Before exploring key trends from our research, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the underlying demographic, economic and social changes that provide the backdrop to this report. These ‘megatrends’ act like the earth’s major tectonic plates, with their movements and interactions having the power to reshape how governments, businesses and societies think and behave.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of the near future will be the role of technology in an accelerating digital era.
Technological advances will continue to rapidly transform the ways we live and work. At least in digital terms, the world will be even more connected, with current projections suggesting that from 29% in 2010, over half of the world’s inhabitants will have internet access by the end of the decade.1 More ambitiously in advanced markets, the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) offers ‘smarter’ ways to manage everything from our health to our homes.
Amazon’s Echo is now in over 11 million homes (mostly US but now also in the UK and Germany) with its voice-controlled personal assistant ‘Alexa’ simulating a human touch for a digitally co-ordinated experience.2 Those enjoying a night in can, with just a few verbal commands from the comfort of their sofa, control everything from their TV screen, to the hallway lighting and kitchen kettle. Whilst Fitbit users can also ask Alexa to update them on their daily activity goals and order a guilt-free pizza if they feel it’s been well earned.
In the workplace, developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and sharing economy platforms – to name but a few technologies – hold the potential to spawn a ‘Third Industrial Revolution’. In the US, it’s globalisation that has become a primary target of blame for manufacturing job losses. However, the consistent growth of domestic manufacturing output and its seemingly inverse correlation with employment, suggests that more is being produced with fewer people and automation is the more likely culprit.3 Whilst an ‘America First’ policy might please a large number of voters, it remains to be seen whether it will succeed in reversing this trend. Forrester grabbed headlines with the prediction that 16% of US jobs will disappear due to automation technologies by 2025 and, even sooner and showing the change is far from isolated, 25% of all work tasks will be offloaded to software robots, physical robots or self-service technology by 2019.4
In 2004, the US Department of Defence offered one million dollars to the driverless vehicle that could complete a secure 150-mile track and not a single vehicle made it past the seventh mile. Just over a decade later, Google’s self-driving cars have amassed over a million miles on city streets in the last two years alone.6 This potentially paves the way for a world where taxi and truck driving are no longer occupations and car ownership becomes a hobby akin to horse riding. But although technological leaps can be huge, predicting the rate of regulatory and societal adjustment is difficult. So whilst new stories and predictions will continue to grab headlines, only with retrospect will come certainty as to whether technologies such as driverless cars have passed the ‘turning point’, to use Carlota Perez’s language, or ‘crossed the chasm’ as Geoffrey Moore termed it.7
Demographic change and dynamic populations
The trend varies widely by country, but the total world population will continue to grow. However, this growth will be driven more by life expectancy than birth rates – although a combination of the two will see Africa represent the bulk of the growth and make it a potential engine of the global economy. Whilst many developed countries remain either stable or shrinking, Africa’s population is set to double by 2050, with Nigeria overtaking the US in that time – a rapid rise considering its population was just over half the US’s in 2010.
As booming populations increase the economic potential of some markets, for the wider world population aging, mass movement and urbanisation will continue to force questions around economic, social and environmental sustainability. These questions are not only for politicians with straining social welfare systems in mind, but also for marketers looking to appeal to the needs of the older (and often more affluent) customer and design products and services suitable for an increasingly cramped urban environment.
The migration of people and their concentration in urban centres, for reasons of opportunity or security, shows no sign of reversing. In virtually every country we see people more negative than positive about immigration but, despite public opinion, the forces behind it remain strong, if not unstoppable.
Topics like immigration, job creation and welfare spending already dominate the political agenda in many countries, but an increasing number in the science, business and political communities are calling for climate change and resource management to be givengreater priority status. If Nigeria is to translate its population growth into a similarly rapid economic development, then the risk that the majority of its largest city, Lagos, could be underwater by 2100 is no doubt a concern that has informed its joining the ‘100 Resilient Cities’ programme – a global network of cities working together, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation,10 to overcome the sustainability challenges the 21st century presents.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, some saw a US-dominated unipolar world. Drops in commodity prices have prompted the growth of a number of emerging economies to slow and, in Brazil and Russia’s case, reverse. However, the overall trend suggests emerging markets will continue to outpace and eventually overtake many developed economies.
GDP forecasts suggest that India could overtake the US as the world’s second largest economy by 2050 and should be the third largest economy ahead of
Japan by 2030.12 More strikingly, the same forecasts show the ‘E7’ economies (China, India, Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico and Turkey) overtaking the G7 by 2030 in terms of both size and purchasing power.13
Whether this economic power shift gives rise to a new paradigm in terms of international relations is difficult to predict. But the opportunity for brands with a global outlook and appetite for growth is undoubted. In 2030, two-thirds of the world’s middle class will be living in Asia and 107m of the remaining one-third will be based in sub-Saharan Africa.14 Targeting this audience will likely be a priority for global products ranging from Apple iPhones to Hollywood films. However, the opportunities offered by this multipolar world will, of course, be wide-ranging.
Whilst China has struggled to translate a number of its dominant local brands into global players, heavy investment in overseas acquisitions has achieved a similar goal. Alongside a flow of products also comes ideas and societal influence if China successfully transitions from an ‘innovation sponge’ to an innovation leader as some analysts predict, or if South Korea continues its growth as an exporter of culture.15
With each wave of change, sustainability becomes more pressing. It remains to be seen whether a multipolar world will provide balance and the global infrastructure to address supra-national problems, or create instability. While economic growth is fairly certain, an even distribution of the benefits is not. Global population rises, the mass movement of people and their concentration in urban centres are adding to well-documented resource pressures – creating social tensions, as well as environmental concerns.
Although not without its disputes, most scientists agree that climate change is happening faster than predicted. Lagos is not alone – 75% of the world’s large cities are located on coasts and sea level rises threaten fellow megacities from New York and Tokyo to Cairo and Mumbai. Far from being a future problem, the World Health Organization estimates that one in four child deaths (1.7 million a year) are already attributable to environmental threats such as air pollution and unsafe water.16
In the face of these mounting challenges, technology offers some promise of a panacea – from renewable energy that will responsibly meet growing demands, to graphene-oxide that potentially offers a scalable way to desalinate seawater. There are also ‘cities of the future’ which are aiming not only to be more energy efficient, but more liveable too.
Competing for recognition as ‘cities of the future’, Europe currently reigns in the ‘Sustainable Cities Index’,17 but reinforcing the multi-polarity theme, it’s China that looks set to dominate renewable energy. With major investments, at home and abroad, it already owns five of the world’s six largest solar-module manufacturing firms and the largest wind-turbine manufacturer.18 And its citizens are most likely to cite climate change as a key concern in Ipsos’ monthly What Worries the World series.
However, for society, technology also brings its own tensions as a connected world grapples with privacy concerns and it remains to be seen whether powerful AI systems will pave the way for flourishing knowledge economies or rising unemployment and social polarisation.
Looking to the future: the problem with predictions
These megatrends are constantly evolving but, as root causes of change, we can be certain of their influence even if the precise chain of effects remains a matter of speculation. How governments, businesses and societies respond – either proactively or reactively – to megatrends and the sustainability tensions they bring to the fore, will dictate much of the history that’s eventually written.
After 2016-2017, few – especially those in the polling industry – would argue that the world is becoming more predictable. Uncertainty remains and is potentially as prevalent as ever. Catastrophic events such as geopolitical conflict, environmental disaster or economic crises have the power to disrupt any trend. So whether it’s straining US-Russia relations or the lingering dangers of a global debt crisis, a number of catalysts remain far from dormant and with the potential to cast doubt on even the most conservative of trend predictions.