Thursday, 7 August 2014

Ten Year Review on Predictions

It has been ten years since I sat down to write the first lines of what became a 200 page manuscript concerning the state of the world and the trends in progress, a manuscript which I later transformed into a blog (this one and its sister site, Paradoxes and Consequences). It would seem an appropriate time to review some of the predictions I made, even though these predictions concerned a fifty year arc, not a ten year arc!

To recap the project, my predictions were based on an analysis inspired by an article by Joel Cohen in the September 2005 edition of Scientific American. Cohen reported on the fact that, since the mid 1950s, the rate of growth of the world's population had started to decline from its maximum value. This may still come as a surprise to many. The world's mushrooming population is still of major concern, and rightly so. However, the population growth is no longer following an EXPONENTIAL curve - in fact, it is a decreasing curve. What this means is that, if the trend continues, the population will reach a plateau of zero growth, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2050. It will still be nearly double what it is today, which is cause for a great deal of concern, but it will stabilize. Population growth, in systems dynamics, is a major driver of system-wide effects. Based on years of working with system dynamics models, it dawned on me that a fundamental change in such an important "system driver" must have huge consequences for the planetary systems of which we are a part. This was the beginning of my writing project.

One of the insights I derived from this change in my understanding was that an exponential population growth dynamic had affected not just other system parameters, but also our perceptions of the world in which we live. In particular, it drove us to understand the world around us in centric ways. Hence we understand the economy as driven by centres, and markets as extending into hinterlands, that is, peripheral regions around the centres. We organize our lives as a function of such centres, and, indeed, within an exponential growth dynamic, centres will always get bigger and more important. But in an declining growth dynamic, the opposite is true - centres will grow weaker and periphery will become all important, until there are no well-defined centres left. Hence, within the changed dynamic, we live in a "peripheralizing world". Thomas Friedman's book The World is Flat follows a similar argument - without making any kind of claim to why the change is occuring, Friedman follows up the consequences of the fact that it is occuring (he argues, probably correctly, that the process is self-reinforcing, that as one sector of the economy "flattens", this drags other sectors also into the same kind of process).

A summary of the major claims of my work would be as follows :
1) That the importance and value of "peripheries" and "networks" is growing, while those of "centres" is declining ;
2) That one of the consequences of this change is that we are moving away from spatially segmented social and economic environments towards more heterogeneously mixed environments ;
3) That political culture and problem solving approaches are shifting from an orthodox-heretic organisation to one dominated by paradoxes ;
4) That we live in a "convergent" world, no longer in a "divergent" one - as a consequence, there are no more "garbage dumps". As long as we lived in a divergent world, we could always push undesirables - things, people, ideas - away and have them stay away. In a convergent world, this is no longer possible - everything we push away comes back, and sooner than we expect!
5) The fact we live in a convergent world means that primarily profit-driven economies will fail. This seems an incredible claim, and was the one I was most nervous about when I first made the case in 2005. However, the more time passes, the more this seems to be born out. In fact, in my original prediction, I suggested that profit-driven economies would fail, or would convert to more balanced social and profit economies with trade-offs between the two, but eventually, the social economy would dominate the profit-based one ;
6) The conversion period, from a centrally-organized society to a peripheral, convergent society will involve a series of collapses or crises. Social change occurs both incrementally, but also through fractures and discontinuities - such crises are inevitable in a period of changing dynamics ;
7) While it is hard to accurately predict transition states that occur during the changeover period, the convergent, end states are much more easily predicted and described ;
8) Our understanding of personal identity is also shifting, as a result of these changes - identity is increasingly viewed as multiple and fractured rather the single and homogeneous ;
9) A consequence of the changes in how identity is understood is that our relationships to each other are also changing. In particular, the nuclear family is another consequence of a divergent world, in a convergent world, other family arrangements will replace the nuclear family. This will change the way children understand the world ;
10) These changes are spreading into other spheres - education, religion and spirituality, other aspects of the world economy, health issues, leisure activities, and so on. Because of the convergent nature of the processes underway, a great deal can be said about the likely end states in many of these areas.

Point #6 was the aspect of my predictions that I was most nervous about in 2005. Interestingly, in the years preceeding 2008, the economy was booming and predictions of catastrophe were viewed with disdain by just about everybody. However, since the 2008 crisis in the American home buyers' market and its consequences which were felt around the globe, there have been a series of smaller crises. Today, in 2014, it appears obvious to "just about everyone" that the economy is stumbling along at best. Some are doing better than others, but all are feeling the bite of more challenging times.

In 2014, recognition of the changing nature of our understanding of personal identity is also much more widespread than it was in 2005. How these changes propagate into our relationships, schooling and other related issues is still not fully processed, however. People know these things are changing, but most are unable to say much about where they are headed.

My blog (and writings) remain as unknown and unacknowledged in 2014 as they were in 2005. True, I am not a sales man, and I would need to do a good sales job to get these ideas into the public eye. Also, there are more voices saying similar things now, in 2014, than there were in 2005 when I started. Of course, it is easier to see the changes in progress now, than it was then. My only claim to fame is that I worked out these details earlier and with perhaps, I hope, more of a global vision than many of the current crop of trend reporters. Indeed, even today, a detailed analysis of the changes in progress based on the broader vision I propose would yield better results than most current trend reporters, who rely on a narrow understanding of these things.

To many, the 50-year focus of my predictions is too long a view to be useful in the short term. However, the sweep of the predictions means that it is possible to say quite a lot about relatively short term effects, just not every short term effect. Also, the end state predictions are quite stable, but the timing at which they occur is harder to determine. On the other hand, current trend reporters also get it wrong at least as often as I do. And as we get closer to 2050, if I am right, my predictions will get better, and theirs will almost certainly get worse.