Below is the current draft of a chapter for Fast Future’s ’50:50 – Scenarios for the Next 50 Years’. They’ve given me permission to test my thinking so far. I’d love your thoughts – positive or negative – and connections to other, better thinking.
It is an attempt to imagine the world in 2050 as if what we do now matters. The speculative vision below will be wrong, but hopefully it will be useful. It is one path I can imagine to a sustainable footing. I don’t like all of it, and I don’t necessarily think it’s the most likely future. There’s so much more I’d like to add (links to culture or knowledge production, for instance) – but I’m already twice the word count! It applies some of the analysis from my work on industrial strategy, which you can watch here or see a rough cut here.
Please do let me know what reactions, comments below or via email!
Here in 2050 we ask: given how uncertain the world looked in 2020, how is it that most people are thriving? How did we deliberately and rapidly reduce our impacts on the Earth so nature to thrive? (Gaffney and Steffen, 2017) And, how did that lead to us becoming a two-speed world?
The short answer: back in the 2020s one group of countries tried ‘good growth’ as an open and future-facing strategy – and were able to renew as crises happened. These countries are now the Primary World, where people are thriving in ways that work in synergy with nature. Another group wanted security by preserving the past – and, when the crises came, weren’t able to adapt. This Secondary World is not in sync with nature, but at a much reduced pace and scale that nature can cope with.
Now for the long answer.
- Late 2010s: Many eras ending
- Early 2020s: ‘Good Growth’ vs ‘Security For Us’
- Late 2020s: ‘Renew For Climate Safety’ vs ‘Protect What We Have’
- 2050: the thriving Primary World and the struggling Secondary World
Late 2010s: Many eras ending
In the late 2010s many eras were ending.
Since 1980s, the orthodoxy had been that “increasing globalisation and liberalisation, combined with waves of new technology, does empower everyone” (Mulgan, 2017)– but the growing sense of being left behind had turned many Western voters towards populisms of Right and Left.
Since the 1940s the global order had been underpinned by American economic and military might – but rising China and India were shifting the balance of power.
Since the 1800s, we had been powered by fossil fuels, and countries or companies who provided them had great power. But now solar and wind power were getting ever cheaper, with the prospect of utterly different energy production: without emissions; little extra cost for each joule (the sun shines for free); and highly distributed. The political heft of fossil fuel producers was threatened (Steffen, 2016).
Since the 1500s, if not before, we had treated nature as indestructible – but the industrial revolution had given us terrific and terrible power. The Great Acceleration in population, economy, resource use – an exponential growth in nearly everything human – was faster than the natural world could co-evolve with (Steffen et al, 2015) . Humankind was like an introduced species running riot on a pristine island – rabbits eating up Australia without foxes to control them. Absent natural restraints, we too had eaten away at the global ecosystem. If we continued, we risked collapse.
Finally, for many centuries humankind had believed it was unique in having intelligence and consciousness – but breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and automation were overturning this. These were especially threatening in a historical moment when a person’s place in society was primarily validated by their value add to the economy (Brown, 2016). If machines were quicker and cheaper, and faster learners, then what was the point of most people?
Taken together, the world was entering the 2020s the most uncertain and unstable in decades. How we reacted – first people, businesses and cities then – eventually – governments and the finance sector – to that uncertainty would give us our two-speed world.
Early 2020s: ‘Good Growth’ vs ‘Security For Us’
The ‘Good Growth’ crowd were looking for ways to have green, inclusive economic growth – but only by working at the margin, not as a full economic transition.
For instance, they pushed the renewables revolution forward, without pushing the incumbent fossil fuel industry out of the way. In the North America and Europe that meant a hybrid energy infrastructure of legacy fossil fuel and new renewables. Africa had it easier. India and China stopped building new coal-fired power stations. They electrified their energy supply through distributed solar. Human carbon emissions began to peak.
