The future's bright?
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash
Faith Popcorn is an interesting New Yorker whose consultancy, BrainReserve, specialises in futurism, spotting future trends. I read her book Popcorn Reports, back in the 1990’s and thought this is the sort of fascinating job I’d like to do. She has a highly educated team of sleuths, and 40 years on, they also tap into a global roster of 10,000 future-thinkers. They have a 95% accuracy rating according to their website and help brands with new product development and how they should be positioned. Back in the day, they were famous for predicting a new trend in colourful, alcoholic sweeteners, later called alcopops, and helped Bacardi to launch Bacardi Breezers in 1993 (discontinued in 2015).
Her biggest claim to fame was defining cocooning, the practice of staying at home for pleasure, instead of going out. This was when ordering a Chinese or Indian takeaway, was synonymous with having to pick it up, decades before lockdowns and the explosion in home delivery. If such a trend took off, which of course it did, there were implications for cinemas, pubs and restaurants, at least, being partially replaced by video rental shops, supermarket off sales and pre-prepared food for a Saturday night. Who can forget the husky female voiceover used by Marks and Spencer in their TV advertising, reminding us about meals for two, bottle of wine included, for the princely sum of £9.99.
Still going strong, Popcorn’s latest 10 predictions for the world are here.
I thought of Popcorn Reports because I came across Charlie Stross, a Scottish science fiction writer. I’ve not read any of his books. He specialises in hard science fiction, which means his stories are based on scientific accuracy and logic. For 10 years in the nineties, he wrote the Linux column for Computer Shopper , which probably makes him a bit of a nerd. His success most likely a blend of creative writer meets science fact, the result, engaging, believable stories.
In Charlie’s Diary, he wrote a piece called Oh 2022!, where he updated his predictions for the next 10 years. Not only is his take on world affairs interesting, it’s the hundreds of comments that followed which also piqued my interest.
Here’s a short spin on some observations.
Near future predictability
His rule of thumb on prediction was interesting. In the next 10 years, he believes 55-60% of the culture, people, science is already here. The next 20-25% hasn’t happened, but is predictable and the final 15-20% is in the who ordered that category. In the last 10 years, you can put Elon Musk’s Space X, shipping astronauts to the space station in a reusable rocket here and The Donald becoming President of the US.
More recently, he refined his percentages. The world is becoming less predictable because of accelerating technical change - artificial intelligence (AI), deep learning and batteries, plus political instability and climate change.
Clearly in the, who ordered that, category and one I won’t dwell on for long is Covid-19. His prediction which you’ve read already somewhere else, is expect it to hang around until the world has a low cost, temperature stable, broad-spectrum vaccine, patent free to vaccinate everyone.
More interesting is how quickly scientists were able to sequence the genome of this pathogen in days, design a new vaccine within two weeks and start human clinical trials a month later.
The other spotlight was the use of mRNA vaccine technologies. It had been around for 10 years, but got the shot in the arm required when the pandemic arrived and a how much do you need mentality ensued.
We were also apparently really lucky. Vaccine trials usually create a workable vaccine about 5% of the time. There were approximately 130 potential vaccines for Covid developed, of which 90% failed.
How would we have faired if Covid-19 had arrived 10 years earlier? The science above is irrefutable, but a new problem fuelled by social media and not helped by the behaviour of a few world leaders has been general disinformation and conspiracy theories. There now exists a considerable resistance from a significant minority to even consider vaccination despite the evidence.
Another unexpected consequence is Long Covid. With actuaries unable to calculate the longterm fallout just yet, expect premiums for life insurance to tick upwards faster than usual.
The death of the internal combustion engine (ICE)
This is already here with several governments including our own calling time. There’s an electric vehicle (EV) outside my front door which I rent, month to month. This tech change will also dovetail with less car ownership and simpler in and out financial models, one monthly payment covering everything. Not a big leap when you think of monthly payments for Netflix, Apple TV, the gym, your house (more likely to be rented if you’re under 30), even your computer.
I smile at the LinkedIn posts which excitedly talk about the latest EV being the latest car of the year. If it’s not a Tesla, and it wasn’t, it’s largely irrelevant, especially if you expect to travel inter city and beyond. Until the manufacturers, governments and the oil companies (if they want a future) commit to an extensive fast recharge network, it’s only half the story.
Toyota are proposing a replace/recycle battery system, refurbishing EVs at their manufacturing plant, after a typical 3 year lease cycle, giving the second user as new a vehicle as possible. Then they’ll do it again for the third user, 3 years after that.
This is a major disruptor for after sales servicing and the used car market in general. Plus, aside from brakes, tyres, filling up your windscreen reservoir and valeting the vehicle, what else is there to do on an EV service? How long will it be before a message pops up on your phone and dashboard asking you to select a convenient time for a routine service pick-up from your home or office?
EV ascendency also means a rapid reduction in demand for anyone focused on extraction and distribution of petrol and diesel. Half of the cargo ships at sea on any given day are carrying petrochemicals or coal. Shell made news recently with the opening of their first EV Hub on the Fulham Road in London, petrol pumps switched for fast EV chargers. But that can only be part of the solution. The average ICE, fills in less than 5 minutes, an EV needs at least 30 minutes to reach about 80% charge.
Sea level rise because of polar ice cap melt could bizarrely lead to a building boom to shore up flood defences as well as see the creation of new ports and waterways.
Do increasing temperatures start to destabilise agriculture without the intervention of genetic engineering to cultivate heat tolerant strains of crops? And genetics is no solution for wildfires which are becoming more common.
Non-fungible token (NFT)
I mention these because it has crept into my consciousness in the last year or so. It’s a unit of data stored on a blockchain. The blockchain is a list of records called blocks which are linked together using cryptography, a secure communication that only allows the sender and intended recipient to view whatever it is.
Often the data is video, audio and images and if you’ve heard of them, it’s probably because a digital art NFT, sold for millions of dollars.
This technology could develop in a number of different directions. For one, it could help musicians and writers monetise their content because a record of ownership is present in the NFTs metadata and could be marketed on one of the nascent NFT platforms. A traditional model sees the typical revenue split for the musician as 50:50, half going to agents, lawyers and distributors. Musicians who choose to distribute their content via streaming services, fair far worse. The top 0.8% of Spotify’s artists earn less than $50,000 in streaming revenue.
An NFT digital contract could also help citizens gain more control of their personal health records. Instead of being completely out of our control, the patient could specify who can access the information and help to democratise our health data.
Predictable but scary
The Donald and his dumb son will stand for re-election in 2024. China and Russia must be hoping that the current US indictments all fall away and their boy is back in the cosy club where truth continues to be reinterpreted.
Even more important than the shift from ICE to EV is self driving cars, which will reduce the number of cars, need for parking etc. dramatically giving new opportunities for our cities future development.
On a more depressing note there are several predictors about the extinction of humans. The most recent I read was about fertility rates. Apparently for a viable population there needs to be a fertility rate of 2.1 (if I remember correctly). Currently, South Korea, Japan, China, USA, and most European countries are below that threshold. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sub-replacement_fertility