How will the world change in the next 20 years?

by Nigel Timmins.

Futures studies, foresight, or futurology is the practice of trying to predict possible future realities. It is not crystal ball gazing or witchcraft, but it is looking at current trends and identifying patterns from which different possibilities emerge. This area of work is growing in significance as governments and organisations seek to understand how robust their strategies are.

So, how will the world change in the next 20 years? 

Population growth is expected to slow down, but will continue to grow by at least another billion. Ninety-five per cent of the growth will be in developing countries and the majority in urban areas. This will increasingly test the infrastructure of a growing number of ‘megacities’. Europe’s population is expected to shrink and grow older with a declining proportion of the population working to support a growing number of elderly people.

Economic growth is expected to be greatest in developing countries, and in newly industrialised countries such as India and China, whilst an ageing Europe will see its economic power decline. (This situation may be mitigated by people migrating from the global South for work.) The medium and long-term impacts of the current economic crisis will be good as well as bad. On one hand, extensive government debt may lead to reduced public spending and international aid assistance, but on the other hand commitments made by the G20 to reorganise and improve international finance systems should have positive consequences. 

Climate change will be a major threat. Projections of food, water and environ­mental resource shortages anticipate that 46 countries, home to 2.7 billion people, will be at risk of violent conflict. Up to 1 billion people may be displaced by 2050, creating enormous social and political pressure.

Climate-related disasters have already been growing in number. This number is projected to increase, especially when combined with projections for an increase in the growth of informal urban settlements. On the positive side, the number of deaths per disaster is decreasing due to investments in disaster risk reduction. Recently there has also been a decline in the number of violent conflicts globally. Climate change is bringing a realisation of greater human interdependence and promoting investment in renewable energy sources.

Global epidemics may increase due to increased population movement, climate change and an increased number of emerging infectious diseases. The resistance of some diseases to drugs may also have an impact.

Technological development, especially in the realm of nanotechnology, is likely to bring wide-reaching improve­ments in the areas of medicine, energy and materials science. It will also be harnessed for military use.

Inform­ation technology will continue to grow and will be used more widely and by more people than ever before. However, growth is more likely to be driven by mobile phone networks than desktop computers. This vastly increased interconnectedness will allow the emergence of new groups of people, both those wishing to wield political power and those intent on disruption and organised crime.

Hierarchical political processes and structures, as well as the media that feeds them, are likely to be increasingly challenged. Progress towards recog­nising women’s contribution to society and improv­ing women’s rights and oppor­tuni­ties is slow. International terrorism is likely to remain a threat.

The impacts and local implications of these changes will vary widely. How will these changes affect you and your work? Tools for helping you think through possible future scenarios in your context can be found at: 

Exploring the future: tools for strategic thinking
(www.foresight.gov.uk/microsites/hsctoolkit/)

Humanitarian Futures Programme: Tools  (www.humanitarianfutures.org/mainsite/tools/index.php?page_ID=5)

Nigel Timmins is Head of the Disaster Management Unit at Tearfund.