Leading cities got the mandate for coherent ambitions. They started to practice ‘market shaping’ – going beyond merely fixing market failures – through mission-orientated innovations (Mazzucato, 2017). Mumbai had a cluster of missions on urban mobility, resilience to extreme weather, and gender; New York on livelihoods, continuous education, and prosumer energy.
Other city-regions knew they could not become world-leading clusters. Their focus was on resilience – giving people the means to adapt and innovate for themselves – as well as providing crucial services to the nearest clusters.
The push for ‘good growth’ was a response to a more engaged citizenry. People had realised there was more at stake – and there were more choices in how to respond – than for the previous generation.
It was time for some ‘people power’, as citizens pushed their own efforts at ‘system fixing’ (beyond ‘market-shaping’) (Warwick, 2013). Some were hyper-local, others global endeavours. Under the radar, the people who took part felt a sense of belonging and meaning that was similar to the local churches or unions of the early 20th century.
Digital and citizen action combined to form many experiments in complimentary currencies (Bendell, 2013). Local currencies incentivised people to put effort into local needs – energy production, city farming, elderly care. Others were the glue for imagined communities across international borders.
As a result, some places were able to build up local shared economies. These patches had higher internal exchange, with many people being both producers and consumers (‘prosumers’). Often there were local cooperatives and other institutions as the legal vehicles for these activities.
The local peer-to-peer economy relied on wider global shifts in the ‘knowledge commons’ (Bauwens, 2012). In the 2010s, Linux had shown you could have a community of contributors that create commons of knowledge, software or design, with entrepreneurial coalitions applying that in ways that created market value.
People applied the same approach to design for circular economy, to ‘internet of things’ operating systems, to treatment protocols on dementia, mental health and diabetes – and lots more. The successful ones created their own for-benefit institutions to manage the “infrastructure of cooperation”.
Businesses were affected by these shifts too. Of course, those who had the political power to protect their incumbent position did so. The digital giants had built up near-impenetrable barriers to entry in the quality of datasets and AI processing power. Extraction companies were able to use their ownership of reserves in a similar way.
Other companies increasingly relied on accessing the knowledge commons for success, which benefited for-purpose businesses and organisations. More of these companies called for ‘good growth’. Even so, the proportion of work in the ‘gig economy’ – hired for the task only, bidding against your fellow workers – grew.
Also important players were billionaire philanthropists. They established challenge prizes, and directed their foundations to grow ecosystems of innovators aimed at the issues they cared about, often aligned with the Sustainable Development Goals.
Governments, cities and billionaires came together on creating pools of patient finance. The public and philanthropic capital would provide a risk-seeking foundation that the private sector would top up. These became the funding mechanisms for infrastructure investments, building smart grids, railways and housing stock.
These cities and countries were making headway, and doing what they thought was everything that could be done. More of the economy was green and inclusive than ever before. But still. The bulk of human activity was dirty and repeated a pattern of ‘success to the successful’. In truth, Good Growth was a marginal part of the total economic activity.
Meanwhile, ‘Security For Us’ tried to hold on to the status quo. For these countries, patriotism was prized, along with loyalty to past social norms (such as gender roles and the relative place in society of races and migrants). The belief was incumbent sectors with existing jobs needed to be saved. Fossil fuel energy was defended, often with tax breaks and deregulation. Jobs were protected by requiring ‘local content’ and putting up trade barriers, exploiting the weakness of enforcement while the global order was in flux.
Late 2020s: ‘Renew For Climate Safety’ vs ‘Protect What We Have’
The waves of extreme weather events, and the shocks from changing weather patterns, kept mounting. It was increasingly clear that the world was still on-track for runaway climate change at some point – and it was increasingly clear how bad ‘runaway’ would be. Many who had been naively optimistic about ‘Good Growth’ despaired.
On the 20th anniversary of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the value of publicly-held fossil fuel companies collapsed utterly. The trends in car sales told investors that the companies would not be able to burn their reserves, and they moved as a herd (Arbib and Seba, 2017).
The mood of anxiety ratcheted up, and senior players in government and business kept having to find new ways to meet the demand that Something Must Be Done.
