Where do we want to be in 20 years?
By Trevor Moore
A few days ago, there appeared on a couple of Facebook Groups a picture of what looks like a physical advertisement that asks the question “where will we be in 20 years?”
It seems that “Eurobodalla Council is reviewing the Community Strategic Plan, which outlines everybody's vision and aspirations for the Shire.” One of the posts asks, not unreasonably, “shouldn't a Community Strategic Plan for the next 20 years be undertaken by the new upcoming council?”. Probably yes but the interesting thing is that the current Community Strategic Plan, which was published in 2017, asked a different question. It asked, “where do we want to be?” and I argue that this is a different question, and needs to be tackled differently from the question “where do we want to be in 20 years?” The difference arises because of the time frame. It is the case that on page 1 of the 2017 plan the mayor writes about “work[ing] together over the next 20 years to enable and achieve a strong, vibrant and diverse community. There is nothing else in the document that suggests a timeframe.
The 2017 document is a good document. It is well laid-out and it is easy enough to read. It describes a vision. It says we should be friendly, responsible, thriving, and proud. Those are very fine attributes, but they cannot be interpreted other than against the backdrop of what the world looks like. Since the publication of that plan, we have faced fires, floods, and the plague. How did we do? We do not know because, although a set of key community indicators were published separately, I cannot find any measurement against them. One cannot disagree with the four attributes listed but the way in which we live up to them will change. And the result of that may be that their meaning may change. Indeed, their meaning may be different to different people.
The advertisement says that the update to the 2017 plan will be achieved through asking four questions. These four questions are nearly the same as the questions asked for the 2017 plan, namely: where are we now? where do we want to be in 20 years' time? how will we get there? and how will we know we've arrived? There’s nothing wrong with those questions: they are basically Consulting 101 questions and, I suggest, they will not give us the answer we need. The challenge lies in that phrase “in 20 years’ time”. We need to know what the world will be like in 20 years’ time. And, of course, we cannot. We can guess but we will be wrong. We do not have a crystal ball.
We do not have a crystal ball (photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash). I do not know if a contract has been let to undertake this work. If it has, I have not seen the terms of reference. I hope a contract has not been let because the terms of reference for the “20 years’ time” question need to be carefully thought through, and I agree that this work should be delayed until after the new Council has been sworn in. This is not just because 20 years is a long way off. There are plenty of industries that need to plan for longer than 20 years. The thing is that there is no single vision for 20 years that will work for everyone. We do so much need an answer as we need a conversation. The consultants that assist with this work will need to have a background in storytelling as well as information collection, analysis and synthesis, and communication. They will need to describe scenarios of the world in 2041.
Thirty years ago, in 1992, I was lucky enough to be invited by a department of the UK Government to lead a team to take a look at technology trends over the following 18 years, to 2010 (18 years a strange number but it is three NATO planning periods). Now the client needed a view on this to be able to plan the UK’s defence capability. One question we did not need to consider, but a question that the Community Strategic Plan review must consider, is the interaction between technology and society. Do we make technology advances because society (or people) want them, or do we make technology advances and then see whether people adopt them? The truth is somewhere in between these two points of view. In the case of my 1992 review, we foresaw the rise of the internet, the extent of mobile communications, we foresaw the concept of cloud storage, and we had an idea of a keyboard-less computer (though I would not say we forecast the smartphone and tablet). But we failed to foresee a technology that has today become indispensable to society. We missed social media. We knew that there were (albeit primitive) internet notice boards (it wasn’t called the internet then) for sharing and exchanging information - I had used these in the early 1980s - but projecting forward from them to Twitter (founded in 2006) or Facebook (founded in 2004) was too much to expect.
