What Ideas, Trends and Technologies are Transforming our World?

Over the course of our research and reading we come across articles that explore the 'Big Picture'. These examine and discuss global trends encompassing a whole series of disciplines, and are a useful way of examining the context in which all of our lives and futures lie.


Today, we are exploring big futures of ideas, technology, systems and wellbeing. Some of these were written pre-Covid 19, and based on what we now observe globally these provide an interesting insight into how unexpected events can influence likely trends and outcomes identified using the evidence available when written.


I've not organised these articles into categories this week as they flow between each other well and are general in scope, and look ahead overing the coming decades. Thank you for joining us here at The Future Learning Project, and don't hesitate to reach out to sean@futurelearningproject.com if you have something you would like to know to more about.

Let's start by looking back, and believe it or not we've just had the best decade in human history. Economic growth and living standards continue to rise globally, poverty is falling, as is global inequality and infant mortality. Famine, once so common, is now essentially non-existent. Written by Matt Ridley of The Rational Optimist fame, this article reminds us that despite the seemingly constant barrage of information about the ills of the modern world (and these certainly exist), humans have actually never had it so good. It cautions against accepting environmental and economic ideologues arguing for green solutions, suggesting that these can actually consume more resources and land than is necessary. Thought-provoking.

We'll quickly look back at 2019 this time, at the news that Finland is a world's happiest country. It's no great surprise that a Scandinavian country leads the way (the top three in fact), but what's interesting are the factors that make countries happy, and it's quite surprising.


Based on the 2019 World Happiness Report, the report is based on the science of well-being and central themes of happiness globally with a focus on happiness and community based around three sets of factors:

  1. links between government and happiness

  2. the power of pro-social behaviour

  3. changes in information technology.

Each of these is explored in detail, and the conclusions appears to indicate that although being a wealthy country helps, money is not everything. Factors such as civic responsibility and representation, personal freedom and safety, rule of law, infrastructure and attitudes towards corruption are collectively more important that money alone.

To the future now, and we will start by looking at the start of smart cities. The idea of a smart city sounds great: to use the latest technology and thinking to realise a new vision of how people can live and work together. Infrastructure challenges such as rubbish collection and recycling can be addressed, huge savings in energy efficiency can be realised, robots can be used for all sorts of routine tasks and the latest science can be applied to human wellbeing in cities. It's great for everyone, right?


In this example, an Alphabet (Google) company named Sidewalk Labs signed an agreement with Toronto Waterfront in 2017 to develop a piece of land that everyone hoped would become a model for other cities around the world. Then questions started to be asked. Was the tender awarded fairly? Will the property taxes paid in the smart city go to Google or the City of Toronto? How about the issue of privacy and use of residents' personal data? Opposition grew, it started to get ugly, work fell behind schedule and just a few weeks ago the CEO of Sidewalk Labs announced that the project had been cancelled. Technological together with social progress may not necessarily happen, even if it's (apparently) a good idea.

Here's an interesting take on how technology might change the world by 2025. The World Economic Forum asked their 2020 Technology Pioneers what their thoughts are, and this is what they came up with:

  1. AI-optimised manufacturing - using huge amounts of data to optimise supply chains, improving efficiency and reducing waste, cost and time to delivery.

  2. Energy transformation - people and countries will be actively seeking to reduce their carbon footprint to zero, and new technologies will emerge to realise this.

  3. Quantum computing will mature as a technology and start to solve real problems. As an example they may be able to simulate massively complex chemical reactions, speeding up testing and development times for new materials and medicines.

  4. A focus in healthcare from treatment to prevention through a better understanding of nutrition and systems biology.

  5. 5G will boost the economy and people's lives - 5G offers opportunities for high capacity services online, including everything from tele-health to real-time monitoring of everything in our lives.

  6. We'll get better at managing and treating cancer - screening and detection will improve, leading to early detection and more effective treatment through gene editing and other new techniques.

  7. Robots in retail - we will see robots throughout the retail supply chain, not just in warehouses, and speed and efficiency will be improved.

  8. The line between the real and virtual worlds will become blurred through immersive experiences in virtual and augmented reality.

  9. Healthcare will become decentralised and focus on the individual through the person's biological data.

  10. The construction industry will change rapidly through AI analysis of data enabling engineers and project managers to manufacture structures far more efficiently.

  11. CO2 removal will work to reduce climate change - it's going to be big business, and I'll check where this technology currently stands as soon as I've finished this article.

  12. Medicine will become more effective - the better we understand human biology, the better we are able to treat human health conditions.

  13. The wealth gap will start to close - wealth management is already being placed in the hands of algorithms instead of human beings, reducing cost and improving access to financial markets previously the domain of the wealthy.