‘Security For Us’ became ‘Protect What We Have’. One country started its own geoengineering, prompting UN sanctions. Another withdrew from any agreements on movement of people, building a wall against any migrants. Large companies were required to join the special interest group for their sector, and to put their effort into providing jobs and security. State oil companies continued, if only to provide fuel for their own country.
Those countries who had been pursuing ‘Good Growth’ were positioned to thrive. It turned out the early 2020s had created many of the ecosystems needed within and between government, citizens, business and finance. Now, they started to dance to the same tune: staying in the safe climate zone through renewable energy for a digitally-enabled ‘access economy’ aimed at people’s flourishing. It turned out there were many positive feedback loops in this configuration. As a result, the whole structure of the economy could be transformed (Zenghelis, 2016).
So, ‘Good Growth’ became ‘Renew For Climate Safety’ (Gilding, 2011). The role of governments decisively shifted from ‘get out of the way’ to ‘system shaping’. The primary vehicle: missions on climate safety, feeding the 9 billion, and individual’s earning power. Each mission provided a ‘north star’ for ecosystems of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, patient funders, venture capitalists, for-profit businesses, for-benefit enterprises, suppliers, employees and more (Mazzucato and Perez, 2014).
Most pivotal was the finance system. Lots of financial capital had been tied up in speculation and trading. Governments now forced that capital into the private pools. Financial players had to accept a lower short-term return for larger long-term ones. Governments started to sell bonds based on delivering on climate targets (Ekins et al, 2014), or structured in ways that required the banks to support innovation.
Governments worked with stock exchanges to make it easier for businesses to pursue long-term purposes, which provided a stability to investment in technologies, skills and infrastructures (Big Innovation Society, 2016).
The renewable energy infrastructure was mostly there. Now the fossil fuel industry was shut down, and the communities that depended on it were supported in their transition.
Entire sectors were shifted, often accelerating the direction that had been heading in. The innovation ecosystems which had been built up in the 2020s were now unleashed. In the early years, there was compensation for incumbents as well as transition arrangements for people and places. But over time the ‘payouts for failure’ to big companies became unacceptable.
Fossil fuel and extraction industries declined. Chemicals and heavy industry were rebased to be circular. Consumer goods became consumer services, and healthcare was set for growth.
2050: the thriving Primary World and the struggling Secondary World
Today most of our human-sphere is works with nature, and is at a scale that the Earth system can cope with. In effect, we now co-evolve with nature. As long as that is true, human activity grows in complexity and dynamism. In the terms of 30 years ago, the economy is growing, but the focus is on thriving (Raworth, 2017).
Come 2050, all this plays out as two rather different types of political economy: the thriving Primary World and the struggling Secondary World.
The Primary World is essentially an ‘access economy’. People own little. Instead, they pay for services. Digitally-enabled businesses deliver those services (Kelly, 2017), whether a vehicle at the right moment, or washed clothes in the morning. Behind the scenes, artefacts and materials are ‘sharing economy’ and ‘circular economy’ to the max: everything is re-used, re-manufactured and – eventually – recycled. And it is all powered by renewables. Most international trade by value is of designs which are then made locally with 3D printers; by volume its food and inputs to those 3D printers.
The digital giants were given a choice: remain monopolies but be compensated for becoming for-benefit entities with democratic governance; or get smaller in competitive markets with many similar-sized players.
People earn in a variety of ways. There are jobs, where people get paid formal currency. Some jobs are permanent but many are flexible, though with more even bargaining power than the gig economy of the 2020s. People also get a micro-credit for every time an AI gets paid for using some data or insight that the person contributed to (Larnier, 2014) – no need for Universal Basic Income here. People undertake other activities where they are rewarded with complimentary currencies – part of reaffirming belonging and mutual support across a variety of communities, local and global.
People can choose their pace of life. Overall, it is slower but with less negative spill-overs. Negatives that were once thought of as inevitable ‘price of progress’ are seen as a consequence of design choices. For instance, the costly burden of mental health is much reduced.
