or plants) being harvested for commercial use – or any use beyond their control. Corporates can expect to confront legal and moral challenges – the genes are not their to appropriate and profit from at will.

  • War Toys: Sadly, humans will continue to specialise in hateful behaviours. I don’t see the US economy decoupling from the production of war, I don’t see the major world economies being far behind. As resources dwindle there will be a strategic need to get food and water in the cheapest way possible. I see climate change as the catalyst for regional unrest (see also: Arab Spring), and that the larger powers will take the opportunities to jostle for position.

    Without doubt there’ll be a fine selection of ever more vile weapons using technology to get an edge. Robot dogs, biological weapons, drones, specialised firearms – all implemented by personnel trained to have the least amount of humanity possible. As now there will be landmines to cause main and kill civilians – collateral damage – while the manufacturers’ shareholders get rich. Nothing new there.

    AI and crypto currencies will play their role in levelling up. Cyber Warfare against countries and corporations will grow in importance. Hackers will be recruited and they will train the highest bidders. Digital conflicts will be supported by augmented reality and the whole process will feel more like today’s first person shooter computer games. Cybersecurity, cyber attack trends, digital threats, and cyber defence will be growth industries. The fantasy of a dishevelled, angst-ridden genius saving the earth (or the United States) by some quick python script over a linux engine really will just be in the movies. It is now.

    Geo-strategic shifts will ebb and flow as ever, but I believe climate change will be a key lever in determining whether a country is important or not. Already places like New Zealand find interest from the rich northerners who want to secure a bolt hole. They bring their money funded influence and affect local policies and property values without making meaningful contributions to the local societies. Global relations, political tensions, international relations, and global power shifts will continue to give the media headlines of death and destruction, millions of displaced people, cultures disrupted and destroyed. It’s not going to be pretty.

    We can expect more (much more) hybrid warfare. If that’s a new term for you, it’s happening all around you, right now. It’s like the four riders of the apocalypse with cellphones and cocktails. Conventional warfare (probably a thing of the past now) coupled with a heady blend of political warfare, irregular warfare, cyber warfare whizzed up with influencing methods such as fake news, diplomacy, lawfare and foreign electoral intervention. Everything all at once, asymmetrical. It’s a symptom of the fragmentation of attention we all experience.

    It won’t be limited to international conflicts. We can expect to see more slow burning civil wars within national borders similar to the example we’ve seen in the USA with Donald Trump from about 2017. Love him or hate him, only history will note whether he was/is right or wrong. What we’re witnessing is a slow burning hybrid civil war, and well beyond my predictive skills to figure out how it will end. My vote is it will be ugly, but I hope I’m wrong there.

    We can expect to see a build up of Space Militarisation. If you’re after a location to have a war, space has a lot going for it. There’s not the damage to civilians and infrastructure as there is on earth. The lack of oxygen means a small hole anywhere on a spacesuit is fatal. A shotgun isn’t a first choice for earth-bound warfare, but in space, old school might be effective. No gravity, no friction, the pellets will go on in space for some (long) time. So war in space. Of course, humans wage war – it is one of the key identifiers of our species. Whoever gets to Mars first, whichever country sets up the first permanent lunar site will think they own the moon. And that will light the first fuse.

    Finally, Pandora opened the chest and Hope flooded out. I believe there will continue to be people who believe in kindness, peace, and diplomacy. How peace diplomacy and global peace initiatives will look and how we make them happen I believe will be largely unchanged from today. People will step forward from all walks of life and beg and plead and even die to bring peace to warring nations. Peaceful and graceful conflict resolution might be more common as climate turbulence makes war impractical. The enemy will be climate itself. I fear that’s wishful thinking. Humans will still be warriors.

  • Consumer Ethics: Consumers will increasingly support brands that align with their ethical values, driving companies to adopt transparent and socially responsible practices. Some companies will try green washing, but if they get found out the consumer wrath is swift.

    At times government intervention will be required to curb the brand excesses, and at times simply eliminate the brands entirely. A current example of that is how the New Zealand government has taken steps over a few years to eliminate all tobacco based products. Without government intervention it would never have happened because the tobacco brands sponsored sporting and arts events, and made public events possible in countless ways. The people determined the price of cancer was too high and alternative funding models were developed.

    In similar fashion, single use plastic carrier bags have been eliminated. Plastic drink bottles will be another priority. At times it’s hard for citizen lead initiatives to get traction. One campaign that has started to make real change here has been the predator-free initiative. Backyard hunters are trapping rats, mice, and other predators. And yes, there are tense conversations about cats and dogs.
  • Ageing Population: As the population ages, innovations in elder care, assisted living, and technologies that improve the quality of life for seniors will become more prominent. Not before time. Many seniors in the west are living in cruise ship-like settings that are isolating and are little better than expensive, albeit miserable, waiting rooms for God.

