The 2020s Will Be A Decade of Revolutionary Change

Certain decades come to define history. All the pieces are aligning to ensure that the 2020s are one of those decades.

Expect to see rioting and disorder expand across the world.

The Networked World

Two separate organisations have released reports saying they expect to see the globe undergo fundamental changes in the coming decade.

The first report, emanating from the risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecoft, states that close to half of the world’s countries will experience large scale civil disorder and rioting in 2020 alone.

Most of the countries named in the report will not surprise anyone. Countries within the long ‘arch of instability’ across Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, such as Iran, Libya or Yemen, dominate the list, however so do countries such as France and Chile.

The report goes further by stating that almost all nations will witness some pernicious effects from global instability due to the interlinked nature of the global economic system.

The second report comes from Bank of America, who have identified the key trends which will define the change of global society. Among the defining trends focused on here is the increasing role of populism from the Left and Right, the rejection of globalisation and the societal roll out of AI and next-generation energy technology.

The BofA report is more in-depth and covers a wider territory than the Maplecroft report but both are intended to be read by business executives and investment professionals, whose jobs depend more than most on getting future predictions correct. The fact that two trusted institutions with access to a wealth of data are saying that instability will become the new normal the world over should make us pay attention.

Fragmenting World

If the 2010’s were defined by several interlocking trends emerging and intensifying, then the 2020’s will be defined by these trends coming to the surface as key technologies and political ideas which had been germinating on the margins enter into the mainstream.

Perhaps the most significant theme of the BofA report stems around fragmentation of the global order. We saw globalisation begin to lose its influence as an idea and be rejected by electorates, particularly in the year 2016, across the developed world.

This re-assertion of the nation will likely come in two flavours, there will be the conservative nationalism which will seek to retain the status quo of current territorial borders and a form of what I call ‘liberationist’ nationalism. This will be the force which will seek succession for the various state-less peoples across the world, the issues of Kurdistan and Catalunya look set to resurface throughout the coming decade.

Many traditional state structures throughout the world will likely find themselves convulsed by these competing visions as minorities seek to redraw state boundaries in peripheral regions and political parties and nationalist strongmen in the capitals use increasingly authoritarian measures to prevent them.

Alongside this, we will see immense technological advances in the form of automation which will play an increasing role in our lives throughout this coming decade. The cost of installation will decrease and the capability of performance will skyrocket. Eventually it will get to the stage where it is more economically feasible to have manual jobs, such as factory or infrastructure work, be completed by robotics. While this will benefit people in the longrun, the short term adjustment period that this will require will be negative for many people.

The numbers expected to lose their jobs in this first phase vary, with some reports saying around 30%, the original 2013 study by Oxford scholars Frey and Osborne placed the number of ‘at-risk’ employment at close to half. Its worth saying that these numbers are based on American employment but it is likely that they would be replicated across all major developed economies.

The BofA report links these two phenomena by saying that this new technology will allow local production of goods and therefore could make large-scale shipment of cheap products from beyond national borders (for instance, from global manufacturing centres like China) obsolete. This, the report states, will create national production projects where state elites seek to mobilise the resources of local economies in a form of economic nationalism. These national projects, alongside the resentment and desire for control we can expect to see from the mass job losses, will make nationalism a significant part of the coming decade.

The Post-Carbon Decade

The transition to low carbons forms of powering energy infrastructures looks set to speed up exponentially in the next ten years.

Climate change was at the core of global discourse throughout the last decade and looks set to play a major role throughout the second decade of the second millennium. Our last ten years has shown the stress that the environment has undergone as a result of the pursuit of continual economic growth.

The world’s powers are all equally responsible for this. The United States, for instance, has pursued a policy of energy independence by utilising its vast shale gas deposits, a means of extraction which is more environmentally damaging than traditional methods. This has largely succeeded for the US and increased their resilience to shocks from the global energy infrastructure.

However, any decline in carbon dioxide produced by a decline in oil shipping to North America has been offset by the continual rise of China’s manufacturing base and the increasing demands of its newly affluent middle-class.

Likewise, the Russians have continued their strategy of the maximum exploitation of their hydrocarbon resources to make themselves one of the key power brokers in global energy networks.

Climate-related issues which have previously been ignored will come to the surface throughout the next years. Compared to the melting arctic or the burning Amazon, issues such as the spread of the world’s desserts or the drying up of its fresh water stocks have largely gone unnoticed.

However, desertification and depleting fresh water stocks are just as destabilising to the political system of the region its occurring in. We have seen how the southward spread of the Sahara has increased ethnic violence in the regions of Africa’s Sahel between nomads and settled populations. Likewise the rise in people being forced to share increasingly limited water resources has contributed to conflicts and geopolitical competitions as far afield as North-East Africa to the Chinese-Indian border.

