Beyond the event horizon, towards 2070

This article is based on remarks by James Tickell of Campbell Tickell to the CHC Culture and Organisational Development Conference of 2021.

I am often asked to speak about the present, and the near future. It’s an unusual privilege to think about the world that awaits our great-grandchildren, and on to their grandchildren.

It’s not quite geological time, but it does take us way beyond the event horizon of everyday life into the realms of imagination. So let’s start with two principles.

Forget the disaster movies

The first principle is that it is vital not to catastrophise the future. Forget about asteroid impacts, nuclear wars, solar flares, giant volcanoes and all that. If they happen, it’s game over. And with any luck they won’t.

True, there are worrying trends; there always are. We’re living through a pandemic at the moment, and didn’t see it coming. There will be setbacks. But we have to believe in human ingenuity, resilience, and inspiration. After all, we surprised ourselves with our response to the challenge of remote working at a few days notice. It is surely best to approach the future with cautious optimism, and a belief that we now can help to shape positive outcomes for our grandchildren. 2070 will be no utopia, but there are many reasons why there will have been positive progress and change by then.

Looking back to look forward

The second principle is the Law of Double Lookback. This says that to think forward 50 years, you need to look back 100 years. So, by 2070, our world today will seem as distant as 1919 is for us now. In 1919, the world was recovering from a savage global pandemic, which had killed as many as 5% of the population. There were cars, airplanes held together with string, and a telegram and telephone system. So not completely unrecognisable from now.

But to adapt Arthur C Clarke’s law, much of today’s technology would seem like magic to my grandfather, and his contemporaries, who survived both the trenches and the so-called Spanish Flu. Social attitudes too, so different, and actually, even over the troubled 20th century, there has been huge progress towards prosperity, equality, better health and reducing poverty. We mustn’t forget that. Humanity has progressed, even if there were some huge setbacks along the way.

So as we peer uncertainly through the mists of imagination and towards the world of our descendants, after all of us are long gone, what do we see? I’m not going to make predictions – I don’t want any comeback in 2070 from disgruntled readers! And I also remember the TV series called Tomorrow’s World, which was great fun, but got almost nothing right by way of future gazing.

Five themes to consider

Instead, I suggest five themes to consider, as we think about 2070.

1. Power

I start with the theme of power.

Power in society is held in perhaps four main areas, and there is both overlap and an ebb and flow between them. Governments evidently wield power, with their tax raising, their military and economic clout and their law-making. Global power is now becoming more dispersed, and shifting away from the West.

Next come the corporations and banks, with their own clout, and their apparent growing influence over many governments. Within that, the social media companies have an ever increasingly important role. Criminal and factional interests sadly the third, in some countries having even infiltrated and now controlling governments and national resources.

And last of the four, but very much not least, the power of citizens, people like us, voters, taxpayers, consumers, activists, parents, grandparents. It is surely in that power that the key to a good future lies.

2. The next technology revolution

The second is that we stand now on the brink of another technological revolution. The Artificial Intelligence Revolution. This includes all the possibilities of the human brain being able to interface directly with technology. Some of us here may remember a time before mobile phones and the internet. For myself, I remember travelling on a standard British Rail steam train. How did we manage without mobiles? In 50 years’ time, people will look back, and wonder at the memory of a world without ubiquitous artificial intelligence, without robots and drones.

For now, automated voice menus are deeply annoying, and so too is internet chat with robot assistants. These are the equivalent of biplanes held together with string; by 2070, we’ll laugh at them. You ain’t seen nothing yet!

Like all new technologies, Artificial Intelligence can be used for good or evil. The technology itself is morally neutral. But once it gets going, the world of work, learning, commerce and leisure will be changed utterly. It may be that human creativity and imagination can then truly flourish; we shall see. That’s my optimist speaking.

On the downside, we’ve seen in recent times that the internet can just as well be used to spread lies, bigotry and unusual conspiracy theories as it can to advance human knowledge and understanding. How many people in the world believe that COVID vaccination is all about Bill Gates trying to microchip everyone? Too many. We’ve also seen how a pervasive technology driven authoritarianism can work, with China already putting 1984 into the shade. The first that happens in a coup d’etat is that someone turns off the internet, and blocks Twitter and Facebook.

We also know that failures of technology, maybe under cyber-attack, show new vulnerabilities in human society. Some housing organisations have already fallen victim to ransom attacks and others will too.

One piece of advice to my grandchildren – choose an education and career in something a machine won’t be able to do in ten years time. Be ready too to enjoy four or five completely different careers in your lifetime.

3. Division and conflict

Thirdly, and perhaps worryingly, we live now in a fractious era, and in a multipolar world. Democrats and Republicans give a good example away from our own shores.

