The Futurist Forecast: Beyond 2008

January 8, 2008

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The Dept. of Homeland Security taps in to science-fiction writers' creativity to conjure possible methods of attack and wild ideas for high-tech prevention. For imaginative long-term forecasts, there is the business of futurology.

Futurists are in a hybrid discipline of science and intuition that reads the mysterious flows of business and consumer trends in an effort to predict what will make its way into the mainstream within the next 12 to 18 months — or far beyond.

For instance, some futurists say that 2008 could be the year in which "N11" really reaches the lips of strategists. The term N11, coined a few years ago by Goldman Sachs, refers to the up-and-coming "Next 11" countries that are snapping at the heels of India, China, Russia and Brazil as investment opportunities: Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, South Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Vietnam. Over the past three years, economic growth across Goldman Sachs' N11 has averaged 5.9 percent, the strongest in 15 years and more than double the 2.3 percent average growth of Old Europe. And where the money goes, there is a good chance that cultural fascination will follow.

Long-term futurology, on the other hand, requires a bit more imagination.

The editors of The Futurist magazine offer these visions (summarized):

More customers — 9.2 billion people by 2050 thanks to increasing longevity and slower-than-anticipated decreases in fertility in some areas;

Development of the Arctic by 2040 to extract metals — nickel, copper, zinc and coal — freshwater and fish due to rising prices of natural resources;

Construction of more desalination plants — which will reach mainstream by 2020 — to cope with water shortages in both the developed and developing world; and

Use of improved electronics such as optical scanning technologies to overcome the proliferation of currency counterfeiting, bringing us to a cashless society.

Focusing even more closely on manufacturing, Social Technologies recently announced what its team sees as the top technology innovations by about 17 years from now, in 2025:

• Micro-flexible Manufacturing and Processes. Mass customization will continue, producing low quantities of specific, high-quality products along with many variable and cheap sensors linked with computers, and expert systems and advanced pattern-recognition software to ensure high quality. Advances in rapid prototyping equipment and 3-D printing devices will likely play a role for making low-volumes of critically needed components and products.

• Nanotechnologies for Innovative Materials and Fibers. Progress may have been slow, but in the next 20 years we should see some remarkable advances in nanotechnology. Eventually, it will be less expensive to make nano-fibers in large quantities.

• Distributed Energy. The futurist experts think we'll see new power systems, including high-tech electricity storage devices and batteries, as well as advanced hybrids for transport and homes by 2025.

• Bioenergy. Genetic modification of organisms and breakthroughs in plant genetics and biotechnologies for energy content will lead to new biofuels. Properly manipulated, special microbes yet to be discovered could make fuel.

• Carbon Containment. The futurists feel technologists will develop affordable carbon capture and storage technologies for utilities and vehicles. It will be interesting to see what drives this advance. Some opt for carbon credits for trading, others claim that carbon taxes (in place of some other taxes rather than in addition to) will work better at reducing the carbon emissions per capita. As one expert noted, only a global initiative will work because no nation wants to sacrifice its manufacturers.

• Intelligent Transport. We will see greater use of satellites, computers and wireless electronics to manage private transportation and advance public transportation.

Other areas the experts focused on include medicine, biomarkers, agriculture and surveillance. (In the spirit of fun, check out psychic and spiritual teacher Sylvia Browne's list of predictions for the next 100 years. She envisions "houses having rollback roofs to allow hovercrafts to come and go.")

According to E. I. Du Pont de Nemours and Company, in a 2006 IndustryWeek editorial, we must make "provisions for near-, mid- and long-term actions" and "encourage early voluntary actions … those who make verifiable voluntary reductions in advance of a requirement should be credited for those reductions."

What developments do you imagine we'll see in the decades afead?

Earlier: Foresight on Forecasting

Resources

Top Ten Forecasts for 2008 and Beyond World Futurists Society, November/December 2007

Global Economic Paper No: 134 by Jim O'Neill, Dominic Wilson, Roopa Purushthaman and Anna Stupnytska Goldman Sachs, Dec. 1 2005

The Shape of Things to Come by James Harkin The Guardian Unlimited, Dec. 18, 2007

Overview of the Top 12 Areas for Innovation through 2025 Social Technologies, Nov. 5, 2007

Global Climate Change -- DuPont's Recommendations by John Teresko IndustryWeek, Dec. 1, 2006

The Next 100 Years by Sylvia Browne

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