    Over the next 30 years the ageing population will be unlike the current residents of in care facilities. They will have an expectation of technology working for them – after all, the people starting to enter the care facilities will have been born in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. Nana might still ring the grandkids to fix the remote control get the tv to work, but the grandchildren might be the voice activated AI.

    It’s taken a ridiculously long time for baby boomers to figure out no-one is going to be there to look after them if they don’t put their own infrastructure in place. Unfortunately the pass it off in the way that some (probably unrecorded) people had to clean up after Woodstock is coming unstuck in the West. Slowly things are improving and integrating a sectors of our society together such as putting kindergartens into the same campus space as care centres is starting.

    We will rediscover what it means to be family as we become more inclusive in our outlook. There’s a market for genuinely LGBTQIA2S+ friendly facilities (pro tip: it takes more than a rainbow sticker on the front door), there’s a market for care facilities framed in more indigenous understanding of communities.

    Hopefully there will be more humane facilities for the “yelderly” – younger people aged 20-60 who through accidents, genetic disorders, stroke, or medical misadventure need the same care required for some elderly people. Everyone needs congenial and constructive accommodation that in some case extends beyond the essential strong, warm, and dry.

    Many older people find themselves painted into an accessibility corner because their homes are inaccessible. This makes ageing in place – the kind of thing our ancestors did before the neoliberal approach to capitalism – an impossibility. Inter-generational living will return (as if it ever really went away in many part of the world) driven by the costs of building and living, and just a desire for more convivial living relationships. All it takes is for policies to be looked at with different lenses – sustainable-focussed building standards that require an accessible bathroom, bedroom, and entrance in every new home, and renovation permit standards to include accessibility as a core criteria.
  • Education Transformation: Education models will evolve with online learning, personalised curricula, and lifelong learning becoming the norm. It is the norm now, but it could be so much better, for example, immersive language learning (from home) in an augmented reality space.

    Education will have dramatic and perhaps even traumatic changes for parents, academic staff, and students. Essentially academic success up until today has been determined by your ability to read quickly and remember under exam conditions. The people who master reading with a high degree of skill learn to use libraries, do research, and if they can master exams will progress through the academic system. All of that started to unravel by the end of 2022 as the first of the working generative AI became available to the public. Anybody with a device and data can now access the accumulated wisdom of millions of hours of work. No individual can read that fast, and now, there’s no need for that.

    Today anyone with a device and data can participate in learning from the global elite universities usually for free, or at a nominal cost compared with the traditional models of attending on campus. There will still be people who want to attend in person and pay thousands for the privilege, but increasingly the environmental and financial costs of this will make the process socially questionable.

    The smart schools will be literally smart schools. Aristocratic tutoring will be revived and rebadged, and your AI agent from Harvard or Oxford will start drawing the genius out of privileged children from a tender age. Time is critical in fully developing the protégé. Potentially enlightened governments will supply all youngsters with an AI. The personalised tutor will bring out the best in the child, by continually developing their strengths and talents, with the patience and attention that no classroom teacher can devote.

    Less well governed populations will fund the education of their children much the way as is done in the USA today, with state approved AI suitably filtered to ensure children are not exposed to what the state deems dangerous ideas. Hacking the AI teaching bots is likely to become at least a cottage industry. Winning the fight for the child’s mind is the stuff colonisation was made for.

    But before that happens en masse, child care, socialisation, safety, supervision, and entertainment – roles that schools fill now – will have to be reconsidered. If parents have to go back to fulfilling those roles then there will need to be widespread rethinking around employment.
  • Space Exploration: The space industry see significant growth, with increased focus on lunar and Mars exploration, asteroid mining, and space tourism. Space tourism is unlikely to be for the masses, but well funded and hardy explorers will travel with cameras and beam back their discoveries to our living rooms. As an earlier generation were riveted to radio and television during lunar landings, we will be as excited about exploring the landscapes of Mars, Io’s lava lakes, or Ganymede’s underground saltwater ocean.

    We’ll become focussed on the near earth meteors, first for the risks they might pose (although if we believe in Hollywood they’re only a hazard to New York), but secondly for the convenience of being able to mine them, even potentially to set up processing facilities either on the meteor itself or transported to the lunar based facilities.

    Before that happens, mass production of affordable fuel will be required, and that might take rather longer to achieve.

In conclusion: This is work in progress. If I had to sum up the master attributes needed for the future I’d say creativity, kindness, collaboration, innovation, courage, and resilience. To be fair, I think they’ve always been what we needed – they are the attributes that propel humans forward. I’m optimistic we can use the attributes to make a future worth living in.

Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash

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