ABOUT THE FUTURE
‘Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago,’ – WARREN BUFFETT (BORN 1930)
To say that the world is undergoing an exponential change would be an understatement. The last 25 years have seen remarkable changes in technology, healthcare, education and business, and this trend will continue at an even greater pace over the next 25 years and beyond. Here are my thoughts, backed by a wide range of research and reinforced by interviews with business leaders, on what the future will look like. The future starts with people.
Between the years 1800 and 1950, the UN estimated the world population to have grown from 1 billion to 2.5 billion people. Between 1950 and 2012 that number grew to approximately 7 billion, believed to have been reached somewhere between October 2011 and March 2012 as stated by the UN Population Fund and the US Census Bureau respectively. By 2040 that number could climb to approximately 9 billion people, according to a report published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, called the World Population Prospects. It highlights that the population of developed regions will remain largely unchanged at around 1.3 billion from now until 2050. In contrast, the 49 least developed countries in the world are projected to double in size from around 900 million people in 2013 to 1.8 billion by 2050. The report notes that the population of India is expected to exceed China’s around 2028, and after that India’s population will continue to grow while China’s will be expected to start decreasing, largely due to the one child policy.
Overall, life expectancy is projected to increase in developed and developing countries in future years. At a global level, it is projected to reach 76 years in the period 2045-2050 and 82 years by 2095-2100. By the end of the century, people in developed countries could live on average up to 89 years, compared to about 81 years in developing regions. A consequence of the ageing population is that state pension budgets will continue to bear strain meaning an overall decreased income for senior citizens. Retirement ages will have to be pushed out in America, Asia and most European countries, where many people will be forced to work into their 70s. The impact on the health of the population will be severe, with stress increasing phenomenally and depression likely to be the biggest killer by the 2040s.
With space on earth limited, advances in space travel will inevitably develop. Space colonisation pioneers and scientists, like the now late Gerard O’Neill, proposed ideas for human settlement in space.
Stephen Hawking, the theoretical physicist and cosmologist, in more recent years stated that mankind faces the option of either colonising space within the next two hundred years and building residential units on other planets, or face the prospect of long-term extinction. Whether we are faced with a gradual decline in Earth’s resources, or whether there is a catastrophic impact to Earth’s biosphere, there will inevitably be a need to create an alternative habitat. Currently there is a drive for leisure travel into space, and this trend is growing with the endeavours of people like Elon Musk, Dennis Tito and Richard Branson.
South-African-born Elon Musk is the CEO and CTO of SpaceX, CEO & Chief Product Architect of Tesla Motors, and founder of PayPal. What makes him noteworthy is that he regularly launches rockets into space via his commercial spaceflight company SpaceX Corp, which also delivers supplies to the International Space Station using its Dragon Spacecraft.
Rachel Carson was seen by many as the pioneer of the green movement in the 1930s. Backed by a prestigious career, her book,
Silent Spring, published in 1962, brought to life the damage done by the incessant use of pesticides. It caused uproar amongst politicians at the time, but her work ignited the idea that we are part of a life sustaining eco-system. Sir David Attenborough has also brought natural history into our living rooms for over 50 years, highlighting the profound impact we have on the environment around us.
Environmental organisations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the European Environmental Agency (EEA) and others continue their philanthropic journeys to improve the plight of the planet, imploring us to do more to achieve a paradigm shift in environmental sustainability.
Before attempting to fix the problem, however, it is important to understand its origins. Approximately 300 million years ago, much of the atmospheric carbon was converted into inert material such as coal and other fossils, but has been released in recent years by the burning of high volumes of coal, oil, and natural gas.
Currently oil prices are sending the costs of energy globally through the roof. Coupled with the demands of a growing population, this has put huge strain on the world’s power grids. In regions like South Africa ‘load shedding’ has been implemented since the late 2000s, as there is not enough electricity available to consumers via the electricity provider. Households have become more aware of their consumption and have actively taken measures to cut back. Antiquated infrastructure in South Africa and in many other countries has not helped either, with a large percentage of electricity being lost during production, transmission and utilisation. Power grids will improve to include smart sensors within them to regulate the flow of electricity. Bi-directional flow will ensure that ‘unused’ electricity can be sent back into the system, making for more efficient usage. It is anticipated that in time regions will integrate their grids on a country-to-country basis, making for a web of energy provision. ‘Infrastructure is expensive to build and maintain. The winners will be those that can integrate different network infrastructures globally,’ says Douglas Umbers, MD and leader of world class, technology enabled, service organisations.
For these and other solutions to be developed, we need to create a hunger for people to want to change, a thirst to sustain change and a desire to commit to its sustainability.
Water and food
With a 30% population growth expected by 2040, it is safe to assume that we will need a more than 30% increase in water provisioning, since many parts of the world still do not have access to fresh supplies. The only problem with needing more water in future is that fresh water supplies will be close to, if not already, exhausted by then, placing huge pressure on the speed at which desalination of seawater and containerisation is being managed.