So, let’s fast forward to 2021 and look back 20 years. Here are a few observations:
- we had no iPhones: I mention the iPhone because its design (rather than its technology) in large part drove the smart device. The iPhone appeared in 2007
- as I noted above, there was no real social media and yet now it has transformed the way we interact and the way we get news. It has both shrunk the world while facilitating closer local connections. Whether social media is a force for good in our lives is perhaps an open question
- on-all-the-time broadband was a novelty, now the idea that wi-fi is a layer in Maslow’s hierarchy is not as silly as it used to be
- the Windows PC was the dominant device to access the internet, now it’s the smart phone and if you use a computer, it is as likely to be an Apple as a PC
- there was very little online retail, today on-line retail has been an important factor in keeping locked down people relatively sane
- SARS arrived in 2002 but it was happening somewhere else. If you had asked a random someone about the Spanish ‘flu you would probably have got a blank look
- the cash rate in August 2000 was 6.25%: it’s currently 0.1%
- there were about 6 people working to support each person over 65, now it’s 5 and dropping
Now not all these things are only about technology, but they are things that have changed us. We are a different society, with different connections, different politics, and some different economic instruments (Bitcoin came in 2009). If we are to take a look at where we would like to be in 20 years’ time, then we have to have a conversion about what the world might look like at that time. There is no single view of that but there could be a single conversation about it. We need to know what the likely parameters will be that will affect our well-being. Then we can talk about how we will need to respond. Consider these predictions. In 20 years' (in no particular order) …
- the world will have heated by another 1°C or so: extreme weather events (fires, floods, droughts) will be less extreme and more normal which will mean we will need strategies to protect ourselves and especially the vulnerable
- we will not use cash: that will mean there will be no bank branches. It will also mean that we need to understand how we help people who may be on the wrong side of the digital divide
- artificial intelligence will be the norm and be driven by advances in quantum computing: we all know that computers get more powerful and will enable quicker, faster, and hopefully better algorithms to analyse. We need to know that these algorithms are fair and just
- and that means robots everywhere, almost certainly displacing jobs. If something can be automated, then it will be: that includes the automation of parts of the jobs of professionals like lawyers and doctors as well as lower-paid jobs and even housework. In 20 years, robots will be able to detect emotion and will be care providers. The impact of this on the Shire - as everywhere - will be enormous; it will change the economy
- our cars will drive themselves; they will be connected and negotiate traffic situations with one another. They are more likely to be hydrogen powered than electric
- body modification will be increasingly normal, not tattooing and piercing but prosthetics and other artificial body parts
- we will communicate with technology through gestures, such as eye movement and arm movements. Control of devices through telepathy will be capable of mass production will be in its early adoption stage
- virtual reality (VR) will supersede out current two-dimensional screens: the effect of this on education will be significant as VR replaces textbooks
- the smartphone will be very old-school in 20 years. We will use augmented or virtual reality to pull up screens from very small devices that may be implanted in our bodies
On-line shopping will come by drone. (photo by Jonathan Lampel on Unsplash) In addition to these changes, the world will be hotter and there will be more extreme weather events, except that rather than being extreme they will be becoming the norm. This will have huge health implications. The Federal Government’s recent Intergenerational Report tells us that economic growth will be slower because population growth will slow though, I suspect, productivity may edge higher because of robotics. By 2041, even the most diehard of fossil fuel advocates will have given up. All our energy will come from renewable sources. This will happen because no one will invest in fossil fuel anymore, a trend that is nearly here today. The changes in our lives as far as work is concerned will mean that we will enjoy a universal basic income.
It is possible that these ideas are wrong, they probably are in detail but probably not in concept. They may worry you. They worry me but that’s because I will be 91 in 2041 and the world will not be my world. My granddaughters will be in their 20s. It will be their world and they will not be scared of it because they will have grown up with it.
When the consultants that are engaged to update the Community Strategic Plan, they will need to factor all this into the conversation that they have. They will need to be clever enough and experienced enough to know that where we want to be in 20 years is not a question but a conversation.
Postscript: some readers will know that as well as having been a consultant for 40 years I am also a mathematician. For any other mathematicians out there, I predict that we will not have solved the Riemann Hypothesis and nor the Goldbach Conjecture and we still will not know if P = NP (which will continue to limit the potential of quantum computing).