Businesses are orientated around maximising value for the user. It turns out Drucker was right: that is the purpose of business. ‘Maximising shareholder value’ is now seen as a failed cul-de-sac (much as communism was after 1990).
Any one business understands that is it part of a wider ecosystem of businesses. While there are tensions within any particular ‘value network’, participants understand that they succeed together. As such, the dominance of the powerful branded corporate has declined. It’s too easy for talent to switch.
The finance system is predominantly about allocating saved capital towards useful assets. Speculation has its place – finding the right price – but is a small proportion of overall financing.
Government has an explicit and accepted role as ensuring increasing ability to innovate and adapt. It doesn’t pick winners; it picks directions and supports a variety of possibles through many institutional vehicles. Overall, some hard-working, talented inventors and entrepreneurs succeed, a number don’t make but – most importantly – overall society wins.
To that end, political decision-making is pushed to the lowest level possible. Now that the crisis is over, people look to Switzerland’s example (community participation informs regional government decisions that percolate up into orientating country direction) as a way to have responsiveness and active citizenry.
Any one person will identify with their local place, their country, a number of international communities of interest (from sporting to commercial skills) and a sense of a global reach.
People are educated for the 21st century: continuously, and for what AI’s cannot do, namely creativity, critical moral judgement and caring.
Overall, the orientation of the Primary World is towards flourishing and innovation. Success for us today means being able to choose how they live their lives (without harming others) and that in turn means growing the options available.
People are valued for the difference they bring (particularly important in a world of diffuse AI). Nature is seen as a source of example and abundance (when treated right). Human activities are seen as part of an interconnected world, one that is within the natural world (not outside).
In contrast, the struggling Secondary World still sees nature as something to overcome. Combined with the continued power of the incumbents of the 2020s, this means it is taking them longer to let go of the 20th century economy.
There’s an awkward combination of linear and circular, product-orientated and service-orientated, renewable and fossil fuel. The physical flows in its economy are split between linear and circular – an expensive duplication of infrastructure, and business models. These countries have to take technologies.
Their economy is dominated by local digital giants, who have ridden a wave of ‘success to the successful’.
All the Secondary nations have some variant on Universal Basic Income. For the corporatists governments, it’s a way to ensure big companies have customers, even when individuals have weak earning power.
The orientation of the Secondary nations is protection and conservation. People are valued for their individual loyalty and collective strength. Nature is seen as either a source of self-sufficiency for the lucky regions, but mainly as source of disasters – a vengeful mother.
There are on-going tensions between Primary and Secondary Worlds. But, much like the late Cold War almost 100 years ago, the innovating and dynamic side is in the driving seat. The Secondary nations rely on Primary for knowhow, technology transfer, development assistance and aid.
Bauwens, M., 2012: ‘Blueprint for the P2P Society: The partner State and Ethical Economy’.
Bendell, J. and Greco, T. H., 2013: ‘Currencies of transition: transforming money to unleash sustainability’.
Big Innovation Society, 2016: ‘The Purposeful Company Interim Report’
Brown, K J., 2016: ‘What Is Your Narrative? Human Purpose and the Future of Work.’
Ekins, P., McDowall, W. A. S., and Zenghelis, D., 2014: ‘Greening the recovery: the report of the UCL green economy policy commission’.
Gaffney, O., and Steffen, W., 2017: ’The Anthropocene equation’, The Anthropocene Review
Larnier, J., 2014: ‘Who Owns the Future?’
Mazzucato, M., 2017: Mission-orientated Innovation Policy webpage.
Mazzucato, M., and Perez, C., 2014: ‘Innovation as growth policy: the challenge for Europe’.
Raworth, K., 2017: ‘Dougnut Economics’.
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Steffen, W., W. Broadgate, L. Deutsch, O. Gaffney, C. Ludwig. 2015. ‘The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: the Great Acceleration’. The Anthropocene Review.
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