We are faced with quite a dilemma – decreasing fresh water supplies, yet the melting icebergs are adding volumes of fresh water to sea levels causing them to rise. In the 1990s, Greenland’s ice mass remained stable; however in recent years its ice sheet has declined rapidly. As Greenland holds 10% of the total global ice mass, if it were to melt, according to the Natural Resources Defence Council, sea levels could increase by up to 21 feet, wiping out most islands and low-lying countries.
Are you ready for the reefs of the future? The once majestic architecture of the 21st century soon to be crumbling high-rises, remnants of collapsed freeways and other rotting building structures peeking out of the sea as you drive by – a consequence of increased CO2 levels, melting icebergs and rising sea levels.
As a result of the fuel challenge, most new vehicles produced in future will be electric cars that will need to be recharged or they will be hybrids. We already have the technology for self-driving cars today, but we lack the infrastructure and mind-set to make them work properly, so it will be interesting to see the extent to which high population growth, lack of space and the energy crisis accelerate the introduction of these innovations.
Cars today already have emergency braking systems, self-parking and freeway cruising features, but the next breakthrough in vehicles will be the enhanced use of smart technologies that enable self-drive features, adapting to changing road and weather conditions. Manufacturers will have a huge role to play guaranteeing safety standards of their vehicles, and insurers will need to continue investing in sophisticated technologies to make claims indisputable. As you can see, this becomes an industry in itself. Discovery Insurance in South Africa is a good example of this, where they install a ‘tracker’ device on all vehicles they insure, which monitors the driving patterns of the drivers, tracks speed, and can even deduce whether someone was texting whilst driving!
Are the current generations aware of these developments, and are we doing enough to develop the requisite interest and skills to contribute ideas and solutions to these professions?
Employment models will continue to change but at a more staggering rate. An influx of people to city centres seeking employment will create a demand for better facilities such as education and healthcare, putting pressure on the system.
However, as organisations face continued cost pressures, the size of their operations will drastically reduce to a lean workforce, keeping only essential business functions and critical skills in-house whilst outsourcing the rest, not to third party suppliers as has been done over the last two decades, but to the free market. If technology has exponentially advanced enough to hold all the necessary personal data and will execute traditional HR and remuneration functions, ‘people management practices’ will become a non-event. It will therefore make more sense to contract directly with the market, as it subtracts the unnecessary overhead of ‘management fees’ charged by outsourced providers.
The future will see a greater use of virtual employees as well as virtual automated ‘employees’ based on interactive software. Antiquated versions of these have been used as far back as the 1990s – activated by simple voice commands – but many organisations experiencing high call volumes, such as cinemas and banks, have implemented more sophisticated interactive voice technologies to assist with basic customer queries, while real people will need to engage with customers on more complex issues.
Greater use of technology will redefine employment models. Even outsourced providers will be greatly affected – not only will we see them reduce in number but their service offerings will also radically change, if not disappear completely. Not even specialist, large-scale operations like data centres will survive, as cloud computing will have completely revolutionised how we store, access and retrieve high volumes of even confidential data.
Globalisation is a collective term that is used to describe a combination of elements such as global economics, the trading of commodities, mobility of people across various geographies and the transference of knowledge, all of which are affected primarily by business and socio-cultural norms. The rapid increase in cross-border movement of goods, services, technology and capital has led to the emergence of a global marketplace and greater interdependence between various economies.
Focusing specifically on the people implications of globalisation, it is safe to assume several things. Despite major advances in tele- and video-conferencing, other remote working capabilities, and organisational cultures evolving to accommodate a variety of flexible workforce arrangements, critical business will still be done in person, business deals will be closed in person, and project start-ups will kick off in person. There will still very much need to be an in-person dynamic to business. Technology will not entirely replace the need for face-to-face contact at critical stages of business lifecycles. Therefore, we need to ensure that we create global leaders and global workers for the future.
The extreme demands of globalisation require a new generation of people who are immediately mobile yet have the strength of character to manage numerous virtual workers and teams. As organisations continue to downscale, the increased demands of jobs, the varied working hours, the challenges that each of us will be expected to overcome, the complexity of problems that we will be required to solve, and the wide and deep nature of work itself will take its toll on employees. They will be expected to produce greater outputs by processing higher volumes of information, recalling efficiently, synthesising rapidly, and articulating concisely. Better memories and vocal eloquence will be a must.
The knock-on effect of a faster pace of life with higher demands and greater challenge is the impact on our health. The speed with which we work, the advances in communications and travel will in turn demand greater physical and mental agility. This leaves us at risk of burnout and becoming ill unless we cope with challenges better and indeed master how we deal with stress and conflict in more taxing environments.
Adopting a mind-set of avoidance or defeat will guarantee our failure as a species. Challenges will serve as great opportunities for those who adopt creative mind-sets and a desire to develop the solutions. If we adopt a positive attitude we are likely to see great advances in the area of healthcare. Nanoparticles, a new wave in technology, are already being incorporated into drugs, while other more advanced areas of nanotechnology are being tested in biomedical, optical and electronic fields. In the future, nano-robots, ranging in size from 0.1–10 micrometres, are anticipated to make repairs on a cellular level, which when combined with the advances in stem cell research, will revolutionise the way we detect and treat damage and disease in the human body. It would not therefore be too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that cancers will be eradicated, poor eye-sight reversed and mental illness will be fully treatable.
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