Megatrends Are Defining Our Future

Understanding megatrends – their characteristics and impacts – is not easy and is made even more difficult by the fact that we lack a common understanding of what exactly they  are. The trend analyst and futurist Matthias Horx provides a helpfully short definition (taken from this website):

  • A megatrend has a half-life of at least 30 years.
  • It must be apparent in all areas of life: in everyday life, in politics, in culture, in the economy.
  • Megatrends can be observed all over the world, they are a truly global phenomenon.
  • A megatrend can survive setbacks, and its influence may weaken temporarily.

Since we are lacking  a  common understanding about what megatrends are, it is hardly surprising  that numerous researchers, institutions or news sources identify widely different megatrends (see e.g. here or here)

In his 2010 book “The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future”, the geophysicist Laurence Smith of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) names four megatrends. I highly recommend this book as it gives a general overview of how megatrends will affect people’s everyday lives in the future. What’s more, Smith also shows that megatrends do not come about in splendid isolation but rather amplify each other.

The author writes that he was initially planning to write a book about climate change yet during his extended visits to the Arctic region he noticed that climate change can’t be considered as a stand-alone issue. Consequently, Smith identifies four megatrends that will shape our future: demographic change, natural resources, globalization and climate change. To put it more precisely, Smith suggests that the biggest challenge of the century will be the following scenario:

The world’s population spikes at more than 9 billion people. This increase primarily takes place in developing countries that suffer from water stress. These people will be wealthier and will eat more meat, resulting in an increase in food production. The volume of agricultural products has to  double to meet this demand. In turn, this increase in agricultural production requires more water. Industrial capacity has to be extended and millions of new buildings have to be built (mostly in already densely populated urban areas). Quite apart from which, the water cycle also needs to be kept clean.

Laurence Smith sets up a thought experiment. Taking current data on megatrends as his basis, he tries to imagine what the world could look like in 2050 while avoiding taking account of any unpredictable developments like abrupt climate change. His conclusion is that the Northern Rim Countries (Russia, United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden) will benefit from these four megatrends mainly because warming in the Arctic region will release a vast amount of natural resources (like oil and gas) for exploitation. Furthermore, the water reserves in these countries will even grow unlike those of the global south. Plus, with the exception of Russia, the population in these countries is expected to grow whereas many other industrialized countries will suffer from a sharp drop in population.

At the end of his book Smith emphasizes that the impacts of the megatrends he outlines are not unavoidable. They are influenced by societal decisions. Personal decisions, he says, can indeed alter the perceptions and decisions of others.

Raising awareness is a precondition for changing people’s behavior. Only if we know what the future could look like will we be able and willing to act.

This article has originally been published by me on futurechallenges.org.

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