The List






The Plight of the Futurologist - Part One


It's not an easy task trying to predict the future; just ask the former president of IBM, Thomas J Watson, who, in 1958, confidently stated that 'there is a world market for about five computers.' Or the 19th century British MP, who extrapolated from the rate of population growth in London at the time, and the number of horses needed to support such growth, that by the middle of the twentieth century the capital would be six feet deep in manure.

Most predictions like these emerge from a 'more of the same' thesis; that is to say, the forecaster assumes that the future will be just like the present, except for trend-derived growth in whatever area their prediction covers.

The obvious problem with this approach is that the future isn't always like the present; motor cars replaced the horse, and silicon chips replaced the valve - both paradigm shifting inventions that were unforeseen by the two forecasters mentioned above.

The other common, but equally hopeless, methodology is the 'end of the world is nigh' one. This operates on the principle that resolute pessimism, if maintained for long enough, will at some point be mirrored by reality, and that the myriad false positives that occur in the meantime will be instantly forgotten when the seers' predictions ultimately (but no more than coincidentally) come true.

Occasionally this works; a few of the more grim constant forecasters of economic recessions and depressions, for example, have managed to revel in the glory of their predictions being accurate for the 10% of times they actually hit the mark, whilst neatly sidestepping any criticism or disbelief in the efficacy of their methods for the 90% of times when they're so wide of the mark that the services of a pack of bloodhounds are required to retrieve the arrow.

Mostly, though, when the boldly asserted dates of Armageddon, oil supplies drying up, or robots doing the housework, pass without any of these scenarios actually happening, the forecasters are finally branded by sensible people as deluded nuts. Unfortunately, this judgement is usually settled upon post facto; prior to the event there will always be those who are seduced by the certainty with which the forecaster proclaims their vision of what will be.

All this said, I now propose to join the charlatans, the deluded and the plain mad, and offer you the first four of my sixteen predictions for 2020. I do not claim that they are anything other than speculative thoughts, but I have tried to avoid falling into the common traps mentioned above, to which too many before me have fallen victim.

1) Oil won't have run out

A tad obvious, maybe, but a safe first prediction. I will also go as far as to say that peak oil will not have been reached by this date, either. Oil is a finite resource, but efficiency savings and alternative methods of production (oil from shale, for one) will ensure that growing global demand is met, at least in the short to medium term.

2) The internal combustion engine will still be alive and well

The recent availability of electric cars with petrol-equalling performance, such as the Tesla, has led many commentators to question whether the hundred year dominance of the internal combustion engine is about to come to an end. It isn't, of course - the major disadvantages of electric cars, such as their lack of range, high cost and the fact that the power they use is still primarily generated by fossil fuels, mean that society will not be abandoning petrol and diesel any time soon.

However, this doesn't mean that the status quo will continue ad infinitum (although the band might, given their history). Expect to see high performance KERS systems trickle down from F1 into supercars, high end saloons and sports cars in the near future; starting with Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and BMW first, and followed closely by Lotus, Audi and Porsche. These won't resemble the limp and heavy hybrid drivetrains seen in Hondas and Toyotas, but will instead offer meaningful power boosts, allowing smaller capacity, more fuel efficient engines, with consequently lower CO2 emissions.

Electric cars will be more widely available, and cheaper too, but will be marketed predominantly as city cars rather than as long distance transportation.

3) Congestion will ease

Politicians, or to be more precise, politicians and their clueless advisors, generally seem to be fans of the 'more of the same' view of the future. In the context of transport planning, this has led to to their implementation of increasingly convoluted and expensive systems to 'ease' congestion in major cities, few of which can be said to have been wholly successful.

The main problem is their obsession with creating an artificial and limited binary opposition: public transport good, private transport bad. In reality, the former is usually expensive, uncomfortable, and unlikely to take you exactly where you want to go, unless you live in one train station and work at another, whilst the latter is comfortable, does not require you to share your space with a person who has cracked open a can of Stella Artois at 9am, but is often a slow and inefficient means by which to travel through cities.

Congestion is unlikely to be eased by policies that adhere to this overly simplistic view of transport choices as 'moral' or 'immoral'; repeated attempts to make public transport work, in the UK at least, have failed, yet, like Einstein's insane person, we do the same thing over and over again, and expect different results.

What will ease congestion is a paradigm shift in the way in which people engage in work. The proliferation of broadband, and the ever increasing processing power of our PCs, Macs and mobile devices, has already begun to make the notion of a fixed physical place of work seem strangely old-fashioned. Ten years down the line, and with a million new applications having been invented, for many, the office, and the attendant commute, will be a relic from the past.

4) We won't be drowning/burning up* (*delete as applicable)

The human capacity to worry that the end is near has been a constant throughout much of civilisation, showing that even when we had more important things to worry about, such as not starving to death, we still had the capacity to create even worse imagined fates.

From the Jews' notion of Armageddon, through to the more modern concept of the complete obliteration of mankind by nuclear holocaust, biological warfare or global warming, no generation seems to have been complete without its own particular spin on the age-old 'we're all going to die' story.

Fortunately, we're not. All going to die, that is. Nor are we, in the Western world, at least, going to be drowning in sea water caused by rising ocean levels, or finding our land becoming desertified, despite what environmentalists would like you to believe.

All of this will not happen, not because I believe that scientists are wrong about global warming, but because of the simple aphorism that necessity (and the attendant money to be made) is the mother of invention. Capitalism feeds on a market, and when that market is as big as saving the world, the solutions will be rapidly created.