Each get half of the vote in the USA, and they detest and despise each other. Civility in politics pretty much dead, or in intensive care. A culture war is underway, and not only in the USA.

New and competing narratives are emerging, for instance around the history of slavery and Black Lives Matter. These are bitterly resisted by some, evidently progressive to others. Brexit was another 50/50 culture war. Never the twain shall meet.

Now there’s the future of the United Kingdon in play. Who would have thought that we’d ever see British gunboats facing up to the French in the Channel? Of course, this too is ultimately about power and money. But the theme for today is one of increasingly contested space, often in the context of failed states. Who would have thought that the dreadful phrase ‘ethnic cleansing’ would again have reared its ugly head in our lifetimes?

There is a struggle for global domination, control of ideas. China, the United States, India, the European Union and Russia. Divisions of culture, ideology and religion. Are we just going though a rough patch, or are these signs of times to come? And for how long? Will it have settled down by 2070?

4. Equality and the social contract

Fourthly, I want to speak about equality. Yes, we live in a far more equal world than that of 100 years ago. But inequality is back with us. And how! During the pandemic, the global billionaire class increased its share of global wealth by an estimated one third. Billionaires own approximately four times as much as the lower half of the entire world population. There’s even a new word for those who own 100 billion – centi-billionaires. A billion cents would be plenty for me. Women and ethnic minorities seem to have taken the biggest pandemic hit.

Some inequality is perhaps part of the human condition. But gross inequality is dangerous and corrosive to society. The social contract demands that somebody in a job should be able to feed, heat and house themselves and their family without experiencing hunger or deprivation. It demands that older people, and we are still an ageing society, should be able to live in dignity and comfort with good health and social care.

At the moment, that social contract, if not broken, is stretched very thin indeed. Grossly unequal societies just don’t work, not for long. They create contested space. Just think of the Russian revolution. For the sake of our grandchildren, we need that social contract back in good order. Social housing is a major part of that, of course, but it’s about so much more – wages, education, employment. That’s where we in the world of social housing come in. Whatever else we do, we’re part of the push for equality.

5. Floods, fires and tornados

Last, but not least, climate change is upon us. It can’t be ignored. We see fires, flood, droughts, extinctions and gradual sea level rise. This is the one that will matter most to future generations. It’s also the one that has the best potential to unite the human race. There are the climate change deniers and the vested interests, but we are all affected.

All of us, regardless of ideology, origin, wealth are subject to its dangers. No, even the billionaires can’t escape to live on Mars, even if they can now pop into space for the afternoon. We’re all in the same storm, although not in the same boat.

And so are all of our grandchildren, future generations waiting to be born. And it can be fixed. It isn’t quite too late. The solutions are basically known. Halting first steps are under way, and they’ll have to go further. Decarbonisation will cost a lot, for housing associations too, and slow down new development, but may actually boost the economy along the way. Climate change is a slo-mo asteroid strike, but one we can dodge.

Is optimism possible?

I said I was an optimist, but I’ve given you a mixed bag of messages. What we have going for us first of all is people power. Not populism. People power. We are the people. We have the spirit, the imagination and the determination.

There are just 2,500 billionaires in the world, and 8 billion of the rest of us. That’s just over three million people for every billionaire. That has to be a voice!

So what then is to be done?

Perhaps my most important message is that the world our grandchildren will inherit depends on us, and what we do now to shape it. We need optimism, and to prepare for setbacks too.

  • We have to use the power of many to choose wise leaders.
  • We must throw our all into the reversal of climate change.
  • We must be kind and compassionate, even to those with whom we disagree. Without dialogue and positive behaviours, solutions will be lost.
  • We must use our imagination to determine that artificial intelligence can help us all lead better lives, rather than oppressing and exploiting us.
  • We must never give up the important work we do to create a more equal, diverse and just society.
  • Our organisations need to focus relentlessly on purpose, people, culture and outcomes.

Our world in 2070 won’t be a utopia. But it still can be a world of natural beauty, where people are able to lead productive, safe, healthy, happy (and well-housed) lives.

We must make it so!

 

To discuss further, please contact James Tickell on: james.tickell@campbelltickell.com

 

Campbell Tickell is an established multi-disciplinary management and recruitment consultancy, operating across the UK and Ireland, focusing on the housing, social care, local government, sport, leisure, charity and voluntary sectors.

We are a values-based business and firmly place the positioning of our support and challenge on helping organisations to attain change that is well thought through, planned and sustainable. At CT, we want to help organisations create the landscape within which we ourselves would like to exist: fair, inclusive, diverse, engaged and transparent. We build from our values in how we approach all our work as a practice.

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