The Future Isn't What It Used to Be

At a Paris seminar, once-confident prognosticators find that discerning the outlines of tomorrow's world has become much harder

By Pete Engardio

Let's think about the future for a moment -- the future, that is, as we might have envisioned it a couple years ago: Cheap computers in every household, with lightning-fast broadband links. The breathtaking globalization of markets for capital and goods would continue unabated. The free flow of ideas over the Internet would make governments obsolete. It wasn't so long ago that we were endlessly fascinated with the exhilarating changes in store.

But these days, who feels like daydreaming about the Brave New World of 2030? The global recession and the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 have dashed many of our assumptions about tomorrow. The drive for global free trade has stalled in both the West and the developing world. Biological science is under assault in Europe and the U.S. The messiahs of tech who promised to bring us warp-speed communications are nearly bankrupt.


  Meanwhile, new models for perpetually high economic growth have run into a reality check. And America's first war of the 21st century is being fought with a regime straight out of the Middle Ages. The future? With the new threat of terrorism and the sick economy, it's hard enough to ponder the next fiscal quarter.

So if you were to gather dozens of futurists and put them in one room, what would they talk about? Well, they would spend their time struggling to square once-intriguing hypotheses with the harsh, confusing post-September 11 world. At least that's what I saw at a conference in Paris on Nov. 27-28 sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), the global think-tank for public policy. The event, titled "Policies for Economic and Social Transition in the 21st Century," was actually the culmination in a series of confabs conducted since 1996 by the OECD International Futures Program.

The issues: How to manage the challenges of economic, sociological, technological, and environmental change? Among the eclectic battery of panelists: an energy official from Italy, the chief economist of Unilever, Dutch and Australian Labor Ministry officials, Washington future consultant Joseph F. Coates, a global strategist for Shell International, the director of a leading Chinese think tank, and top advisers to South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and Mexican President Vicente Fox.


  Chairing the proceedings was Wolfgang Michalski, the soon-to-retire head of the OECD's crystal-ball-gazing department. In his long career, Michalski, the author of 10 books, has been an early spotter of such trends as the acceleration of global free trade and the decline of Europe's welfare state. "I'm the fool of the court, the only one around here who can say anything without being killed," Michalski told me. I was invited to sit on the panels pondering future public policy for technology and developing nations.

The ground rules: Speakers had a maximum of five minutes to make their point, with a traffic light turning green, yellow, and red to mark the time. The conversations were fast, invigorating, completely unstructured -- and lots of fun. Still, it was hard to focus on the distant future. We quickly discovered the events of the past few months throw many old assumptions into question.

It's difficult enough to fathom the implications for policymakers right now, much less 10 years on. Some of those who did stick to the futurist themes developed in recent years sounded like they were out of date, still mulling the burning concerns of the past (see "The Futurists' Oops Hall of Fame" for some earlier prognostications that never panned out).

This certainly isn't to suggest that all futurist thinking has been blown off course. Some of the more stimulating discussions were about trends that were just as true before September 11 as now. For example: Global population is expected to double to 9 billion by 2050, and consumption should grow much more quickly. The populations of Europe, North America, Japan, and even China are aging rapidly. Fewer and fewer families have parents who stay at home during the day. At some point over the next four or five decades, the world really is destined to run down known reserves of oil and gas. There was lots of interesting brainstorming over how governments and institutions will have to evolve to manage these trends.


  The panel on 21st century technology was a good example of how immediate dilemmas are more prominent, however. The idea was to assess the challenges that ubiquitous computing, biotechnology, and space technology would place on future policymakers. But instead of weighing the impact of scientific advances, much of the discussion focused on how to deal with the political backlash against genetic engineering of foods, livestock, and possibly humans that already has hit Europe and the U.S.

Much of this opposition is being led by huge nongovernment organizations (NGOs) such as Greenpeace -- a representative of the new forms of powerful political actors on the global stage. A bewildering array of smaller groups and even individuals are also adept at using the Net who may or may not know what they're talking about. Some root their opposition in their own quirky ethics, others in pseudoscience. But other critics of new technologies "know more about the subject than do the advocates," noted Meinhoff Dierkes, director of a German institute on the social issues of technology.

It was just as difficult to get a visionary discussion of globalization and the developing world off the ground. Perhaps that was because globalization itself has lost some luster as a megatrend in light of the current worldwide recession and the disappointing progress of world trade talks. Through most of the '90s, the spread of global markets was seen as the tonic for all of the world's economic problems. The OECD had a lively discussion two years ago over whether the world was entering a "long boom" of 10 years to 15 years.


  Since then, a backlash against globalization has arisen: Witness the uproar in the West over sweatshops, environmental degradation, child labor, and displacement of indigenous cultures due to investment. Today, this debate is being pushed by big Western-based NGOs exerting enormous pressure on governments to curtail trade agreements.

But who's asking people in the Third World? Why assume that people in developing countries aren't also becoming aware that "social injustice can have a damaging impact" on a nation, said Zhang Xinghua, of Shanghai Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. It's just that many poor nations have different priorities now, and industrial progress has moved so swiftly that "humankind has not had time to develop common values," he said. Zhang suggested that the OECD organize an international "cross-cultural" conference on the subject.

Besides, most emerging markets are in miserable shape -- regardless of which economic model they've adopted. Panels from Singapore and Japan worried that China is sucking up almost all of the new manufacturing investment in Asia. China is emerging as an export juggernaut in low-wage garment and shoe production, as well as in high-end electronics.

So what does that mean for the future of Thailand, Malaysia, and other export-led Asian nations? And what hope is there of attracting significant foreign investment in countries that are thousands of miles away from big Western markets, such as much of Africa and South America, even if they pursue sound policies? Ponder issues such as these, and the crystal ball clouds up quickly. Conventional thinking about global comparative advantage and development strategy doesn't get you very far.


  Perhaps this is why the global agenda no longer appears to be owned by free traders. At the World Trade Organization meeting in Qatar, developing nations such as India, Brazil, and South Africa seized the agenda from the U.S. and rolled back global enforcement of intellectual property rights in the pharmaceutical industry. Meanwhile, the September attacks by terrorist groups with a wide following among the impoverished of Egypt, Pakistan, and the Philippines seem to suggest that global poverty already has become a problem for developed nations.

The tendency to dwell on the problems here and now -- rather than the more distant future -- incited some frustration. "I'm disappointed," said Washington consultant Coates. "There's a continuing emphasis of difficulties, challenges, obstacles, concerns. I think we have to move past this negativism." The purpose of the conference should be to "jump forward 30-40-50 years," he said. "We need complex pictures of what technology could look like, how government will be different in one or two generations. And then have standards for forming complex policies."

Maybe next year. But right now, the world seems to be in the throes of future shock.

Engardio is senior international news editor for BusinessWeek

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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