We are in the midst of what the World Economic Forum term the 4th Industrial Revolution. It’s a time that’s typified by disruptive change in physical, digital and biological realms.
Of course, such is the power of these trends, the WEF are far from the only body looking to explore their impact. A recent report from the progressive think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) adds its particular weight to the discussion.
It outlines what they believe are five key trends that will drive change in the 2020s:
- A demographic tipping point – Many countries in the western world are reaching a point at which their populations begin to rapidly age, and with it the consistent growth in the working age population slows significantly.
- A transformed economy – The report highlights the fragility of the changing global economy as globalization itself evolves and power shifts towards Asia. It also highlights the risks in developing nations from things such as secularism and automation, with global trade bodies coming under increasing pressure to please all parties.
- The aftershock of Brexit – There has been an awful lot written about the possible implications of Brexit, and the report suggests a future of lower growth, tighter immigration controls and a more centrally managed economy for Britain.
- Technological shifts – It is in this section that the report most closely mirrors the work of the WEF, and it highlights the exponential shifts in a number of technologies, from AI and automation to the Internet of Things that promise to fundamentally change our social and economic lives. How that future unfolds is still uncertain however, and it could feasibly be both utopian or dystopian (or more likely something in between).
- Environmental change – the report concludes by exploring the various environmental factors that are still largely unresolved, whether it’s climate change or shifts in biodiversity. The carrying capacity of the planet is constantly shifting, both for mankind and other species inhabiting the planet. The report advocates a new politics of restraint to half the systemic degradation of ecosystems.
“Together, these trends are going to reshape how we live and work, reorganise our social, economic and political institutions, and redistribute power and reward in society. In the longer term, as machine learning and computing power divorces intelligence from consciousness, as improving health technologies allow for biological enhancements and species divergence, and as the final frontier is conquered by space travel, technological and social transformation will increasingly change what it means to be human,” the authors say.
There’s a strong sense that the future is still very much to be decided, and it’s unfortunate that the report doesn’t touch too much on the rise in populism throughout the western world, and the risks this represents to the kind of future we might see unfolding before us. In periods of such intense disruption, we need balanced and reasoned leadership rather than knee-jerk reactionism. I suppose time will tell just what kind we end up with.