The competition for resources is something which is deep within the DNA of human beings, however so is our capacity to design tools to make more efficient use of those resources and it is in the rational self-interest of elites to pursue these methods.

Moore’s Law is a concept in computer science which says that the number of transistors within a given space in a technology would double every couple of years, thereby leading to an exponential improvement in computer capability.

This doesn’t just apply to computers but also to all forms of technological advancement which occurs at an exponential rate. Methods to improve the use of global resources, for instance technology to desalinate water at a lower electrical cost, are improving and as they improve they will both compound in their effectiveness and lower in their production cost.

The prospect of national elites unifying with corporate executives to create national R&D projects comes into this, as these technologies will be at the forefront of these efforts.

We have already seen these ideas emerging, the first variations being in the proposed ‘Green New Deal’ and ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ in the US and UK respectively. These ideas are only concepts at the moment but look to be realities sooner than we expect.

Ironically, it is these ideas which the BofA report states will lead to increasing nationalism. While they may be within the domains of the Political Left at the moment, we will likely see these ideas adopted by numerous parts of the political spectrum.

These trends mean we could see the emergence of ‘green-nationalism’ across much of the world as states begin to implement wide-ranging clean energy infrastructures integrated with AI and robotics technology. This will be motivated largely out of self-interest as elites across the world realise the benefit that will come from fusing large-scale national projects with the agenda to preserve their local eco-systems.

At the moment we at a tipping point in which renewable energy technologies will soon outpace traditional energy technologies in both their affordability and how much energy they produce. When this happens, expect to see the uptake of renewable technology at a surprisingly rapid pace.

The effect of this transition on geopolitics looks set to engender some tumultuous changes in the global system. How will countries which depend on steady exporting of oil handle the globe’s move away from it? Saudi Arabia, for instance, is already attempting a diversification of economic output with its ambitious modernisation plans. Whether it can survive in a world in which more powerful nations have less of an incentive to protect it is questionable.

Whatever the fate of oil-exporting countries, the exponential adoption of renewable energy is coming and when it is fully adopted in the developed economies of the west, the non-western powers of China, Russia and India will be forced to follow suit to remain competitive. This mass transition looks set to be one of the main phenomena of the next decade.

A Digital Jail?

The new terminology that was birthed throughout the previous decade often focused on fears of the building of a digital dystopia in which technology would be used to control and direct the mass psychology of populations across the world, think “fake news”. Events such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which it was revealed that this company had means of using Facebook and social media data to manipulate the mass psychology of internet users to achieve political ends.

The use of underhanded means to manipulate public opinion is nothing new, or necessarily sinister, but what is new is the sheer amount of information that large internet companies, often called Big Tech, now have to access the information of their users.

The confluence of this so-called ‘Big Data’ and new power of facial recognition technology could represent the creation of the greatest architecture of monitoring and control ever constructed by humanity.

A potential coalition of the companies that control this information and states with less than perfect democratic credentials (i.e. all of them) is something which could lead to a slow loss of personal privacy and individual liberty across large swathes of an increasingly urban planet. The state social credit system being constructed throughout much of mainland China is an example of this kind of control system.

As already mentioned, we will likely see a proliferation of rioting and civil disorder throughout the coming years and this could give states even more of an impetus to use this advanced technology first in the legitimate pursuit of stability and then eventually to secure complete control over their populations.

This scenario is an extreme one but it is not far removed from historical example. Humanity is now awakening to the possible nefarious uses of technology and the debate around privacy and personal liberty in a world in which technology could allow complete control looks set to intensify in the next decade.

The rioting and violent protests currently wracking Hong Kong are not just grounded in questions of that city’s sovereignty and identity as opposed to that of mainland China but also in concerns of the constant expansion of China’s vast security-industrial complex over the island-city. Its telling that rioters are pulling down streetlights they suspect of harbouring cameras and eschewing their credit cards for cash to prevent their movements being tracked.

At the flip side aswell, the rioting has given Beijing’s expert security services an opportunity to further improve their methods of population control in the streets and testing of state-sponsored hacking methods in cyber space.

This high-tech competition between state-corporate authorities and dissidents will have to be something we get used to. The events in Hong Kong will likely be mimicked in one way or another across much of the globe.

To Live In Interesting Times

Mentioned above are only some of the key trends mentioned in the two reports. Aswell, the future is almost impossible to predict. The possibility of unexpected events from the margins forcing their way into the centre of culture (as Taleb would call them, “Black Swans”) cannot be dismissed. Likewise, humans are victims of certain biases which can prevent us from being able to predict future events. One thing that we can be sure of is that this decade will be one for the history books.

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Dominic M. Lawson

Dominic M. Lawson

Geopolitics, international affairs and technology. Follow me on Twitter @DominicLawson