  14. A clean energy revolution will be well under way - the cost of building new renewable energy options will be lower than the existing marginal cost of energy from fossil fuels. The infrastructure can be built and deployed rapidly, monitored closely and scaled up as necessary.

  15. The microscopic world will become more visible - our understanding of bacterial, fungal and viral ecosystems will improve rapidly over the next 5 years, with better methods to develop safe and clean environments for humans.

  16. Heavy industry will reduce its carbon footprint - manufacturers are starting to collect massive amounts of data from millions of inputs across their organisations to analyse their carbon footprint and reduce it.

  17. Privacy is prioritised - privacy-enhancing technologies will become key to successfully storing and sharing the massive amounts of data that are going to be generated by 2025.

According to this article all of the above is due to be with us five years from now, which isn't that long when one thinks about it. We'll come back and have a look then.

Although 18 months old, this article listing Bill Gates' list of inventions that (he thinks) will change the world is still an interesting read. These breakthrough technologies are:

  1. Robot dexterity continues to improve rapidly, and we'll see more robots deployed in the coming years.

  2. Next generation fusion and fission energy will make power generation safer and cheaper.

  3. A simple blood test can determine the likelihood of a woman giving birth to a premature baby - its costs less than $10, and is incredible.

  4. Swallowable capsules containing microscopes will replace endoscopes - again amazing.

  5. Personalised cancer vaccines designed and delivered using the person's immune system and cancer's DNA.

  6. Lab-grown meat - production is going to scale up rapidly.

  7. New carbon-capture technology that removes CO2 from the atmosphere cheaply and safely.

  8. Wearables that track health - these are becoming more sophisticated and powerful, will soon be able to detect potential health and heart problems.

  9. Clean toilets that don't need sewers.

  10. Enhanced AI assistants - more powerful versions of Siri are on the way, and they'll be able to do a lot more for us.

Given how these technologies continue to develop and the level of investment in them it's likely that we will see these become commonplace over the coming years, and people's lives with certainly change as a result. Each represents a new opportunity for innovation and work, and we'll continue to watch this space.

Here's another article from MIT Technology Review, this time predictions for 2030 by people shaping the world. Some of this year's participants at Davos (the elite of the elite?) were asked what they think will happen by 2030 that most people don't realise. Here's what they shared:

  • AI will drive a productivity boom.

  • Africa will become a testbed for human/robot coexistence (interesting!).

  • Consumers will have more power and protection through monitoring and use of their data.

  • The US Dollar will no longer be the world's reserve currency. Digital currencies and smart contracts will enhance transparency and trust in business.

  • Humans will recognise how brittle our infrastructure is - lots of upgrading and rebuilding will be needed.

  • We'll produce new materials through synthetic biology derived from plants. Goodbye petrol and plastics.

  • Chinese mobile phones will capture 50% of the global market, and have their own operating systems.

  • Manufacturing will localise and global supply chains will weaken. Low-skill jobs in poor countries will disappear, creating fragile states.

  • Small businesses will have access to supercomputers to assist with design and automation of business processes.

Interesting, and again all are worth watching carefully over the coming decade. Also again, each represents an opportunity for innovation and work either directly or indirectly in a way that doesn't yet exist.

I don't think there's any doubt that the next 10 years will be a time of rapid change, whether for ill, good or both. The use and misuse of technology is already putting a strain on democratic systems and institutions globally, and this article explores how democracy needs to evolve to counter the inherent weaknesses that are being ever-more exposed, particularly short-termism. No solutions are offered within the article, but the call for the rights and empowerment of future generations to be recognised is made with some examples provided. Thought-provoking and important.

Now for a further note of caution. If the expected rapid technological development does happen as expected, the rapidity of the change may do more than put further strain on our democratic and global systems - it may undermine the very nature of our civilisation. Bio-hacking may enable a backyard chemist to kill millions, an technological advancement for one nation may spell disaster for others, rapid change may outpace regulation, and these together with other major risks make up what is know as The Vulnerable World Hypothesis.


Essentially, The Vulnerable World Hypothesis has implications for policy and planning, and anyone thinking about wanting to take action to mitigate against unintended consequences and destabilising technological advances advances. Recommendations are made in the article, and again these are timely, thought-provoking and represent an opportunity for work and innovation over the coming decade.

Today we finish with an article that I first read over a year ago and have shared before. Based on what we understand about what has already happened in the modern, the changes that are coming will happen gradually, then suddenly. Technology and trends that have been bubbling along invisible and hidden for years will suddenly emerge and be everywhere. Examples that are already happening are provided throughout the article, and the same will apply to many of the advancements and trends we've looked at today. The future is exciting and the opportunities are significant, but we need to be prepared for and informed about what's (probably) coming.


Thank you for joining us this week. We welcome any and all feedback and comments, and please contact me with any questions or suggestions you have.

Sean

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