Trends are all the rage. As we begin a new year, there are no shortages of predictions and speculation about what the future may hold. Trends can be useful, but they are also problematic. Despite their appeal, trends:
- Are a reflection of the past because all data is historical by nature
- Don’t account for wildcards and unpredictable events
- Become more difficult to predict the further out we look
- Encourage extrapolating the past into the future, rather creating new visions
- Support an economic/tech-driven mindset (e.g. what to invest in next) which isn’t always the right approach
- Are simple and linear, and not systemic (we tend to follow single threads and not how they weave together)
- Can be vague, misleading, or wrong, especially when they capture short-lived fads
- Are not all equal
Given the sheer number of trend predictions, it can be difficult to determine what matters and what to pay attention to.
To that point, I would argue there are only three trends that matter:
- Climate change and the havoc it will wreak
- The battle for an equal, just, and democratic society
- The rise of artificial intelligence
These three things significantly impact what it means to be human, how we relate to each other, and whether or not we survive the next century. While other trends may have short-term buzz and/or financial benefits, it is the above three that will dominate and shape our reality in the years to come.
What I’d like to propose is that the above three trends should serve as basic criteria for future-proofing, and innovating in a way that is coherent with the reality we’re facing.
When we design for the future, we should ask:
- Does it support long-term environmental sustainability? How?
- Does it enable justice, equality, and democracy? How?
- How is it helped or hindered by AI, and what are the underlying ethics and assumptions?
Why This Approach?
We live in an increasingly complex world with intricate connections. Any one of the above three mega-trends can create havoc on its own but, combined, they will exasperate and antagonize each other in ways we have yet to imagine. It is critical to acknowledge that these three things are happening at once, and not in isolation. We need to take a systemic view of our future.
Climate Change: We have reached a critical point in history. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have 12 years to mitigate (not prevent) the substantial consequences that climate change will have on the world. By all counts and measure, we’re in trouble. It gets worse when you consider that standard deviations in climate can trigger violence and conflict. Climate change will impact everything. There is still no Planet B.
An Equal, Just, and Democratic Society: Along with climate change, the tides of populism are rising around the world. Tech companies like Facebook are eroding the fabric of democracy and wield more power than entire countries. Even the recent announcement and debate around Crispr challenges the very foundations of what it means to be equal. Our socio-economic and political climate has significant and far-reaching consequences that impact every aspect of life and the systems we live within. The general consensus seems to be that we ‘live in a time of fear’.
The Rise of AI: The issue with artificial intelligence is not just the advancement of technology but the ethics and morals that underpin it. Who decides what is ethical and moral? At the moment, fundamental decisions about the future of ethics and morality are being driven by entrepreneurs. Policy has barely kept up with technological progress and remains in a reactionary state in the face of mass disruption. Furthermore, AI has the ability to undermine the nature of reality. Technology such as DeepFake can create realistic digital versions of us that say and do things we have never said or done. Ultimately, we need to question what AI means for our humanity.
What is the implication? Innovations, policies, or strategic planning initiatives that do not equally consider climate change, the battle for equality, justice, and democracy, and artificial intelligence are deficient. Our visions of the future need to account for all three trends AND how they interact with each other in order to help us prepare for the challenges ahead.
The Future of Work: An Example
Conversations about the future work focus on AI and automation. The barrage of reports by consultancies, think tanks, government organizations, etc. tend to zero in on this one trend, with less acknowledgment that climate change and our social climate will have a severe impact on the future of work too. I have seen plenty of scenarios that feature robots and none that discuss severe weather. The lens of AI and automation fails to capture the true scope and complexity of the problem.
When we expand the future of work to include the first two trends, we have to acknowledge that the emerging reality may be radically different than the vision we’re preparing for.
By adding climate change to the mix, conversations and scenarios about the future of work resemble an unsustainable fantasy. Set AI and automation aside for a second. What happens to the future of work when our planet can no longer sustain us? Do we even have a future, let alone one in which we need to worry about jobs? And what jobs do we need to perform now to ensure our planet remains viable? Our technophilic visions of the future of work suggest that such a future will arrive in a protected bubble, unaffected by the planet decaying around it. It might not be the robots we need to worry about, rather the air, water, and soil we need to live.
Factoring in the decay or progression of an equal, just, and democratic society is also essential. Democracy is a fragile narrative, not a given. Without democracy, the nature and purpose of work would change. The loss of jobs is fueling social tension, but these very tensions and their political implications also impact jobs. The two reinforce each other. Gender equality has the potential to increase U.S. GDP by $4.3 trillion, yet it is often looked at as a separate issue from AI and automation. Add these considerations on top of climate change and AI, and the future of work becomes even more precarious.
Why is it that we continue to look at these issues in isolation? And what work should we actively create or destroy to prepare for these possibilities?
Shifting our Thinking
Whether we are discussing strategies, policies, etc. around the future of work or other issues, we need to acknowledge the complexity of the future we are headed towards. When we stop focusing on trends and start focusing on systems, we will have a better, more complete understanding of what possibilities may emerge next.
In order to further the conversation around the future of work, I created a set of ‘Job Ads From the Future’ to challenge the current line of thinking (all eight can be seen here). The future of work is about more than AI and automation; it is also about climate change and battle for an equal, just, and democratic society.
It is important to note that these are speculative pieces exploring the intersection of the three trends. They are not predictions or suggestions. These experiential futures are designed to provoke conversations. In doing so, I hope you look past the trends and at the possibilities.
This article passed a peer-review process and will be featured in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Futures Studies.